The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 17, 2018

LeMay, Curtis
Thomas F. Bertonneau - 03/04/11
Lifespan: (1906–1990)

Born in 1906 in Columbus, Ohio, Curtis LeMay brought his engineering degree to the United States Army Air Force, skipping West Point and earning a commission through reserve officer training (1928). He rose through the ranks as an enthusiastic proponent of air power and his tactics eventually inspired the slogan “Bombs away with Curtis LeMay.”

As a young general officer, “Iron Pants” LeMay commanded the Eighth Air Force in Europe, arranging thousand-plane missions to obliterate heavy industry in Hitler’s Germany. In 1944, LeMay went to the Pacific and got control of a new weapon, the Boeing B-29 heavy bomber. LeMay ordered the B-29 fleet stripped of defensive armament, filled its bomb-bays with incendiaries, and began the relentless drill of reducing metropolitan Japan to ashes in massive low-level raids. LeMay planned and oversaw the Berlin Air Lift of 1948. He became head of the postwar independent Air Force shortly thereafter. He organized the Strategic Air Command and lobbied for the hydrogen bomb, with which he then armed his more than two thousand B-47s and B-52s. If Richard Rhodes may be believed, LeMay hoped to provoke the Soviet Union into a war, once sending a stream of B-36 “Peacemakers” over Vladivostok. LeMay calculated that it was the threat of unilateral, not of mutual, assured destruction that would deter communist aggression. Sterling Hayden’s cigar-chewing General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove savagely parodies LeMay. The portrayal no doubt sums up the way in which LeMay appeared to the Left. A consummate Cold Warrior, LeMay teamed with Governor George Wallace as a vice presidential hopeful in 1968. The embodiment of uniformed pugnacity and the aerial equivalent of the tank-general Patton, LeMay died in 1990, after more than twenty years of peaceful retirement.

Further Reading
  • LeMay, Curtis E., with MacKinlay Kantor. Mission with LeMay: My Story. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965.
  • LeMay, Curtis E., and Bill Lenne. Superfortress: The Story of the B-29 and American Air Power. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.
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