by Victor Davis Hanson
A review of LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay by Warren Kozak (Regnery Press, 2009, 354 pp.)
Almost every aspect of the Dr. Strangelovian image surrounding Gen. Curtis LeMay was in some way misleading. The tough-guy cigar provocatively dangling from his mouth had little to do with cultivating his iron-pants image. Instead LeMay, in worry that he might be grounded after suffering Bell’s palsy, had originally stuck it in his mouth to hide a sagging lip.
Bombing Vietnam “back to the Stone Age” was probably not LeMay’s own infamous Neanderthal advice about winning the Vietnam War, but a toss-off line inserted into his autobiography by an overzealous co-author that slipped by LeMay during copy editing. Later, when pressed, he asserted that such a nightmarish strategy reflected only American capability, not American intent.
Did the mad bomber of Japan gleefully and without regret burn its cities to the ground, along with hundreds of thousands of civilians in them? LeMay, in fact, thought carefully about the strategy, approved leaflets warning of the conflagration to come, and, after the war, confessed that he would understandably have been tried as a war criminal if the U.S. had lost.
Why did LeMay accept the offer from the racist Alabama governor George Wallace to serve as his running mate on the 1968 third-party ticket? LeMay knew almost nothing about either Wallace or politics, but with all his fiery rhetoric about not losing in Vietnam or coddling the Russians, apparently a great deal about scaring voters to death. What little campaigning LeMay engaged in was a tragicomedy, as the old fire bomber vainly tried to instruct a horrified public about the possibility of still winning wars in the nuclear age. (It is now forgotten that he ended the campaign in liberal fashion, advocating far-seeing and often quite humane environmentalism.)
The invasion of Japan was avoided by the dropping of two atomic bombs, but had LeMay had his way, by late 1945 and early 1946 there would have been few Japanese industries or urban areas left to fuel the Japanese resistance. We often calculate that the atomic strikes saved a million American lives, but forget that without Hiroshima and Nagasaki another six months of incendiary attacks — perhaps enhanced by shorter flights from newly acquired bases in Okinawa and augmented by transfers of European-theater B-17s and B-24s — would have taken millions more Japanese lives.
Warren Kozak’s new biography is not meant to hide LeMay’s abrasiveness and absence of tact. And he does not claim that his revisionist account is the last word about the controversial general, or that he has unearthed radically new information from private LeMay papers or Air Force archives — although Kozak was given access to LeMay’s memorabilia and terse correspondence. Rather, Kozak’s achievement in this engaging portrait is to have provided a twofold reminder. First, like him or not, Curtis LeMay’s brilliance and expertise saved thousands of American lives during World War II, helped to shorten the war, and then restored the American strategic deterrence that was essential in keeping the peace during the Cold War.
Second, the larger LeMay paradox is an old one in American military history, one that has also involved the likes of William Tecumseh Sherman and George Patton: Peace-loving democratic peoples fear fiery warriors in times of calm as much as they clamor for them in extremis. Those whom we applaud in wartime, we usually damn later during peace. So it was with LeMay, who graced the cover of Time magazine and, by the end of World War II, was a national icon.
We sometimes forget that LeMay’s war career started as commander within the 305th Bomb Group, which began bombing occupied Europe in 1942, in daylight, without fighter escort — and with little strategic effect. Those early missions were suicidal. Green navigators got lost over cloudy, unfamiliar Europe. Inexperienced squadrons were blasted apart by some of the best fighters and pilots in the world. Amid the general American panic, Major and soon Colonel LeMay devised new formations, figured out how to get more bombs over the targets, and was soon flying lead plane on the most dangerous missions of the war, most notably the ill-fated Schweinfurt raid that nearly devastated the morale of the Eighth Air Force.
By late 1944, LeMay was the natural choice to save the faltering B-29 bombing campaign based on the Marianas. Despite the exorbitant cost of the B-29 program — far more than the government investment in the Manhattan Project — the high-altitude bombers were inflicting little damage on the Japanese mainland, even as hundreds were grounded or crashed owing to mechanical mishaps. LeMay’s answer was to transform the precisely targeted bomber into a low-flying, overloaded napalm carrier — often at altitudes scarcely over 5,000 feet. Hundreds of B-29s with 20,000 pounds of incendiaries apiece rode in fast on the evening Japanese jet stream, ignited the wooden cities of Japan, and left vast urban swaths in ashes.
My father, who flew on 40 such missions over Japan, often voiced the general ambivalence of the rank and file — furor at the new general who worked the crews to exhaustion and took away their high-altitude immunity, coupled with post-war realization that the often callous-sounding LeMay’s radical transformations had saved their lives and shortened the war. As Kozak puts it, “Curtis LeMay understood that if he was going to do his job well, he would have to give up any chance at being liked. Not just by the enemy combatants and civilians whom he destroyed by the thousands, but by his own men, whom he pushed without letup.”
For the next 20 post-war years, LeMay was at the center of America’s military challenges: reforming a struggling Strategic Air Command, initiating the Berlin airlift, clamoring for the use of overwhelming force in Korea, decrying the new doctrine of limited war in Vietnam, and dealing with the threat from newly Communist Cuba. As Kozak points out, it was rather easy to caricature the bulky LeMay as a nut when he advocated sustained, provocative bombing campaigns in an age of mutually assured destruction. But the alternative strategy of limited engagement, as LeMay also foresaw, ultimately cost tens of thousands of lives in Vietnam with no real objective or end in sight.
Kozak does a good job of uncovering the studious and thoroughly professional side of LeMay, one that belies his image as an out-of-control saber-rattler. Even before World War II, he was a flight engineer and an astute navigator, pioneering long-range navigation techniques on the new B-17 bomber. His work led to record-breaking missions to South America and publicity flights that reconnoitered battleships and ocean liners far out at sea.
LeMay was the longest-serving general in our history, and the youngest to reach four-star rank. President Kennedy was no fan of LeMay, but astutely appointed him to the Joint Chiefs, remarking, “I like having LeMay at the head of the Air Force. Everybody knows how he feels. That’s a good thing right now.” And even LeMay’s perennial liberal foe, Robert McNamara, once concluded that Lemay — his former wartime boss — was “the finest military strategist the nation has ever produced.”
What are we left with, then, in assessing Curtis E. LeMay? Kozak suggests a tragedy of sorts. LeMay grew up in an age when public-relations ability was largely irrelevant in comparison with personal courage and proven expertise. LeMay’s approach — a combination of reticence and occasional blunt talk about victory at any cost — privileged action over rhetoric; it was perfectly suited for the conventional struggle of World War II, and even to the frightening, but far more complex, early years of the Cold War.
But by 1961, Kennedy nuance and cool were in, most people had only foggy memories of B-17s, Russia had nuclear-tipped missiles pointed at our cities, and corporate whiz-kids like Robert McNamara thrived amid the new nexus of Washington politics, media, and corporate interests. LeMay was reduced to the status of a plodding stegosaurus clumsily batting away critics with his spiked swats. In the new calculus, he was not so much uncharismatic as having no charisma whatsoever. George C. Scott’s portrayal of Gen. Buck Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove was inspired by popular caricatures of LeMay, and Scott’s theatrical genius reduced the reserved student of air power to a loudmouthed, demonic psychopath.
Yet LeMay’s competence and honesty were never questioned. He did not cash in — as so many have since — by hawking superfluous new weaponry to former subordinates in the Pentagon. And, like a Sophoclean character, LeMay would rather have perished than have changed to facilitate new doctrines of limited war and faith in international peace-keeping organizations. In this sympathetic biography, Warren Kozak lets facts about LeMay speak for themselves and reminds us why one of our greatest soldiers is today hardly recognized.
In short, the LeMay DNA was almost divinely engineered for America’s ordeal between 1930 and 1960. When that era passed — and passed without Armageddon, thanks, in large part, to a few brilliant and courageous warriors like LeMay — we were to be done with him as well.
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson