Ambition’s an interesting one. Too much, and you run the risk of both underachieving and appearing overly-ambitious, and by extension, arrogant and naive. Too little, and whilst there’s no possibility of underachieving, there’s little possibility of achieving at all. ‘What are your ambitions in life?’ is one of the single most difficult-to-answer questions out there, and it gets haphazardly thrown around all the time.
In 1940, then President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, made one of the most ambitious suggestions the United States had ever seen. America was gearing up to engage in a war that would throw the world into turmoil for a second time, and they weren’t even close to being prepared. By most estimations, the American military machine was either the 15th or 14th most powerful in the world at the time, but they were set to go toe to toe with the Japanese empire, a fierce and incredibly loyal fighting force, in addition to the Nazis which controlled the most powerful and the most terrifying army the world had ever witnessed.
With that in mind, Roosevelt boldly declared to Congress that he intended to produce 50,000 planes a year for the Navy and the Air Force. At the time, America wasn’t making a tenth of that. It was a monumental statement. It simultaneously appeared blusterous, outlandish and incredible. Congress was shocked and unsure whether to censure or applaud the suggestion. After some deliberation and general confusion, they sanctioned the funding requests. World War Two was won in no small part by the United States Air Force, both in the Pacific and Europe, and the planes they flew on were instrumental in that victory.
It was neither the first nor the last time that a US President would stand up and say something so dramatically audacious that it would incur criticism from both sides of the isle as well as the public, on the simple grounds that their ambition was perceived to be fundamentally unachievable. Other examples including Lincoln’s Emancipation proclamation and JFK’s “Before this decade is out, [we will] land a man on the moon”. Both of these were hugely ambitious feats that were shouted down at the time. But both Lincoln and JFK were ingenious, tenacious and determined. And both came true.
In the end, America didn’t build 50,000 planes a year. They built 100,000. It gave the Air Force a fleet that won the war. We owe our liberty to ambition.