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Richard Rhodes on: General Curtis LeMay, Head of Strategic Air Command
Richard Rhodes Q: In 1948, General Curtis LeMay becomes head of the Strategic Air Command. What did he think a future war would be like?

RR: The United States had always fought wars by having essentially a picket line army, a minimal defense that would hold off the enemy until we could get our truly formidable industrial world cranking to turn out the weapons that we needed to win the war. That's the way we fought World War II. But LeMay understood that the bombers always get through, and that atomic weapons would be decisive, and that therefore you couldn't hold off the enemy while you built the bombs you needed to defend yourself. You had to have everything in place on day one, because there would only be the first day and the second day, and maybe the third day, and then it would all be over. So it was a totally different concept of how to fight a war. And it required the United States to do something we had never done before, which is to have a huge military establishment in peacetime, to have the whole stockpile in hand. All these things that essentially militarized a very peaceful democracy were part of the changes he needed.

What LeMay needed to do, therefore, was to take this half-assed Strategic Air Command, which really was on its last legs-- It just wasn't a very efficient force. They didn't hit their targets. They couldn't even get the planes off the ground half the time--understandably, because the war was over and everybody was letting down. But he understood that the war wasn't over; that it was always the day before the beginning of the next war. So he took these people, and over a period of years he built them into a truly efficient, deadly, enormously powerful fighting force. He lobbied for more aircraft. He lobbied for more bombs. He, uh, held crash inspections. He would just land at a base and proceed to inspect the entire business. They had to be able to get their planes off the ground in a very short period of time: 15 minutes or a half an hour. All the things that you do to be on perpetual ready alert. That's what he did to the Strategic Air Command.

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