Always at War
Organizational Culture in Strategic Air Command, 1946-62
Melvin G. Deaile
Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2018, 328 pages
Book Review published on: December 6, 2019
Always at War is the story of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) during the first sixteen years of the Cold War. Melvin Deaile describes how the prominent military organization developed its own culture and an environment with unique characteristics that made it noticeably different from other military organizations.
For example, SAC came about because of a view that the best way to deter an enemy was to have a long-range air force that could deliver powerful weapons. This was certainly understandable, considering the Soviet Union had developed a nuclear capability that constituted a threat to the United States. After the end of the Second World War, the international balance of power had changed, and the United States and the Soviet Union became two great powers engaging in a new type of war, commonly known as the Cold War.
A second obvious difference associated with SAC was that it had the “tool”; namely, a bomber that could reach the Soviet Union, as well as a weapon—the atomic bomb—that could be used against an adversary. No other American military organization possessed these important items needed to counter an enemy threat.
SAC’s uniqueness was also apparent in other ways. Its headquarters was located in the middle of the United States as opposed to being located near Washington, D.C. In addition, it had worldwide representation; many of the bases associated with its command were located in various parts of the United States as well as countries near the Soviet Union. Therefore, it could attack an enemy from a variety of sites.
SAC also differed in leadership makeup and style. Most of its high-ranking officers were pilots, and many of them had served previously as bombing commanders against Japan. Of course, Gen. Curtiss Lemay stood out as a leading military commander of SAC not only because of his professional background but also because of his style of leadership, which seemed to be that of having a constant desire for improvement. For example, Lemay attempted to raise morale in a number of ways. Spot promotions were one way, and pay raises also became another incentive. He took a strong interest in domestic affairs affecting his organization by attempting to improve housing situations for members of his command.
There is no doubt that SAC became a premier American military organization. Yet, both domestic and international changes were bound to affect its role as a military unit. This became quite evident during the Vietnam War. What brought an end to SAC’s dominance in some military matters was the decline in importance of massive retaliation as a doctrine. While long-range strategic bombers and the atomic bomb were a way to contain communism, America’s role in Vietnam brought about a decline in importance of the doctrine of massive retaliation and replaced it with the doctrine of flexible response. This doctrine negated the reliance on large intercontinental bombers and implied the need to increase conventional forces that could effectively counter insurgency movements. Deaile quotes President John Kennedy as saying, “There has got to be a better way than to contain communism with a direct confrontation nuclear bombwise.”
The book has seven chapters. Chapter 1 concerns the beginning of air power in the United States and demonstrates how attitudes affected its growth. Chapter 2 describes the past wartime experiences of individuals, some of whom would become future leaders of SAC. Chapter 3 shows why there was a need for an organization like SAC. LeMay is the subject of chapter 4; this may be the most interesting chapter because of his described views. Chapter 5 discusses how the Korean War, which was a limited war, could have an effect on a large military organization that was planned to be used in a larger type of war. The uniqueness of the SAC culture/environment is the subject of chapter 6. Chapter 7 shows how the presence of new weapons such as missiles could affect a military organization.
Various sources were used in writing Always at War. For example, interviews with former high ranking officers of SAC provided interesting anecdotal information. Deaile also sought out information from the National Archives and the Air Force Historical Research Agency. Thus, there was enough research material for the author to use when writing this interesting book. It is a work that will appeal to those of us who have a historical interest in air power and want to know more about how organizational characteristics may impact on the functioning of a major military organization.
Book Review written by: William E. Kelly, PhD, Auburn, Alabama