Curtis LeMay and Strategic Air Command, 1948-1957
Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2019, 304 pages
Book Review published on: April 16, 2021
Author Trevor Albertson’s Winning Armageddon: Curtis LeMay and Strategic Air Command, 1948-1957, takes its place in the Naval Institute Press’s prominent History of Military Aviation Series, a series that intends to illuminate ignored aspects of airpower. In the case of Curtis LeMay, that may seem a bit of an oxymoron, for his career remained in the public eye from World War II all the way through his failed run for Vice President in 1968. LeMay first earned distinction in World War II in the Eighth Air Force when he developed staggered bombing formation tactics for daylight precision. His bombing raids, striking at the heart of Germany, increased targeting precision and dramatically reduced bomber losses. LeMay made such a name for himself that he received a rare intertheater transfer to the Pacific where he masterminded the enormously destructive but effective and ethically questionable firebombing campaign of Japanese cities from which the concept of modern strategic bombardment arose.
Winning Armageddon focuses on LeMay’s nine years as the commanding general of the United States Strategic Air Command (SAC) beginning in 1948. SAC’s around-the-clock mission as the guardian and deliverer of the nation’s nuclear arsenal held the highest national security priority in the dawn of the Cold War but much less clear was the strategy of employing nuclear weapons.
It comes as no surprise that LeMay, well known for wanting to throw the first punch throughout his combat-laden career, strongly advocated for launching preemptive nuclear strikes against impending Soviet attacks. In the early years of the Cold War, nuclear strikes were to be carried out by long-range bombers like the monstrous ten-engine B-36 Peacemaker and the innovative high altitude B-47 Stratojet. No push-button war here, satellite surveillance, and intercontinental ballistic missiles would come years later along with the concept of deterrence achieved at the cost of mutually assured destruction. Albertson instead asserts that LeMay framed the problem as one of prevention–striking the Soviet strategic airpower before it ever left the ground. He demonstrates LeMay’s pragmatism of building SAC into a nuclear strike force capable of destroying enemy targets within hours of an adversary’s decision to go to war. This marks an important distinction in LeMay’s vision, to achieve swift and decisive outcomes on military targets to preclude unleashing nuclear weapons on people, cities, and industry and ultimately preventing global war. Albertson goes further by proclaiming this vision spoke volumes of the tough-minded man who commanded the most destructive forces on the planet who held out an “ambitious hope” of reigning in nuclear weapons.
Albertson’s impressively researched argument draws on an abundance of primary sources ranging from LeMay’s speeches, memoranda, and private correspondence as well as detailed notes and an extensive bibliography of the most important works relating to LeMay and the early years of the Cold War. Winning Armageddon makes a substantial contribution to a rarely examined period in military history. Anyone interested in the history of airpower, the Cold War, and Curtis LeMay will find this scholarly work a must read.
Book Review written by: Ronald T. Staver, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas