I am wondering why there are so much airplanes made in USA in the world's air forces prior to WW2, since I don't think the US Air Force had the better reputation. You can count the:

  • Glenn Martin fighter
  • Brewster F2A Buffalo fighter
  • Martin Twin engine bombers in multiple variants
  • ...

How did the US, with their isolationism, concluded so many contracts? And why only in air forces and not in naval or land warfare?

I am not speaking of the lend lease hardware.

  • 8
    IIRC, the USA at that time had more manufacturing output than the rest of the world combined.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 20:00
  • Naval construction takes a long time. USA was far behind in tank design, so nothing useful was available to sell. Therefore, only air industry was able to export material. Small guns were also sold by USA as well.
    – Santiago
    Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 20:16
  • 2
    Don’t confuse the US government with US companies. The companies wanted to sell things. At that time a lot of naval construction was still done by Navy shipyards, particularly the big ships.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 20:35
  • 1
    @T.E.D.: That was after WW2, not before... Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 20:35
  • 9
    What has your preliminary research shown? This question has too many opinions and not enough research. What does isolationism have to do with sales? How many other aircraft manufacturers were there? I can pretty well guarantee that the US Air Force was inferior to the rest of the world prior to WWII since it wasn't created until 1947.
    – MCW
    Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 21:13

2 Answers 2


US actually didn't sell so many planes between wars

Although the US was an industrial powerhouse in that period (something like China today), military planes were still something new and experimental for most smaller and poorer countries. Yes, they did participate in WW1, but question remained of how effective they were and how effective they would be in future wars. How much should a country spend on military aviation, should they import them (and risk dependency and obsolesce in fast-changing field) or should they try to develop their own?

Most medium-sized countries tried to tinker with their own domestic aviation industry, at the same time importing limited quantities of foreign-built aircraft. Initially, US companies were not particularly successful, because the US aircraft industry was not especially advanced. For reference, in WW1 the US used almost exclusively French-built planes. In fact, between wars, the French aviation industry was dominant, and sold lot of planes like the ubiquitous Breguet 19.

The situation changed only in the late thirties, as war became more and more certain. Reasons for this were two-fold. First, technologically the US became one of only a few countries that could independently produce modern aircraft engines. Engines, then as today, separate amateurs from professionals in the aviation business. Countries that could develop engines were free from restrictions on what kind and how many aircraft they could produce. The second reason was the relative isolation and neutrality of the US at the beginning of the war. While other industrial nations prepared themselves for war, therefore having limited capacity for export, US was able to use its geographical position to actually sell military planes to them. One example would be France's desperate purchase of the P-36 Hawk. Although France arguably had better designs in pipeline, sheer need to increase number of available planes quickly forced them to employ the US aviation industry.

As for your question about land and naval forces: before and at the beginning of WW2, Allied countries (France and Britain) had clear naval superiority over Germany, and even over Germany + Italy. There was no urgent need to buy foreign ships with their own shipbuilding industry being vastly superior. The situation did change when Germany started to use large numbers of coordinated U-boats (Wolfpacks) and Japan joined the game. After that the US shipbuilding industry got into full swing.

As for tanks, artillery, and other land based equipment, US Army was a bit of an orphan both then and now. US policy of isolationism emphasized a strong Navy and later a strong air force. The US Army on the other hand still used lot of WW1 equipment. The first US-built tanks appeared only in 1934-1935. Only after lightning German victories at the beginning of the war did the US reshape its stance on armored warfare.

  • 1
    There's also a geographic influence - the US only has 2 land boarders with other countries, neither of are millitaristic in the 20th century. European countries had antagonistic nations in the vicinity forever. So shorter-range weapons are of more use in Europe, compared to the US where the battle front is generally a long way from home.
    – Criggie
    Commented Jun 14, 2019 at 7:28
  • Wiki's list of most produced airplanes - sort by production period to get pre-WW2 planes to the top.The Soviets made lots of Po-2s. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_most-produced_aircraft
    – David D
    Commented Jun 14, 2019 at 16:53
  • 1
    @DavidD Yes but Po-2 was agricultural airplane, that was converted for military service only in 1941 under duress. Also, export of this plane really started after the war, before that it was almost exclusively Soviet.
    – rs.29
    Commented Jun 14, 2019 at 22:36

I am wondering why there are so much airplanes made in USA in the world's air forces prior to WW2, since I don't think the US Air Force had the better reputation. You can count the:

  • Glenn Martin fighter
  • Brewster F2A Buffalo fighter
  • Martin Twin engine bombers in multiple variants

Short Answer:

It wasn't really about the quality of the product or the cost. It was about countries desperate for modern warplanes as either war was on the horizon or already upon their doors. The countries with superior offerings, like Britain were desperate to add more planes to account for their limited domestic production. Other countries like Finland and Belgium were even more motivated to take any modern equipment available.

When WWII began prior to the United States entering, all "modern" monoplane fighters were in high demand. The United States was a country with some limited airplane production during this interwar period and was willing to allocated significant parts of that modest production to countries desperate to catch up to Germany in re-armament.

Detailed Answer

The United States did not maintain interwar aircraft production capacity to maintain it's own modest needs much less act as a significant exporter of aircraft. As late as 1938 the US Army Air Corps had 10% fewer planes than authorized by Congress. In 1939 the United States only produced 921 warplanes, including bombers, torpedo planes and fighters. In 1940 1,771. The interwar production capabilities of the United States were a far cry from WWII peek of 1944 when the United States was producing 74,564 combat aircraft per year.

-Aviation in the US. Army, 1919- 1939
The Air Corps then owned 2,100 serviceable planes, 220 below the number authorized by Congress. President Roosevelt believed the Air Corps needed 20,000 but did not think Congress would approve so many. He called for production of 10,000 aircraft for the Army over 2 years. Generals Arnold, Craig, and Marshall were among those who heard the President outline his program at the White House on November 14, 1938. Afterwards, they tried to balance airplane production with provisions for pilots, maintenance, supplies, and facilities. The War Department also sought to balance the Army as a whole. The Navy asked for more money. This was not what the President had in mind, but he adjusted his program and on January 12, 1939, asked Congress for $300 million to produce at least 3,000 aircraft. Congress responded by raising the Army’s airplane authorization from 2,320 to 5,500, approving procurement of 3,251 planes, appropriating money to start the program, and raising the officer authorization to 3,203 and the enlisted to 45,OJOO.

So while the US had production it had nowhere near the production we think of when we think of WWII. In the Interwar period the United States didn't even purchase enough modern war planes for it's own use to justify competitive production cycles with the great powers of Europe.

As for the planes you mentioned.

Brewster Buffalo was introduced April 1939. It was sold to Britain, Netherlands and Finland once WWII began. Even though it was a new plane and the United States was desperately trying to modernize it's own air service, the United States sold the Buffalo as surplus in a pre lend lease policy of exporting arms to Europe. Although it was inferior to both Britain and German contemporary aircraft it was still deemed useful for countries desperate for any military aircraft once WWI began.

Brewster Buffalo

American Reporter —Ralph Ingersoll wrote: In late 1940 after visiting Britain that "The best American fighter planes already delivered to the British are used by them either as advanced trainers --or for fighting equally obsolete Italian planes in the Middle East. That is all they are good for" —in the early years of World War II all modern monoplane fighter types were in high demand. Consequently, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and the Netherlands East Indies purchased several hundred export models of the Buffalo

Martin B-10
Is probable the best example for your question. While it was introduced in 1934 and was a significant achievement for the US airplane producers at that time it was obsolete by the time WWII came around. It was built as a private venture by the company, it's sales correspond to it's performance and inexpensive price. As one of the first mass produced bombers.

The export version was the Model 139W. Argentina received 25, China (9) nine, Siam (6) six, Turkey (20) twenty, Russia (1) one, and the Netherlands 117. Only the first 39 Netherland aircraft were 139Ws which was similar to the B-10B. The remainder were designated as the Model 166 which had a long greenhouse canopy connecting both the forward and rear cockpits.3

The total production of all B-10 versions was 348 aircraft with 166 for the USAAC and 182 for export. Operators included Argentina, China, Netherlands, Philippines, Thailand and Turkey.

Martin fighter
I could find no record of Martin ever making a fighter plane in either WWI or WWII. It was famous for it's bombers in WWII and trainers in WWI.


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