General Curtis LeMay and His War Against the Kennedys

In several articles at LRC I have described the ongoing war between President John Kennedy and the national security state (principally the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and the upper echelons of the CIA). Here are three examples: here, here, and here. Other writers have definitively documented this conflict, see the authoritative summary volume, ,JFK’s War with the National Security Establishment: Why Kennedy Was Assassinated. by Douglas P. Horne, The National Security State and the Assassination of JFK:  The CIA, the Pentagon, and the “Peace President”, by Andrew Gavin Marshall, and JFK and the Military, by Robert Dallek, A key sinister figure in this backstory narrative was General Curtis LeMay, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, who virulently hated the Kennedys.  Once again, the great JFK assassination researcher Robert Morrow has provided insight on these matters. LeMay is interviewed by Joe B. Frantz:

Curtis LeMay, in his oral history with the LBJ Library, calls the Kennedy people “cockroaches” who were “vindictive,” “ruthless” and with [low] “moral standards”

Frantz : As long as they rescue a portion of it well they are . . . . Where were you at
the time of the assassination?

LeMay : I was in Washington at the time–the Chief of Staff of the Air Force .

Frantz : You were at work on that particular day?

LeMay : No, I was off some place, at the actual time of the assassination, I was called back.

Frantz: Yes, what was the situation that you found when you got back to Washington?
Was there a little bit of tenseness or was it pretty well decided that Lee
Harvey Oswald was just after one man?

LeMay: Well there wasn’t much of a flap . Everybody was a little concerned that they
didn’t know what made the attack, the assassination, so they wanted
everybody present for duty. That’s the reason they were called back.

Frantz: Was there any great difference between working on the Joint Chiefs under
Johnson than it had been with Kennedy or did the fact that you had the same
Secretary of Defense insure the continuity?

LeMay : No, I didn’t understand exactly what was going on . For several months
before the President was assassinated they were rumors, and then they
got to be a little more than rumors, Vice President Johnson was going to
be dropped for the coming election . And all the Kennedy team was finally
got to openly to giving to the Vice President to the back of their hands,
and it was rather embarrassing for the country around Washington because
it was so apparent . Then bang, all at once he is President .

Frantz : Yes.

LeMay : And I believe all of this hard feeling grew up around the flight from Fort
Worth back was brought on by these people who had really been vulgar in
my opinion and snubbing the Vice President who expected to be stepped on
like the cockroaches they were, and he didn’t do it . As a matter of fact
quite the contrary . From all I got the President was extremely polite to
Mrs . Kennedy and the family and bent over backwards to do everything he
could to soften the blow if that is possible . It isn’t, but he certainly
was a Southern gentleman in every respect during this period . And I think
this rather surprised these people because they expected the same kind of
treatment that they had given him and he didn’t give it to him . Why, I don’t
know : I really don’t know because well I can understand in having to face
an election and I can understand him being a smart enough politician to
know if he threw out all of the Kennedy crowd and put his in, this might
split the Democratic party at the time in the next election and so forth .
So I can understand him keeping these people around until the election was
over, but then he won the election–he won it with the greatest majority
that any President has ever had, but he still kept these people around .
The same people that had treated him so miserably during this period just
before President Kennedy’s assassination .

Frantz : This is curious .

LeMay : Yes . I could never understand, never could figure it out yet . The only
answer I could come up with is that knowing the vindictiveness of these
people, knowing the moral standards of these people, how ruthless that
they were, they must have had some threat over the President that he
knew that they would carry out .

Frantz: Did you get the feeling that he was satisfied with Secretary McNamara’s
performance as Defense Secretary?

LeMay : I don’t know that I can answer that question . It would seem that if he
wasn’t satisfied, why he would have gotten a new one early in the period .
Afterwards I think he was actually dismissed finally . Things got so bad
that he had to get rid of him, but he did it in such a way to make it look
like it was a normal progression .

Frantz: Did you ever get any idea where he stood on this manned-bomber vs  missile

LeMay: Well I don’t know that there was a manned-bomber vs  missile controversy,
one being “either,” “or .” We never believed that in the Air Force or any
place else . We thought we needed both . We needed both . As a matter of
fact, I get credit for being the big bomber General . Can’t see anything
beyond the blinders . When I was in the research and development business
after the war started all in the big missile programs, the Atlas and the
Navaho and the basic facilities that gave us the missiles, we had to have
them, still like we have to have them and that we need both, we need both .

Frantz: There was it seemed to me at this time an outbreak of increased emphasis on
missiles and loss of flexibility of the manned equipment .

LeMay : It became apparent to me that McNamara’s goal was to try to build a strategic
force that was equal to the Russian force. Sort of dragged his feet until
the Russians built up to what we were equal . These men believed that if
we were equal in strength then there wouldn’t be any war . Well this is
an indication of how impractical these type of people are . To me this is
the best way of guaranteeing a war because you can only have peace if you
have a mutual respect between people, and if you don’t have that and one
is plotting against the other, then eventually when he thinks he can get
away with it, he will come attack you . This has always been true in
history in the past . If they have got something you want and if he thinks
he can get it, he goes and gets it . This is just a human history . Even
if by some miracle you could design these two forces where they would be
equal, will everybody think they are equal? You can’t control men’s
minds . Then, if by some miracle you can design these two forces, how long
are they going to stay equal? One is an opened society ; the other a closed
society . When is the closed society going to come up with a breakthrough
on some weapon system that will give them a tremendous advantage that you
don’t know anything about? You’re handicapping the open society by such
an arrangement . So I believe this is what Mr . McNamara was aiming at,
although he would never admit it any place along the line . He wouldn’t
admit it now, I am sure, but that was what it was aimed at, and I honestly
believe that he thought about 1000 minuteman missiles would be enough for

“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, cited 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, cited by Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon

“Well, maybe if we do this overflight right, we can get World War III started.”  –Curtis LeMay, speaking to RB-47 ‘Stratojet’ crew member Hal Austin of the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, cited by Paul Lashmar, Washington Post, “Stranger than ‘Strangelove’: A General’s Forays into the Nuclear Zone,” 3 July 1994, C9

“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 Fay, The Pleasure of His Company

Curtis LeMay in summer, 1961 thought that Nuclear War with the Russians was Imminent.

“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 principal 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

Curtis LeMay and his hatred of JFK

Here is a good link on Gen. Curtis LeMay, who was a rabid Kennedy hater. He is an excellent candidate to have been involved in the JFK assassination and certainly the cover up at the autopsy of JFK at Bethesda where he was present.

What LeMay 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:

Meetings of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were alluded to by some as a three-ring circus. General Curtis E. LeMay, Air Force chief of staff, was characterized by one observer as always injecting himself into situations “like a rogue elephant barging out of a forest.” There are many stories of LeMay’s crudeness in dealing with his colleagues on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He found the meetings dull, tiring, and unproductive. Petulant and often childish when he didn’t get his way, LeMay would light a cigar and blow smoke in the direction of anyone challenging his position. To show utter disgust, he would walk into the private Joint Chiefs of Staff toilet, leave the door open, urinate of break wind loudly, and flush the commode a number of aggravating times. He would then saunter calmly back into the meeting pretending that nothing had happened. When angry with individual staff members, he would resort to sarcasm; if that failed, he would direct his wrath to the entire staff.

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 segregationist governor George Wallace in an unsuccessful candidacy for the vice presidency. In the years following LeMay’s failed political race, he became somewhat of a recluse, seldom leaving his home. He died in 1990.

Robert Novak on covering Gen. Curtis LeMay in 1968

The LeMay announcement produced one of the most bizarre moments in my half century of covering politics. When the general was asked about “your policy in the employment of nuclear weapons,” he was off and running.


            Now, nuclear war would be horrible. To me any war is horrible. It doesn’t make much difference to me if I have to go to war and get killed in the jungle of Vietnam with a Russian knife or get killed with a nuclear weapon. As a matter if I had the choice, I’d lean towards the nuclear weapon.

            That was incredible, but LeMay was not finished. He launched into discussing what he purported to be a government study of animal life on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific after extensive testing of nuclear weapons there, with the good news that “the rats out there are bigger, fatter, and healthier than they were ever before.”

            It really did sound like General Jack D. Ripper. I had my eyes fixed on Wallace, his expression betraying astonishment and despair. Los Angeles Times reporter Jack Nelson, a relentless critic of Wallace, asked LeMay about the nuclear bomb: “If you found it necessary to end the [Vietnam] war, you’d use it, wouldn’t you?” LeMay replied: “If I found it necessary, I would use anything that we could dream up, including nuclear weapons.”  …

            Wallace told me he had wanted as his running mate Albert B. (Happy) Chandler- former governor of Kentucky, former U.S. senator, former commissioner of baseball. Chandler was seventy years old and eager to get back into politics on the Wallace ticket. “But mah’ money men” – he didn’t name them – “vetoed Happy.” Chandler was too liberal on economics and race. He had not been forgiven for his role in breaking baseball’s color bar with Jackie Robinson.

            The “money men” were intent on LeMay, Wallace went on. “I said yes against my better judgement, and I never should have. He’s an absolute disaster. Did you hear him yesterday? But that’s the last you will ever hear from him. Nothing more! Not a word!””

[Robert Novak, “The Prince of Darkness,” pp.173-174]

Curtis LeMay as described by Wikipedia:

“During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, LeMay clashed again with U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Defense Secretary McNamara, arguing that he should be allowed to bomb nuclear missile sites in Cuba. He opposed the naval blockade and, after the end of the crisis, suggested that Cuba be invaded anyway, even after the Russians agreed to withdraw. LeMay called the peaceful resolution of the crisis “the greatest defeat in our history”.[31] Unknown to the US, the Soviet field commanders in Cuba had been given authority to launch—the only time such authority was delegated by higher command.[32] They had twenty nuclear warheads for medium-range R-12 ballistic missiles capable of reaching US cities (including Washington) and nine tactical nuclear missiles. If Soviet officers had launched them, many millions of US citizens would have been killed. The ensuing SAC retaliatory thermonuclear strike would have killed roughly one hundred million Soviet citizens, and brought nuclear winter to much of the Northern Hemisphere. Kennedy refused LeMay’s requests, however, and the naval blockade was successful.[32]”


8:09 am on August 25, 2020