BLAST FROM THE PAST
The President Isn’t the Only Hothead Who Could Start a Nuclear War
It's not only the commander in chief who has to keep calm when Armageddon threatens. The case of JFK vs. Gen. LeMay is a scary warning.
The unnerving vision of Donald Trump one day getting within reach of the nuclear codes is bad enough, but the job specification of commander in chief demands more than just a cool head and stable personality. The president also needs the ability to handle and control hotheads who can appear around them in the midst of crisis.
To be sure, today’s Pentagon generals seem to be a suitably sober bunch, chastened by the cost in lives and treasure of recent wars. Sometimes, though, a general long-seasoned in battle and without doubt possessed of great personal courage can be the last person a president facing Armageddon should listen to.
Probably the most terrifyingly instructive example of this species appeared in the person of Gen. Curtis LeMay, the chief of staff of the Air Force and head of the Strategic Air Command during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, were facing a volatile and unpredictable threat from the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, who had covertly set up missile bases in Cuba. As the crisis built, the Kennedys found themselves in a minority that held to the belief that a diplomatic solution could head off a military confrontation that would easily trip into a nuclear war.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff, other generals, and some elder statesmen were demanding airstrikes against the Russian bases in Cuba before the missiles became operational, to be followed by an invasion. Kennedy feared that, at the minimum, these American actions would lead to a Soviet attack on West Berlin.
LeMay was the most aggressive advocate of an immediate military response. Recorded on White House audio tapes, his disregard of the Kennedys’ authority is palpable.
“Now, as far as the military situation, I don’t share your view that if we knock off Cuba, they’re going to knock off Berlin,” LeMay said. “We’ve got the Berlin problem staring us in the face anyway. If we don’t do anything to Cuba, then they’re going to push on Berlin and push real hard because they’ve got us on the run. If we take military action against Cuba, then I think that the…”
“What do you think their reprisal would be?” JFK asked.
“I don’t think they’re going to make any reprisal if we tell them that the Berlin situation is just like it’s always been. If they make a move we’re going to fight. I don’t see any solution except military action right now. This [a naval blockade] is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich,” LeMay said.
The reference to Munich and the appeasement of Hitler by Britain and France had a particularly bad vibe for the Kennedy brothers: Their father, Joseph Kennedy, had been a vocal appeaser himself, saying America had no place in a European war.
The Kennedys held on to their belief that the naval blockade of Cuba they had put in place would force Khrushchev to back off—which he did, but only at the last minute and in confusing circumstances.
At the time I was reporting on the crisis from New York (where the newspapers ran stories like “Where to go when nuclear war comes”).
“Although news of military movements became hard to get,” I wrote afterward, “Washington reporters were drawing lots to go on an unspecified naval mission. The inflammable rumor spread that Kennedy had ordered pin-point bombing of the bases.”
Nobody on either side of this argument—the Kennedy brothers and the generals—then knew that the Soviet officers in Cuba with 20 medium-range nuclear weapons under their command, in an unusual move, had been given the authority to respond to an American attack without consulting Moscow. The missiles were capable of reaching major U.S. cities including Washington, D.C.
Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who had been called to advise Kennedy and supported the idea of a pre-emptive strike, later admitted that it was “just blind luck” that the two powers had not stumbled into nuclear war.
In the audio, LeMay’s manner and tone sound strangely familiar. It was brilliantly mimicked by George C. Scott in the 1964 movie Dr. Srangelove, playing Gen. Buck Turgidson, like LeMay a cigar-chewing Air Force zealot advocating an immediate nuclear response to a Soviet attack: “Mr. President. I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops.”
LeMay was, for sure, a gift for satirical impersonation. But the risk is to dismiss him as a caricature, a totally bonkers rogue general and nothing more. In fact, he was a reflection of his own singular military career and the way in which the times sometimes summon the man as an indispensable player.
LeMay’s attitude about air power was fueled by personal experience of how seriously neglected and underestimated it had been when he joined the United States Army Air Corps in the early 1930s. Most of its equipment was antique. Commercial airliners outperformed military airplanes.
LeMay got his break as a pilot as a result of a gigantic political fiasco. In 1934 President Roosevelt, spurred by advisers, decided to smash up what they regarded as a monopoly held by the airlines to deliver the post office’s mail. He ordered that the flying of mail be switched to the Air Corps, but the air force had neither the machines nor pilots equal to the task. The scheme was ended after 90 days and many crashes, and with 12 pilots killed.
Before it was ended a small group of pilots were trained to fly the first modern bomber delivered to the Army, the Martin B-10. They flew cross-country at night from Dayton to Indianapolis and Chicago and back, pioneering the new technology of “blind flying”—depending on instruments for the whole flight, including takeoffs and landings.
As a result, 25 pilots graduated on the new bomber, as skilled at instrument navigation as any in the world. One of them was LeMay. Thereafter, on frequent missions, he proved himself an unusually gifted navigator, able to find a target under the worst weather conditions.
By 1943 LeMay was in command of a bomber force based in Great Britain that was given a mission designed to prove the effectiveness of strategic long-range operations. He led 143 Boeing B17 Flying Fortresses on a raid deep into Germany, the target an airplane plant at Regensburg. After dropping their bombs, the B17s did not return to their British bases—instead, they flew on to North Africa, a flight completed with few losses.
The Regensburg raid was a success, but another force of 230 bombers sent at the same time to destroy a ball-bearing factory at Schweinfurt that had to return to British bases was badly mauled by German fighters and anti-aircraft fire. They were in incessant combat for six hours and lost 60 airplanes, with 600 crewmen missing.
Losses of that level did not weaken LeMay’s belief in strategic bombing. He was always himself in the lead airplane on missions, insisting on disciplined and accurate bombing. At the same time, he was becoming skeptical of the doctrine of precision bombing. Going after predictable and strongly defended targets in Germany produced a level of attrition that he believed was not justified by the results.
He had a different idea. The Germans and Italians had pioneered indiscriminate carpet-bombing of cities during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. That had been with relatively small forces of relatively primitive bombers. The U.S. Army Air Forces was about to take delivery of a new Boeing bomber, the B-29, able to carry larger bomb loads far longer distances and to fly far higher, beyond where most anti-aircraft defenses could be effective.
As the war in Europe wound down, LeMay became commander of the XXI Bomber Command in the Pacific, equipped with B-29s. In March 1945 he demanded, and got, permission to begin fire-bombing Japanese cities. He wrote in a letter: “the destruction of Japan’s ability to wage war lies within the capability of this command.” He argued that precision bombing left his crews vulnerable to fighter attack, even though, by then, the Japanese had only 500 airplanes in poor condition and no effective radar for night operations.
LeMay’s bombers would carry the largest bomb loads of the war to Japan’s major industrial centers. Incendiaries were 75 percent of the bomb load. Out of 153,000 tons of bombs dropped on Japan, 98,000 were firebombs. Between May and August, 58 cities were destroyed by firebombing, with hundreds of thousands of casualties.
(Two of these conventional bombing attacks were capable of inflicting the same level of damage as each of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—but, terrible as they were, they lacked the traumatic psychological impact of the new weapon and its long-term consequences through radiation.)
LeMay ended the war convinced of the rightness of his choice.
“There are no innocent civilians,” he said. “It is their government and you are fighting a people, you are not trying to fight an armed force anymore. So it doesn’t bother me so much to be killing the so-called innocent bystanders.”
When, finally, the USAAF became free of its army connection, as the USAF, LeMay’s most enduring mark on the philosophy of air power was his creation, in the late 1940s and ’50s, of the Strategic Air Command. This was entirely his personal vision and fiefdom.
In theory the SAC was the Cold War sentinel that kept America safe from nuclear attack. Again using a revolutionary Boeing airplane, the first jet-powered bomber, the B-47, LeMay led a fleet of 2,000 bombers, carrying atomic bombs, and 800 tankers. These tankers, also produced by Boeing, enabled aerial refueling so that SAC bombers could always be in the air, 24/7, to be instantly sent to a target without the delay of taking off from bases.
However, behind the official façade of deterrence—the belief that SAC’s instant readiness would deter any first strike by the Soviets—LeMay believed that America had made a fundamental mistake not to take out the Russians with one huge strike (“killing a nation”) when they were weak. Later, on the record, he lamented: “When the Russians had acquired (through connivance and treachery of Westerns with warped minds) the atomic bomb and yet didn’t have any stockpile—that was when we might have destroyed Russia completely and not even skinned our elbows doing it.”
This was the LeMay the Kennedy brothers had to hold in check in 1962, a commander whose basic nature or views had not changed since he firebombed Japan. And, in spite of his behavior then, he was not fired.
Indeed, during the Vietnam War he delivered a sentiment that has resurfaced in the mouths of Republicans this year: “My solution would be to tell the North Vietnamese that they’ve got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression or we’re going to bomb them into the Stone Age.”
It was Ted Cruz, not Donald Trump, who pledged to carpet-bomb ISIS and “make the desert glow at night.”
LeMay would doubtless agree. And let his final epitaph be: “I’ll tell you what war is about. You’ve got to kill people, and when you’ve killed enough they stop fighting.”