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Rainbow: War Plans That Worked!
Review by James L. Abrahamson

The Road to Rainbow: Army Planning for Global War, 1934-1940The Road to Rainbow: Army Planning for Global War, 1934-1940. By Henry G. Gole. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2003. Pp. xxi, 224. $34.95 cloth.)“In the years preceding U.S. entry into World War II, the Army’s war planners tasked students at the Army War College to prepare responses to a set of amazingly realistic wartime scenarios. The students’ sound but imaginative solutions not only influenced the armed services’ post-1939 RAINBOW plans for war with Germany and Japan; they also anticipated and provided answers to most of the war’s major strategic questions.”

The military historians who wrote the multi volume official history of the United States Army in World War II often criticized prewar American planning as largely irrelevant to the coming global struggle. Though the world war would pit the United States, as a member of an alliance against the Axis of Germany, Italy, and Japan, the armed services war plans, they charged, consisted of little more than a series of Color Plans—a separate color for each opponent—anticipating limited conflicts in which the United States, acting alone, fought a single enemy. Only after 1939–they concluded–did military planners produce the five RAINBOW plans that looked beyond defense of the Continental United States to consider industrialized war, global conflict, alliance warfare, and fighting for total victory.

Using twenty-five foot lockers of Army War College (AWC) course materials, Colonel Henry G. Gole has effectively challenged that long-standing interpretation. The records, apparently stored in those containers when the Army closed its college in 1940, somehow made their way from Washington Barracks (now Fort McNair) to the basement and attic of the U. S. Army Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks, where the homeless college had migrated by the early fifties. During a career stretching from Korean War rifleman to commissioned service in the Pentagon and at the U. S. Army Strategic Studies Institute, Gole, who holds a doctorate in history from Temple University, also taught at the West Point and the AWC.

Making skillful use of the footlockers’ records, Gole has revealed a fuller picture of the armed forces’ planning for global warfare and judged it to have been of a high quality as far back as 1934. More significantly, the Army’s General Staff (GS) knew of that planning, exercised a directing influence over the scenarios studied, and used student work when preparing the highly regarded RAINBOW plans. In many cases, the GS also made use of AWC graduates assigned to its War Plans Division (WPD) and bringing with them insights acquired at the college.

After sketching the sad state of the prewar armed forces, the history of the Army’s General Staff, and the long-established role of the AWC as a war planner, Gole focused on college plans for the period 1934-1940. Developments of that period begin in 1932 when, dissatisfied with the “wooden and unimaginative” quality of the old Color Plans, Douglas MacArthur sent his chief war planner, George S. Simonds, to run the college. Between 1935 and 1939, MacArthur’s lesser known successor and former AWC commandant, Malin Craig, pushed college students to consider realistic scenarios and prepare the imaginative war plans that later shaped RAINBOW and influenced U. S. wartime strategy. With Craig’s staff located in the State-War-Navy building adjacent to the White House, the Army’s official planners kept close touch with AWC students working only a few minutes away at Fort McNair.

Beginning with the Class of 1934, AWC students considered scenarios that included war in Europe and the western Pacific as well as German attempts to seize Brazil as a base for operations against Mexico and the U.S. In each case the U.S. fought as member of an alliance against an enemy alliance, and students also had to assess the implications of a possible two-ocean war—all characteristics of the later world war. All the war’s major participants—the United States, Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, Germany, Italy, and Japan in various combinations and degrees of belligerency—figured in those scenarios.

Under the course title “Participation with Allies,” the students responded to their assigned scenario with plans addressing major strategic issues of the world war: Should the U.S. Navy slowly “island hop” its way through the well fortified Japanese islands in the Central Pacific or make a bold but risky dash to relieve the Army garrison in the Philippines? In what circumstances would the Navy need to supply cruisers and destroyers to the Atlantic to counter a submarine threat, for a time deferring offensive action in the Pacific in favor of defending the Alaska-Hawaii-Panama Canal line? Should “Germany First” become the strategic principle of both a war in Europe and a two-ocean conflict with Germany and Japan? Would America ever favor a peripheral assault on a German coalition by first invading North Africa, Italy, or Scandinavia? How should Washington respond if Germany quickly defeated France and began an air assault on Great Britain? Could the Soviet Union and China fight for long without receiving outside material and financial assistance? What must be done to maintain alliance cohesion and unity of action? If war came before the United States had mobilized, how could it best employ its small and poorly equipped army? The “Participation with Allies” plans also typically anticipated that the world war, if it occurred, would be industrialized and total, ending with the utter defeat of Japan and Germany.

The plans written by the students therefore bear a remarkable resemblance to the five RAINBOW plans so quickly developed between 1939 and 1940. That should be no surprise. The eleven overworked officers in the WPD had full knowledge of the students’ work and had in many respects assisted and even exploited it. AWC graduates typically served at some later time within the WPD, bringing to it insights gained from their studies at the college. When the army closed down the AWC in 1940, the entire student body worked under WPD supervision. Each service’s practice of assigning students and faculty to the other’s war college not only facilitated later inter-service cooperation, but ensured that officers knew the strategic perspective of their sister service.

Gole’s superb study has therefore unraveled the mystery of the speed with which the armed forces developed the excellent and realistic RAINBOW war plans and demonstrated that many of the men who would later lead American forces to victory had, in close coordination with the Army’s General Staff, honed their planning skills on a realistic set of war scenarios. This work is a must read for all those interested in strategic planning for World War II.

 American Diplomacy 
Copyright © 2005 American Diplomacy Publishers Chapel Hill NC
James L. Abrahamson
James L. Abrahamson


Dr. James L. Abrahamson is a retired army colonel who previously taught history and government at the United States Military Academy, the Army War College, and Campbell University. The author of works on military reform, the impact of war on society, and the coming of the Civil War, his most recent book is Vanguard of American Atomic Deterrence: The Sandia Pioneers, 1946-1949 (Praeger, 2002).


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