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FDR and the Birth of Air-Age Cartography

Updated: May 15, 2020


The global character of the Second World War, in combination with advancements in flight technology, required a different way of looking at the world, literally and figuratively. It gave rise to the so-called concept of air-age globalism, which required a new way of cartography, to disseminate this concept to the public.



Roosevelt's Fireside Chat


On February 23th 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his 20th so-called Fireside Chat, this one named "On the progress of war". The United States were at war now for almost 3 months, after they had been dragged in to World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941.


In his famous speech (audio and full transcript can be found here) he confronted the Americans with a new view of world politics, in which there was no place for isolationism:


"Those Americans who believed that we could live under the illusion of isolationism wanted the American eagle to imitate the tactics of the ostrich. Now, many of those same people, afraid that we may be sticking our necks out, want our national bird to be turned into a turtle. But we prefer to retain the eagle as it is – flying high and striking hard."


And to underline the point he was making, all Americans were asked to have a look at their maps of globe:


"This war is a new kind of war. It is different from all other wars of the past, not only in its methods and weapons but also in its geography. It is warfare in terms of every continent, every island, every sea, every air-lane in the world.

That is the reason why I have asked you to take out and spread before you (the) a map of the whole earth, and to follow with me in the references which I shall make to the world-encircling battle lines of this war."


He wanted to be clear that oceans were not the impenetrable borders they were in the past:


"The broad oceans which have been heralded in the past as our protection from attack have become endless battlefields on which we are constantly being challenged by our enemies. We must all understand and face the hard fact that our job now is to fight at distances which extend all the way around the globe."


Franklin D. Roosevelt during one of his Fireside Chats in 1942

FDR referred to persons who believed that focusing on defending the homeland would be enough as "those who still think, however, in terms of the days of sailing ships". He stressed the importance of collaboration between the allied countries, and underlined the importance of maintaining supply chains, for resources and reinforcements. Therefore, such lines had to be protected by "strategic bases along those routes".


Repeatedly he asked his listeners to have a look at their map, to have a better understanding of the situation in the Pacific and South-Atlantic. A new way of looking at the world was born.



Air-Age Geography and Cartography


Already in 1944, Walter W. Ristow defined the principles of air age geography in his essay "Air Age Geography: A Critical Appraisal and Bibliography":


  1. Air age geography is global geography;

  2. Geography is not a static science;

  3. Air age distance is measured by time rather than space;

  4. Transport by air discounts geographical barriers;

  5. The world is not divided into hemispheres;

  6. World transportation routes are no longer restricted to East-West lines;

  7. Ocean basin geography is out of date;

  8. New significance of weather and climate.


And of course, this new way of looking at geography, required new ways of depicting geography. Already early during the war, many newspapers and magazines published maps to enable their readers to follow the progress of the war. But often, the traditional map-projections proved to be insufficient to communicate the new way of looking at the United States and its role in the global theater. A new sort of cartography was needed to demonstrate this so-called air-age globalism. A form of cartography that was part cartography, part journalism, and part propaganda.

In 1975, Alan K. Henderson published an article named "The Map as an "Idea": The Role of Cartographic Imagery During the Second World War." In this paper he describes four basis elements that made up the new geopgraphical conception of air-age globalism:


  1. a fresh recognition of the earth's sphericity;

  2. a growing realization of the earth; continuity and unity, which brought in to question its division into separate continents and hemisphere's;

  3. an imaginative ascension to an aerial perspective;

  4. a centralized cartographic fixation upon the Arctic, which illustrates the proximity of the United States and the Soviet Union.



Hammond's War Map Kit


One of the major map companies in the Forties, C.S. Hammond & Co, published a complete kit to follow the war. It is an excellent example of the popularization of cartography induced by the war, as well as the concept of air-age cartography.


Hammond War Map Kit
Hammond's War Map Kit

This example is from 1944, but maybe earlier versions exist. Bright yellow, with impressive drawings of combat action, with the V of Victory in Morse code. The box contained a mix of regular products, in combination with maps especially made to follow the progress of WW2.


The World Wide atlas is a softcover 32-page atlas from 1944. Most maps are prewar. The map of Europe, for example is from 1938, between April and October of that year, since Germany and Austria are shown as one country, but Sudetenland has not yet been annexed by Germany. There are however additional pages of maps of war areas included to supplement the regular series of political maps. Four of these are shown below. The other maps are maps of the Pacific Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea and the Middle East.



Special War Area Maps: The Atlantic Ocean, Invasion maps of Europe

Special War Area Maps: Europe and Africa showing invaded Territories since 1938, Air Age Map of the World

Through the differences between the regular maps and the special war maps, several of the elements of air-age cartography can be appreciated. For instance, the maps depict the theaters of war, without separating the continents or hemispheres. Several maps include flight distances, and small islands in the oceans are shown as the modern crossroads of aviation. And, maybe the most stereotypical new element: other projections are used besides the traditional Mercator projection, including the azimuthal polar projection.


One of the most beautiful examples of a map using an azimuthal polar projection, Hammond's Air Age Map of the World, is included in the War Map Kit.


Hammond's Air Age Map of the World

It shows the world, flattened, centered on the North Pole. The reason for this projection is explained: "From habit of looking at Mercator's Projection, we are accustomed to think of only East and West travel routes [..] That's why we need a map designed for this Air Age, showing these increasingly important over-the-top-of-the-world sky-ways, great circle coursed and distances to all parts of the world." In the air-age, oceans and ice-masses should no longer be perceived as borders. So instead of projections that distort the North Pole (which was irrelevant for sailors) a projection that reliably depicted this area was needed. This Polar projection also shows how close the United States and Russia are.

It is is a very interesting projection, popularized by cartographer Richard Edes Harrison, used for the United Nations logo, but ironically, also by the Flat Earth Society. And that mag have contributed to the American fear for Russin. A projection worthy of a blog post on its own!

At the bottom of the map the development of flight, from the Wright Brothers to the Lockheed Constellation is shown.


But the owner of the kit was not forced to change his view of the world entirely. A traditional world map ("Wall size, perfect for framing") using Mercator's projection is included in the map kit as well. The transport lines are more traditional as well: distance between ports, in nautical miles. It is a map from before the war, but after October 1938, since the Sudetenland is already depicted as German. But it is nice to have it included, because it clearly shows how the viewer is almost forced to think in East-West connections between the continents.


Hammond's Reference Map of the World

The fourth item in the map kit is the sheet with the battle maps. On the front is a map of the Mediterranean Europe and Northern Africa. Again, not a map of a continent, but of a battle area. The Mediterranean shown as a transport lane, and not as a border. Besides these naval supply lines, a 600 miles flight radius from several allied airfields is shown in red, with the required flight time. One of these airfields is the airfield near the Italian town of Foggia. Since this airfield was captured by the British in the end of September 1943, this map must have been made after that date. The radius from several German controlled airfields are shown in much less prominent blue, but interestingly does not include airfields from Germany itself.


Hammond Battle Maps covering all war fronts: Map of the Mediterranean Europe and Northern Africa

On the right side of the map are flags that could be cut out and attached to pins. Readers could use these "to indicate military movements, battle scenes and military occupied areas."

Cut-out flags

A very interesting feature is the flag that is used to indicate the Allied forces: they are called the United Nations, and are symbolized by a chain with four links. I have never seen this symbol anywhere else, and suspects its something the cartographers made up. It represents the four major powers during WW2: The United States, the United Kingdom, The USSR and China. The symbol used for the Axis powers, resembles its name: an axis.

The United Nations Flag

On the back of this map are four additional battle maps: The World, the Pacific, the Solomon Islands, Bismarck Archipelago and Eastern New Guinea, and Alaska "demonstrating its remarkable strategic position", These maps show the major areas of operation outside Europe, and seem to focus especially on the Guadalcanal and Aleutian Islands campaigns in 1942-43.


Hammond Battle Maps covering all war fronts - war fronts outside Europe

The Pacific Theater was a complex one. Therefore, this vast combat area deserved its own map: Hammond's War Map of the Pacific Ocean. And again, a major feature of air age cartography is present: air distances are prominently shown. This map clearly shows that in the air age there is no such thing as an impenetrable ocean. The tiny island shattered around the Pacific Ocean proved to be some of the most strategically important locations of WW2, providing 'bridgeheads' for both sides.


Hammond War Map: the Pacific Ocean - front

Hammond War Map: the Pacific Ocean - back

Three items remain: a patriotic pamphlet on the history of the American flag, a vest-pocket Atlas, and a folio where the owner of the map kit could write down important evens during the war.


In all, with this kit every American was able to follow the progress of the war. It is an interesting item, because of the mix of more traditional maps with maps clearly showing elements of the 'new' air age geography as summarized by Henderson.


One can almost visualize a mother, whose son is fighting somewhere in the Pacific, sitting at a table, with the Pacific Ocean map in front of her, listening to one of FDR's chats.



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