Visions of a world organization armed with its own air force, imposing international law and order through high-tech aeroplanes, may sound like a science-fiction fantasy, straight from the books of H.G. Wells or movies and shows such as Avengers or Thunderbirds. My new book, Technological Internationalism and World Order: Aviation, Atomic Energy, and the Search for International Peace, 1920–1950, shows that such ideas were in fact part of serious proposals for world peace and international organization in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. During those decades British and US internationalists hoped to solve the problems of international peace and security by controlling and using the very technologies that exacerbated these issues.
Fear of aerial bombing emerged in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, driven in part by rapid advancements in aviation and the ability of the aeroplane to cross national boundaries with ease. Proposals for the international control of aviation emerged as part of attempts to control this new machine, enforce arms control, and usher in a new era of peace. Proposals, especially around the time of the 1932 Geneva disarmament conference, called for bombers and large airliners to be given up to the League of Nations, which was to create its own air force and airline. Nations-states were to be restricted to light aircraft only. The League was to use its air force to bring international peace by enforcing international law and policing arms control.
My book in particular highlights the continuities in this intertwining of technology and internationalism into the Second World War and beyond, even as international relations was drastically transformed, and technologies of destruction even more so. These internationalist proposals survived the international political turmoil of the late 1930s, and were rejuvenated during the Second World War by British and US internationalists looking for ways to give teeth to the new proposed United Nations Organization. They were even incorporated into Article 45 of the Charter of the new organization, though no UN air force was ever formed. They re-emerged once again in a different form once atomic energy was revealed to the world in August 1945. Aviation was replaced by atomic energy in the activism of internationalists, who now turned to control this destructive new force and use it to organize world order. A proposal, the so-called Baruch Plan, was even tabled and discussed at the United Nations in 1946, though eventually fell foul of the growing nuclear arms race and the Cold War.
The period 1920 to 1950 saw a series of astonishing proposals for the international governance of science and technology which were radical for their time, and appear even more so today. My book explains how and why they arose, and then died away, leaving behind an imprint on popular science fiction in the late 1940s and beyond. Visions of political integration through transformative new transport technologies, such as those in Star Trek, owe something to these earlier proposals.