Gen. Curtis E. LeMay is without doubt one of the most controversial military commanders in U.S. history. Dubbed the “father of the U.S. Strategic Air Command” (SAC) and an icon of the U.S. Air Force, Le May is also known as a belligerent Cold War warrior who provided the template for the warmongering, psychopathic Gen. Jack D. Rippereral played by Sterling Hayden in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove.”
LeMay is best known in Japan as the man who took command of the air campaigns against Japan toward the end of World War II. Scrapping the established policy of daylight, precision bombing, he sent Boeing B-29 Superfortresses loaded with firebombs to gut with flames nearly every major city in the country, killing some 500,000 people, mostly civilians, and leaving 8 million others homeless.
His reasoning was clear: “You’ve got to kill people, and when you’ve killed enough they stop fighting.”
LeMay was proud of the night attacks on Tokyo in which, as the postwar U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey put it, “probably more persons lost their lives by fire at [sic] Tokyo in a six-hour period than at any time in the history of man.”
That LeMay succeeded in his task was no accident. Indeed, it was by design, since the first waves of bombers dropped oil-gel fire accelerants, and subsequent waves flew so low that they were able to target fleeing crowds of civilians and napalm rivers to cut off escape routes.
It was, as Rinjiro Sodei, a Hosei University professor of American politics described it, “systematic bombing designed in such a way that no one could escape.” Adding that it was “really aimed at mass killing,” Sodei labeled LeMay as “the executioner of Tokyo.”
But even the carnage of the Great Tokyo Bombing on March 10, 1945, wasn’t enough to force Japan’s surrender. LeMay’s logic was vindicated only after the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused the Emperor to capitulate to American demands for an unconditional surrender.
Remarkably, LeMay was later decorated with the First Class Order of the Rising Sun by the Japanese government, for his work in establishing Japan’s postwar Air Self-Defense Force.
After the war, LeMay became the commander of the U.S. Strategic Air Command, which he rebuilt into “the most powerful military force the world had ever seen,” with vast fleets of new Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bombers equipped with innovative aerial refueling systems and ready for atomic attack.
In 1949, on the eve of the Korean War, the pugnacious general set the tone for the Cold War by mapping out a detailed plan for Armageddon in which America’s entire stockpile of 133 atomic bombs would be dropped on 70 cities in the Soviet Union within 30 days.
Under U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, LeMay was even given a free hand to order a nuclear strike without presidential authorization if the president could not be contacted. While LeMay persistently pushed Eisenhower to launch the first nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, his genocidal scheming was repeatedly thwarted by the president, whom LeMay described as “indecisive.”
In 1961, LeMay was promoted to Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force under the newly arrived young leader in the White House, John F. Kennedy. LeMay soon found himself in near-constant conflict with the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Maxwell Taylor, as well as the whiz kids of the Kennedy administration.
There are many stories of LeMay’s crudeness in dealing with his colleagues on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was peevish and often childish when he didn’t get his way. If anyone dared to challenge him, he would light a cigar and blow smoke in their face. When he was really angry, he would walk into a private toilet attached to the Joint Chiefs meeting room, urinate with the door open and then flush repeatedly to annoy the members seated next door. He would then return to the table as if nothing had happened.
When the Cuban Missile Crisis broke out in October 1962, LeMay enthusiastically pushed Kennedy to go to war by sending the U.S. Navy and the SAC to surround Cuba and if need be, “fry it.” Said LeMay: “We should give the Russians the ‘Sunday punch’ before they do it to us.” After Kennedy wisely resisted the recommendations, and the crisis was resolved peacefully, LeMay called it “the greatest defeat in our history.”
LeMay’s stance toward Vietnam was typically hardline. Although he argued strenuously early on in the Vietnam War for a more rapid and decisive involvement, he was ignored. In his autobiography “Mission With LeMay: My Story” (1965), he wrote: “My solution to the problem would be to tell [the North Vietnamese Communists] frankly that they’ve got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression or we’re going to bomb them into the Stone Age.”
After LeMay retired from the Air Force, he tried to enter the world of politics. He teamed with Alabama Gov. George Wallace in 1968 and ran for Vice President. In the years following his unsuccessful political campaign, he became a bitter recluse, seldom leaving his home in Newport Beach, Calif. He died in 1990 at age 83.