- - Sunday, June 9, 2019



By Trevor Albertson

Naval Institute Press, $40, 167 pages

The anti-military left spent much loud energy during the mid-1900s denouncing Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay as a bomb-happy terror who was itching for a first-strike war against the Soviet Union.

Indeed, LeMay was an early expert of aerial warfare. The bombing campaign he carried out against mainland Japan when the outcome of World War II remained in doubt is said to have caused more deaths than the two later nuclear attacks.

Now Trevor Albertson, an Air Force intellectual with broad experience in the military, lays out a detailed defense of LeMay that demonstrates (in this reader’s view) that his views on nuclear strategy were well-founded.

LeMay commanded the Strategic Air Command (SAC) during a critical Cold War period. The main charge made by critics is that he advocated a “first strike” against the Soviets, even without a formal declaration of war. Drawing on a rich archives of previously-classified LeMay papers, the author arrives at a drastically opposite conclusion.

Two events shaped LeMay’s thoughts on bombing’s role in war with the Soviets. First was a 1949 test to conduct a simulated radar-bombing mission against Dayton, Ohio. As Mr. Albertson writes, “the results were terrible.” Of 303 bombing runs, nearly two-thirds were more than 7,000 feet off target, with an average error of 10,090 feet. Such an error, even with atomic bombs, “would have left the target unscathed.”

Several months later, the Soviets surprisingly tested their first nuclear bomb, something not expected until well into the 1950s. The U.S. nuclear monopoly was no more. Then came the Soviet-supported invasion of South Korea in May 1950.

The conclusion in Washington was that war with the Soviets “could spell disaster for the United States.” The United States could not prevail without “receiving an unacceptable amount of damage.” As LeMay counselled, even a strenuous defense “cannot eliminate all of the damage to us by a long shot.” He was convinced that war with the USSR was inevitable.

So what was a solution? To LeMay, “to accept the first blow in atomic warfare is to accept national suicide.” He decried “the pseudo-moralist who insists that we must accept this catastrophe.” In briefing papers and conferences, he listed as a “principal task” destroying Soviet atomic forces on the ground.

In numerous papers, LeMay drew a sharp distinction between a “pre-emptive attack” and a “preventive attack.” The latter was a defensive move to be employed when intelligence warned that an adversary was preparing for a pre-emptive strike. He was convinced “that the best chance of preventing attacks on this country would be to get those airplanes on the ground before they take off .”

But such pre-emptive strikes would be carried out only with “policy-level approval,” meaning the president. (Over the years LeMay and associates tried to establish rules to permit nuclear action on their own should the national authority be destroyed by enemy attacks. Mr. Albertson writes that these efforts came to naught. One suspects, however, that such just-in-case plans are tucked away somewhere in government.)

President Truman showed his concern over the Soviet-backed aggression in Korea by directing the deployment of atomic warheads to Okinawa, along with additional aircraft from LeMay’s command. The Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered LeMay to prepare plans “against targets of opportunity in the Far East.”

These moves suggest that Truman was a slight step further along toward use of nuclear weapons in Korea than has been accepted in the past. Fortunately, such use proved unnecessary.

But Truman did insist on civilian control of nuclear weaponry. During World War II, military commanders had broad discretion on bombing decision. As Truman said, he did not want to have “some dashing lieutenant colonel decide when would be the proper time” to go nuclear.

Nonetheless, LeMay was ready if called upon. SAC had the ability “to deliver two hundred nuclear bombs in six days [which] would mean a degree of destruction that had never been experienced in human history.”

As Mr. Albertson writes, despite LeMay’s preparations for the offense, “he was equally charged with avoiding a war, and he took this responsibility seriously LeMay was neither angel nor demon; he was a pragmatist that saw an opening. If that meant he had to drop the first bombs in a nuclear war to protect his country — at least in his estimation — then so be it.”

LeMay did attract strong public disfavor in 1968 when he ran for vice president on a ticket with the Alabama racist governor, George Wallace, promising to “bomb Vietnam back to the stone age” to end the war there.

Nonetheless, his legacy is that of a commander who prevented war by preparing for war — an accomplishment for which America should be eternally grateful.

• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military matters.

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