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Richard Rhodes on: General Curtis LeMay, Head of Strategic Air Command
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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