The most powerful weapon in the United States’ Cold War arsenal was likely not its hundreds of nuclear warheads — it was the man whose job it was to deploy them.
There are few men in Air Force history as noteworthy and controversial as Gen. Curtis LeMay. He earned the nickname “Iron Ass” for his stubbornness and shortness once his mind was made up. When he did speak, the stout, cigar-chomping, stone-faced general had a reputation for his outspoken manner. Though not always remembered fondly by history, some of his image as a shoot-first-ask-questions-later, caveman may be undeserved.
He was the youngest general to wear a fourth star. When he retired, he had served as a four-star general longer than anyone in American history; a big deal for a general who didn’t go to a service academy, instead graduating from Ohio State. At the height of his career, he was the symbol of American military might. A bit more about one of the U.S. Air Force’s most influential founding generals can be gleaned through his more noteworthy quotes.
1. “We should always avoid armed conflict. But if you get in it, get in with both feet and get out as soon as possible.”
Despite his gruff, cold image, every operational goal, in LeMay’s mind, was a means to an end. Ending a war quickly meant saving American lives. During World War II, LeMay was responsible for the firebombing of Japanese cities which completely destroyed most major Japanese cities. It was his command that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Official estimates from the United States Strategic Bombing Survey determined at least 330,000 killed, 476,000 injured, 8.5 million people made homeless, and 2.5 million buildings destroyed. Almost half of 64 Japanese mainland cities were completely destroyed. The destruction was not lost on LeMay. He acknowledged that if the Japanese had won the war, he would have been tried as a war criminal.
Later he would reveal that dropping the atomic bombs was totally unnecessary, given the level of destruction he had already waged on Japan. He said he only dropped them because of President Truman’s authority. After the war, Japan’s former Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe confirmed that the decision to surrender was based on the prolonged bombing wrought by General LeMay’s Marianas-based air forces. LeMay took command of the Marianas in January 1945. The Japanese surrendered in August of 1945.
2. “War is never cost-effective. People are killed. To them, the war is total.”
He was known as a tough commander, but a fair one. He earned a reputation for being stone-faced, uncaring about the needs of his men but LeMay actually suffered from Bell’s Palsey, which literally immobilized his face. When a Harvard study found Army pilots were aborting bombing missions over Germany out of fear, LeMay personally led every bombing sortie and ordered any crew who didn’t go over the target be court martialed.
The gruff general took combat losses to heart, knowing he’d sent men to die, but firmly believed if the death of one American could save a thousand, then it was the right decision to make. In The Fog of War, a documentary about the life of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, McNamara quoted LeMay: “Why are we here? Why are we here? You lost your wingman. It hurts me as much as it does you. I sent him there. And I’ve been there, I know what it is. But you lost one wingman, and we destroyed Tokyo.”
3. “Successful offense brings victory. Successful defense can now only lessen defeat.”
This is an “extremely belligerent, many thought brutal” man who believed in the power, threat and use of nuclear weapons. He wanted SAC to be able to deliver every nuclear warhead in the American arsenal on the Soviet Union at once. This military rationale earned LeMay the image of a cold man who was obsessed with starting any kind of war with the Russians.
It was Gen. LeMay who inspired the character of Buck Turgidson in “Doctor Strangelove,” willing to pay for a victory over the Soviet Union with unlimited American lives. As a bomber pilot, LeMay’s point of view was one of overwhelming force. At its height, the SAC had 1600 bombers and 800 missiles in its arsenal.
4. “We can haul anything.”
As the commander of U.S. Air Forces In Europe, LeMay was asked by the Commander of all U.S. forces in Europe, Lucius D. Clay, about the feasibility of an airlift (later known as the “Berlin Airlift”) to break the Soviet blockade of West Berlin.
Gen. Clay asked LeMay “Can you haul coal?” Even though he preferred the more aggressive response of an armed convoy backed by bomber aircraft, Gen. LeMay enthusiastically began the 5,000 ton per day airlift operation within weeks. He was so instrumental in its startup, it was initially called “The LeMay Coal and Feed Delivery Service.” LeMay’s response to Clay’s hauling question represents the can-do attitude and spirit of the U.S. Air Force.
5. “If I see that the Russians are amassing their planes for an attack, I’m going to knock the shit out of them before they take off the ground.”
Robert McNamara, who served under LeMay during WWII and over him as Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy Administration, called him the finest combat commander there ever was. While he was convinced a war would happen at some point and believe the U.S. should fight it on the grounds most favorable to it, LeMay’s military upbringing taught him that true readiness required constant training and this readiness was to be in place when the civilian leaders of the military deemed it necessary to use them.
His solution was to create a force so powerful no one would dare sneak an attack. He would always advocate for a heavy military response, most notably during the thirteen-day Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, but always loyally and diligently carried out the orders and policy of his civilian superiors.
6. “To err is human, to forgive is not SAC policy”
When he took control of Strategic Air Command in 1948, most of his bomber crews couldn’t hit Ohio with a mock atomic bomb during exercises. The SAC under Gen. LeMay became one of the most effective military units in the world on the basis of relentless training.
One officer was quoted as saying: “Training in SAC is harder than war … it might be a relief to go to war.” Within two years, the procedures, checklists, and training implemented by General LeMay gave SAC one of the best safety records in U.S. military history.
7. “The price of failure might be paid with national survival.”
After retiring from the Air Force in 1965, LeMay ran with George Wallace on his segregationist party ticket. It led many to conclude that LeMay agreed with Wallace’s racial views. In truth, LeMay agreed to run with Wallace because he believed in a hard line against Communism, and an end to the War in Vietnam, and didn’t see any of the potential candidates doing these things.
LeMay was no racist. During his tenure as a commander in the Air Force, he had actually promoted the integration of units well before Truman’s executive order. Protesters would attend Wallace rallies shouting “Sieg heil” at the man who designed the bombing plans that crippled Nazi war production, even personally leading the most dangerous missions.