“The reality is that we are a country like any other, with good and evil people, the strong and the weak, noble and criminal acts, with truth often hidden under deception and propaganda.” –James K. Galbraith
General Curtis LeMay was a belligerent Cold Warrior who was portrayed in the satirical film Dr. Strangelove, as the trigger-happy General Jack D. Ripper. In air campaigns against Japan during World War II, LeMay abandoned the established policy of daylight, precision bombing. Instead, he loaded his B29’s with firebombs and sent them out over Japanese cities during the night. As LeMay described it, the B29’s “scorched, boiled and baked to death” some 300,000 people.After World War II, LeMay served in the Pentagon. In 1947, LeMay transferred to Wiesbaden, Germany to command U.S. Air Forces in Europe. LeMay returned to the U.S. in October 1948 to take charge of the Strategic Air Command (SAC). LeMay’s first war plan, drawn up in 1949, proposed delivering “the entire stockpile of atomic bombs in a single massive attack” — dropping 133 atomic bombs on 70 cities within 30 days. By the end of his term, the SAC was on constant alert and ready to execute an all-out atomic attack at a moment’s notice. LeMay was SAC commander until June 1957. LeMay was appointed Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force in 1957 and Chief of Staff in 1961. As a member of the Joint Chiefs during the Cuban Missile Crisis, LeMay recommended that President John F. Kennedy send the Navy and SAC to surround Cuba and if need be, “fry it.” When the crisis ended peacefully, LeMay called it “the greatest defeat in our history.”
Noel Twyman in Bloody Treason wrote of General LeMay’s sour relationship with President Kennedy:
John Kennedy and his key people were determined to seize control of the military — a feat no president had accomplished since World War II. The chiefs resented the Kennedys and their whiz kids who had little or no experience in military command; the chiefs were accustomed to presidents who let them do their thing without meddlesome interference from politicians.
Perhaps the two most dangerous of all the generals were Curtis LeMay and his head of the Strategic Air Command, General Thomas Power. General LeMay is legendary for his mania to start World War III by goading the Soviet Union with unauthorized reconnaissance flights that penetrated their forbidden boundaries.
LeMay was [an] extremely crude character…. Dino Brugioni in Eyeball to Eyeball wrote of LeMay’s excesses:
LeMay was in policy conflicts with the Joint Chiefs. He battled with Admiral Arleigh Burke over the control of the nuclear Polaris submarines. LeMay wanted them under his command and actually achieved some control in the Pacific theater. But Burke successfully fought the Air Force every way he knew — in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in Congress, and in the press — any way to prevent LeMay’s power grab.
LeMay apparently had grown immune to the horror of killing. He had directed the gasoline-jelled fire bombing of Japan — estimated to have killed “more persons in a six-hour period than at any time in the history of man.” He said of war: “You’ve got to kill people, and when you’ve killed enough they stop fighting.” He once said, “We killed off — what — twenty percent of the population of North Korea.” More than two million civilians died in LeMay’s campaign from napalm bombing and destruction of massive dams to flood waterways.
LeMay was a ringleader in the Joint Chiefs of Staff insofar as urging Kennedy to go to war in the Bay of Pigs and later in the Cuban missile crisis. Kennedy wisely resisted the Joint Chiefs’ recommendations. LeMay was the foremost proponent of the nuclear first strike, saying that we should give the Russians the “Sunday punch” before they did it to us.
In the 1950’s, under Eisenhower, LeMay had the authority to order a nuclear strike without presidential authorization if the president could not be contacted. That option was extended down to General Thomas Power, head of SAC, whom LeMay himself described as “not stable” and a “sadist.” LeMay’s proposal for a nuclear first strike and massive destruction of the Soviets was thwarted by Eisenhower, whom LeMay came to consider as indecisive. He was even more disgusted with Kennedy, whom LeMay believed to be a coward. LeMay talked openly about a preemptive attack in which one hundred million people would be killed.
If ever there were a mad, rogue general who would lead a coup, it would appear to have been General Curtis LeMay.
After LeMay retired from the Air Force, he teamed with Alabama governor George Wallace in an unsuccessful candidacy for the vice presidency. LeMay died in 1990. In the years following his unsuccessful political race, he became somewhat of a recluse, seldom leaving his home.
”I remember Curtis LeMay sitting there [in the gallery at the JFK autopsy] with a big cigar in his hand.” –Paul O’Connor, laboratory technologist who assisted in the autopsy of President Kennedy, quoted by William Law, In the Eye of History
“Restraint! Why are you so concerned with saving their lives? The whole idea is to kill the bastards! At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win!” –Thomas Power, commander in chief of the Strategic Air Command from 1957 to 1964, speaking to William Kaufmann of the RAND Corporation in 1960, quoted by Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon
”Looking back on that whole Cuban mess, one of the things that appalled me most was the lack of broad judgment by some of the heads of the military services. When you think of the long competitive selection process that they have to weather to end up the number one man of their particular service, it is certainly not unreasonable to expect that they would also be bright, with good broad judgment. For years I’ve been looking at those rows of ribbons and those four stars, and conceding a certain higher qualification not obtained in civilian life. Well, if ——- and ——- are the best the services can produce, a lot more attention is going to be given their advice in the future before any action is taken as a result of it.” –President Kennedy, speaking to Assistant Navy Secretary Paul (Red) Fay, The Pleasure of His Company
“At a Georgetown dinner party recently, the wife of a leading senator sat next to Gen. Curtis LeMay, chief of staff of the Air Force. He told her a nuclear war was inevitable. It would begin in December and be all over by the first of the year. In that interval, every major American city — Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles — would be reduced to rubble. Similarly, the principle cities of the Soviet Union would be destroyed. The lady, as she tells it, asked if there were any place where she could take her children and grandchildren to safety; the general would, of course, at the first alert be inside the top-secret underground hideout near Washington from which the retaliatory strike would be directed. He told her that certain unpopulated areas in the far west would be safest.” –Marquis Childs, nationally syndicated columnist, Washington Post, 19 July 1961
Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
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