God No, the U.S. Air Force Doesn’t Need Another Curtis LeMay
‘The Demon’ napalmed Tokyo and stoked the fires of Mutually Assured Destruction
On March 27, the U.S. senate confirmed Air Force general Robin Rand as the next leader of Global Strike Command. He’s the first four-star general in GSC history to take on the role — and that’s just what the flying branch wants.
Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh said he appointed Rand because he hopes that a four star general in charge of America’s nuclear command will give the flyers greater influence over the country’s nuclear policy.
“We lead and execute two-thirds of the nuclear triad, for Christ’s sake,” he told a crowd on April 2. “We should be in the middle of the policy debates on this issue.”
Which is true. America’s nuclear triad consists of its intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and nuclear-armed bombers. GSC operates the ICBMs and the bombers. It makes sense that the Air Force would want more say over how to use those weapons.
But what Welsh said next is troubling — and serves as a reminder why the Air Force doesn’t have a greater say in the nuclear debate.
“I told Robin Rand … go become the next Curtis LeMay,” Welsh said. “Bring this nuclear mission … back to the front edge of Air Force attention every single day.”
That’s a terrible idea. The last thing the Air Force — to say nothing of America as a whole — needs is another Curtis LeMay. He was a brilliant strategist who helped win World War II with overwhelming and brutal force. But he also pushed America close to nuclear war with the Soviet Union and crafted policies that led to almost all the military’s major nuclear disasters.
Without LeMay, America may have never pursued a Cold War strategy based on preemptive strikes and it may never have lost dozens of nukes.
Global Strike Command is the direct descendent of Strategic Air Command, a division of the flying branch that stood up just after World War II. LeMay was its chief architect, defender and commander … even after he left to become the Air Force chief of staff.
LeMay possessed a big personality, a creative mind for strategy and a strong opinion about the power of the Air Force in general and bombers specifically.
During World War II, LeMay commanded Allied forces’ bomber wings in the Pacific. He was unhappy with the kill counts from high-altitude bombing runs. Bombs went off course too easily and didn’t do enough damage.
So he switched tactics. LeMay and his flyers piloted hundreds of B-29s at low altitude over Japanese cities and dropped bombs packing phosphorus, napalm and magnesium. Japan burned and millions died. LeMay earned the nickname “the Demon.”
“Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at that time,” LeMay admitted later. “I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.”
When America developed the nuclear bomb in World War II’s final months, LeMay helped plan the atomic attack. He suggested that a single bomber would be more effective than a group would, reasoning that the Japanese were already so devastated by his firebombing campaign that they’d assume a single plane was just a reconnaissance vehicle — and leave it alone.
He was right.
Washington remembered him when the war ended and it needed someone to lead America’s new nuclear bombing force. In 1948, LeMay took control of Strategic Air Command.
Under LeMay, SAC became a terrifying, paranoid and accident-prone force. He envisioned an aerial force capable of launching in under 15 minutes and raining megatons of atomic destruction on America’s enemies.
To achieve this goal, he pushed his pilots, crews and command staff to extraordinary degrees. Drills woke airmen at all hours of the night and required them to ready, launch and pilot bombers with incredible swiftness.
Servicemen chewed Dexedrine to keep up. No one wanted to disappoint the cigar-chomping LeMay and no one wanted to lose to the Soviets.
In the 1950s and ’60s, LeMay pushed SAC farther and farther. To extend his planes’ ranges, he pioneered aerial refueling. B-52s and B-47s flew through the air carrying live nukes, taking on fuel in mid-flight when they got low.
From the mid-’50s until 1968, there was almost always at least one bomber in the air over America hauling an armed nuke. All thanks to LeMay.
Fail-safes existed but there were still accidents. In 1958, an F-86 fighter collided with a B-47 over Georgia. The bomber carried a Mark 15 nuclear bomb weighing more than 7,000 pounds.
The military never recovered the bomb. It’s still sitting in the swamps surrounding Savannah. Between 1956 and 1961 alone, SAC either lost or destroyed more than 20 nuclear bombs in accidents.
Many of the incidents are still classified.
Through all this, LeMay maintained that a nuclear-capable bombing force was important to America’s safety. More than that, he thought that Washington should be ready to use its nuclear forces in a preemptive strike.
“We are now living in an age when it can no longer be an issue of morality that a nation must receive the first physical blow before it can respond with force,” LeMay told a crowd of Pentagon officials in 1955.
To his reasoning, it was not a matter of if Russia attacked America with nukes, but when. For LeMay, it made sense to strike first. In an all-out nuclear exchange, the odds of survival overwhelmingly favored the country that struck first.
LeMay wanted America to survive. So he wanted America to nuke first.
He also held on to the idea of an at-the-ready atomic bombing force long after it outlived its usefulness. As the Cold War continued, both Russian and America developed ICBMs as an alternative to bombers.
Politicians and some military men reasoned that missiles in silos were far safer than nukes constantly criss-crossing the sky in planes flown by fallible pilots.
But LeMay felt that silos gave the Soviets too many stationary targets, and throughout the ’60s he pushed harder for more bombers … and a preemptive strike against Moscow.
But two nuclear accidents in Europe changed everything.
In 1966, a B-52 collided with a KC-135 tanker during mid-air refueling off the coast of Spain. The tanker exploded, killing all four of its crew. The B-52 fell apart and crashed into the Mediterranean along with its four hydrogen bombs.
Spain was pissed. The Air Force recovered three of the nukes right away and scooped the fourth out of the ocean after more than two months of searching. But two of the bombs had already leaked plutonium into the water. After that, Madrid no longer allowed America to fly nuclear-armed bombers in its air space.
Two years later, a B-52 caught fire near Thule, Greenland. All but one of the crew escaped and the bomber crashed into the ice. Its four hydrogen bombs exploded.
Thankfully, only the bombs’ conventional charges detonated. The nuclear payloads didn’t go off, but the explosions did shatter their containers. Radioactive material spread into the snow and ice of Greenland. Strategic Air Command had just caused an environmental catastrophe.
That was the end for bombers crossing the globe carrying nukes. Then-secretary of defense Robert McNamara had forced LeMay to retire in 1965, but the accident in Greenland was the end result of the former general’s policies — good pilots pushed to the brink, sleeping little while armed with the deadliest weapon humanity has ever known.
Since then, America and the rest of the world have attempted to rein in the horrifying weapon. Nuclear stockpiles have decreased. The world understands the threat these weapons pose … and just how crazy it is to deploy them. It’s a sentiment LeMay never shared.
“I think there are many times when it would be most efficient to use nuclear weapons,” he told reports while running for office as George Wallace’s vice president in 1968.
“However, the public opinion in this country and throughout the world throw up their hands in horror when you mention nuclear weapons, just because of the propaganda that’s been fed to them.”
LeMay is not someone to emulate. He’s a relic of an era in which politicians and the military brought the world to the brink of Armageddon. An era we should all be glad is long past. Let’s not resurrect his dangerous logic.