Bigger Bombs for a Brighter Tomorrow
The Strategic Air Command and American War Plans at the Dawn of the Atomic Age, 1945-1950
John M. Curatola
McFarland & Company, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2015, 236 pages
Book Review published on: April 21, 2017
Many of us are at least vaguely aware that at the end of the World War II, the United States threatened to destroy additional Japanese cities by targeting them for attack with atomic weapons. Such destruction would continue until the Japanese submitted to Allied terms of surrender; but, it was a bluff. Fortunately, the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were enough, and the Japanese did not call the bluff. That was fortunate for all, as there was not enough fissile material existing at the time to carry out such a threat. As late as June 1946, the U.S. nuclear weapon stockpile contained only enough material to assemble nine bombs, and two of those were about to be expended in the Operation Crossroads tests at Bikini Atoll. What I didn’t know, and really hadn’t given much thought to, was how long the United States relied on that bluff, and what a difficult time the U.S. Air Force (USAF), as well as others, had been working out a plan for how to use these new weapons. The process of getting a coherent, executable plan together suffered from both internal and external dysfunction.
Curatola does a superb job of describing how the choice of leadership on the part of the USAF at the creation of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) served the nation poorly. Gen. George Kenney had a superb wartime record as the commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces in the southwest Pacific, supporting Douglas MacArthur’s island hopping through the Bismarck Archipelago to the Philippines. Notably, in that role, Kenney had nothing to do with the strategic bombing campaign of Japan. Curatola lays out the facts with minimal editorializing: Kenney hit the public relations lecture circuit for the United Nations and took his eye off the primary mission, creating a Strategic Air Command. Maj. Gen. Clements McMullen became the de facto commander, and McMullen was all too happy to apply his ideas of efficiencies to a postwar, budget-constrained force. Efficiency topped effectiveness and the SAC failed to develop as a force with the ability to deliver heavy ordnance over intercontinental distances. The SAC’s safety record was poor, and its readiness was abysmal. That began to change on 19 October 1948, when Gen. Curtis LeMay replaced Kenney as the SAC commander.
The SAC’s challenges were not all internal. In the post-World War II Truman administration, the emphasis was on balancing the budget, not generating a fighting force. Consequently, the services competed viciously over a budget pie that simply would not stretch. The result: during the February 1948 Communist coup d’état in Czechoslovakia and the start of the Berlin airlift in June 1948, the 509th Bomb Group remained the only group with the “Silverplate” B-29 modifications required to deliver the existing nuclear ordnance.
In addition to the rivalry with the other services—especially the Navy, which was trying to carve out a role in nuclear strike with more capable aircraft and much larger, more expensive aircraft carriers—the USAF, and the SAC in particular, found itself at war with the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). As the inaugural chairman of the new AEC, which came into being on 1 January 1947, David E. Lilienthal brought to the commission a deep distrust, bordering on disregard, of the military in general, and of Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves, the director of the Manhattan Project, in particular. Charged with a primary mission of developing the fissile materials required for the production of nuclear weapons, it appeared Lilienthal’s personal goal was to ensure nuclear weapons stayed out of the hands of the military. Thus began the hotly contested political and bureaucratic war between the services and the AEC over custody of nuclear weapons. Production of materials lagged while SAC struggled to develop the weapons-assembly teams required to turn individual components into complete weapons. Meanwhile, the SAC depended on the AEC to deliver the critical weapon components, including non-nuclear components, when and if needed. This failure-prone arrangement was not resolved until world events coalesced to convince President Truman and other senior U.S. leaders that in order to be responsive, the military needed custody of some weapons. The Soviet Union test of an atomic device in 1949, Mao Tse Tung’s successful revolution a few months later, and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 prompted a dramatic change of attitude.
While Curatola identifies the friction between Lilienthal and the military, he does not delve into detail. Lilienthal was a lawyer by training and had served as one of the Tennessee Valley Authority commissioners prior to becoming the chairman of the AEC. Lilienthal was very much an “atoms for peace” advocate until he decided that the issue of nuclear waste disposal needed a resolution before proceeding down that road as well. He was also a chief opponent of the “super” bomb: the thermonuclear fusion bomb, or hydrogen bomb. He resigned from the AEC in February 1950, ostensibly to return to higher paying civilian endeavors as an attorney and businessman. His departure coincided with a change of direction for the Nation, and for the AEC in particular.
Curatola embellishes his narrative with well-chosen photographs, charts, and illustrations. One of the most informative was a comparison of the maximum ceilings of the B-29, B-50, B-36, and B-47 bombers to the capabilities of Soviet air defense artillery. This picture, worth at least a thousand words, illustrated clearly that the 85 mm and 100 mm Soviet guns could definitely reach the USAF bombers of the day, and that Soviet air defense was a genuine challenge to ordnance delivery.
If there is a shortfall in this book, it is the indexing. “Kenney” is not an index entry, nor is “Clements.” “Silverplate” is a subset of the B-29 index entry. However, this is not much in the way of criticism. This is a superb book, which could have been as dry as Saharan desert sand. Curatola has taken a relatively obscure but important corner of military history and made it an enjoyable, even captivating reading experience. I highly recommend it, especially for any student of airpower or the development and execution of strategic policy.
Book Review written by: Thomas E. Ward II, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas