A Question of Loyalty: Gen. Billy Mitchell and the Court Martial That Gripped the Nation, published by HarperCollins, is a ground-breaking biography of General William “Billy” Mitchell, the controversial World War I hero many have called the father of the modern Air Force, who was court-martialed in the most spectacular trial Washington ever saw during the Roaring Twenties.
For A Question of Loyalty, Waller uncovered extensive diaries, confidential government documents and more than 150 family letters, all of which had never been seen before by previous biographers and historians. This trove of new material enabled him not only to capture in detail the drama of the celebrity trial but also to build a revealing portrait of the flamboyant Mitchell. The general “springs to life in this candid personal biography as a colorful, complex trailblazer,” says historian Douglas Brinkley. “Douglas Waller has researched Mitchell’s flamboyant life meticulously.”
Though set in the 1920s, the issues A Question of Loyalty examines—such as how far a senior military officer can go in questioning the decisions of his superiors and his president—are just as current today. Military officers still intensely debate Mitchell’s airpower theories. Reading Waller’s book, says TIME Magazine columnist and Primary Colors author Joe Klein, “is not just great fun, it’s also—literally—as fresh and relevant as this morning’s paper.”
Billy Mitchell returned from World War I a heroic and dashing young Army general, who had led the largest air armada ever assembled against an enemy up to that point. Then in 1921 he proved that aircraft could sink a battleship—his rickety bi-planes sending a surplus German dreadnought to the bottom of the ocean—which made him a worldwide celebrity.
Billy Mitchell “was a man of his times and a man far beyond his times,” Waller writes. The general angered his superiors by calling for a separate Air Force, a Department of Defense, and unified command of the nation’s military in wartime—ideas that would not be realized until many decades after his death. He was a prophet as well. Eighteen years before it actually happened, Mitchell described in 1923 how Japan would launch an air attack on Pearl Harbor. “He predicted that air forces would be able to strike targets from afar with cruise missiles (fired seventy years later against Iraq) and unmanned aerial vehicles (used against Al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan eighty years later),” Waller writes. Mitchell even predicted a 9/11-like attack that could cripple New York City.
But as the post-war years passed and the Army he served in languished, Mitchell became increasingly frustrated, particularly with the slow pace of aviation development. In 1925, a rigid airship, the USS Shenandoah, ran into a thunderstorm over Ohio and crashed, killing 14 men aboard. The dirigible disaster shocked the nation as much as the space shuttle accidents would in 1986 and 2003. Outraged by what he considered the Navy’s mishandling of the Shenandoah, Mitchell sparked a political firestorm by accusing both the sea service and the Army, and by inference President Calvin Coolidge, of treason and criminal negligence in the way they conducted national defense.
The maverick airman was put on trial in Washington for insubordination. The court-martial became a national media extravaganza—the 1920s equivalent of an O.J. Simpson trial in terms of press coverage. Hundreds of spectators, including Washington society’s elite and celebrities like Will Rogers, lined up outside the courtroom each day for seats during the seven-week trial. Hordes of reporters and even movie cameramen covered the proceedings gavel to gavel.
Drawing on thousands and thousands of pages of transcripts, court documents, lawyers notes, personal diaries and private letters, Waller tells Mitchell’s compelling biography through the trial, which he brings alive in a tense courtroom drama. “Buy this and get ready to hang on to your seat!” says Greta Van Susteren, attorney and Fox News anchor. “A gripping true-life trial. I loved it.”
A Question of Loyalty is a story about Washington politics and intrigue, about love and betrayal, about heroes in battle and glamorous women who can make or break military careers, about determined lawyers and powerful military men pitted against one another in a courtroom.