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Richard Rhodes on: LeMay's Vision of War
Richard Rhodes Q: General Curtis LeMay also believed in applying essentially overwhelming force right off the bat. He really felt that particularly in a nuclear age, that that was essential, to get in the first strike and make that first strike heavy, make it count. What does that philosophy of war do to a democracy?

RR: LeMay was trained as a civil engineer. War was an engineering problem, in a sense, from his point of view. He'd also grown up poor and tough, in a tough world. It's a truism of people who really understand violence, that you hit the enemy with everything you've got, whether you're in a fist fight or whether you're in a war. And you hit them up front, and you take them out with overwhelming force before they have a chance to get you. All those basic principles of violence and of conflict were multiplied a million times over by the fact of nuclear weapons, the fact that one bomb could essentially destroy a city, and 50 bombs, a country. Under those circumstances, you only had one punch. You only had one chance.

So LeMay's vision of war (and it's truly a horrific vision) was that we would launch everything we had, simultaneously, on early, early warning of a Soviet attack, maybe even a little before then, and would enter the Soviet Union from all sides at once, overwhelming their defenses (and he had plenty of evidence that it would overwhelm their defenses, that they didn't have enough radar, that they didn't have enough fighter aircraft, that they didn't have enough antiaircraft weapons), and simply take out the whole country at once. Nowhere in the documents that discuss these plans is there any discussion of the fact that you would kill 250 million people when you did that. That was just one of those collateral damage effects that you didn't discuss when you were laying such plans.

But what does it mean that a country that believes in human dignity, even the dignity of the enemy (to the degree that that's possible in war), was preparing to slaughter an entire population of another country? What did we think of the Nazis, that they killed 6 million Jews? What would the world think of democracy and of the United States of America if we had done such a thing? Never mind the fact that the fallout from this killing of a nation would come back to us and kill most of us as well, even if nuclear winter didn't ensue. I think those are issues that must simply have been walled off from consideration, or I don't see how we could have done what we did.

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