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UCI Libraries - The Quest for Peace Interviews: Curtis LeMay Interview Transcript
UCI Libraries: Quest for Peace

 

Critical Issues Before the Democracy

I SEE NOTHING BAD ABOUT AN ARMS RACE

Curtis E. LeMay, 1985

General of the Air Force, Curtis E. LeMay served as Commander of the Strategic Air Command and was appointed by President John F. Kennedy as Air Force Chief of Staff.

(Excerpt from President John F. Kennedy's comments about General Curtis E. LeMay at the time he appointed General LeMay as Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force and Member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff):

President John F. Kennedy: I want to express our great pleasure at the assumption of this responsibility by General LeMay. He was one of the most distinguished combat commanders in World War II, he played a most instrumental role in developing SAC into its present high peak as the great shield of the United States in the free world; so General, we want to say that, speaking personally, and also as President that it’s a great pleasure to welcome you as the new Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force and Member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

General Curtis E. LeMay: Mr. President, I appreciate very much your taking the time out from your busy schedule to participate in this ceremony. I’m sure you realize that for a member of the Armed Services that becoming Chief of Staff of the Service is the highest honor that can come to him.

(Excerpts from a commemorative Air Force film about the career of General Curtis E. LeMay):

To the extent that any one man can make a personal impression on an institution as large, complex and changing as the United States Air Force, General Curtis E. LeMay made that impression. He began to make it years ago. The days of the leather hats were not yet over in 1929, but the days of flying fools, of daredevils, barnstormers, and early pioneers had all but passed. The men who have stuck by the air business, General Billy Mitchell had said in 1925, have gone through its darkest days. The power of the air, Mitchell said then, is gradually assuming the dominating role which the future holds in store for it. In 1929, what has been called a decade of patience and progress lay ahead. These were the years in which the modern Air Force was taking shape. These were also the years in which a new generation of military pilots emerged. LeMay began as a fighter pilot with the 26th Pursuit Squadron at Southbridge Field. He met a girl named Helen Maitlin there, and before they were married he returned to Ohio State to complete his studies for an engineering degree. Later, he served with the 6th Pursuit Squadron and the 18th Pursuit Group in Hawaii. In 1936 the Air Corps had a strategic bombing capability, only in theory, and on the smallest scale. B10’s were still front-line aircraft in those days. And those were the days when Hitler was cold-bloodedly preparing total war. We could have peace in our time, Hitler promised in September of 1938. But Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain came home from Munich with only a scrap of paper in his hands.

"I want aeroplanes now; lots of them", President Roosevelt told his top military advisors the next day. Between December 1939 and December 1941 the Air Corps growth was phenomenal, from seventeen bases to 114 bases and still more in the mill. In these two years a leap was made from training 300 pilots to training 30,000 pilots a year. The number of navigators, bombardiers, mechanics and technicians grew at the same rate, and Lieutenant LeMay, a recent graduate of the Air Tactical School at Maxwell Field became progressively involved in the expanding need to train and deploy the growing force. From B-17 airplane commander, he moved up to become a Captain and Operations Officer of the 41st Reconnaissance Squadron; then he became Commander of the 7th Bomb Squadron, and later Operations Officer of the 34th Bomb Group. He moved up again in March of 1941 to Temporary Major. For all Americans, Pearl Harbor was a catastrophe. For men like LeMay it was even worse. Everything in which he believed, both as an airman and a citizen, was hit by the violence and the effectiveness of the Japanese attack. Months would pass before anyone could strike back. LeMay was often the first to prove new techniques on combat missions he led. Defensive bomber formations, straight-in bomb runs, the use of lead crews. These and other innovations for which he was esteemed were saving graces, not flamboyant risks. In August 1943 he introduced another. This time he led the 4th Bomb Wing on the first shuttle raid: Regensburg. Their mission accomplished, he led them on to a landing in North Africa. For this he won the Distinguished Service Cross. Later, on the following September 28th he became a Brigadier General.

In July 1944 the air war in Europe had reached a crescendo, but the tempo of the air assault on Japan was just beginning to increase. At this time, Major General LeMay was ordered to the Far East, commanding first the 20th Bomber Command in India and China, and later the 21st on Guam, he directed the bombing of the Japanese Islands. Again, as in Europe, he gave to his operation his distinctive touch. However heavy it may have sometimes seemed, the touch was always an essentially protective one: A push in the right direction toward the target with maximum bomb loads, then home to safety for another strike.

War ages men. War, LeMay said, is a very serious proposition: "In a war if you don’t kill the enemy he’s going to kill you. And besides every single day that this war lasts I lose my men." I expect, he said, to shorten this war, and shorten the war he did, not only with the B-17’s and the B-29, but also as Chief of Staff to General (Carl A.) Spaatz. With him, he helped to plan the atomic mission that led to the surrender of Japan.

End of commemorative air force film excerpts

At the ceremony marking his retirement in 1965, President of the United States Lyndon Johnson, said of General LeMay "Few officers are privileged to compress so many outstanding achievements into one career, or to leave behind so distinct and so indelible an imprint." The President concluded, "All the world can be grateful to you for your courage, tenacity, and exacting standards of professionalism. You ask of your men no more than you are willing to give, and you gave more than ever you were asked. And there is no finer mark of a leader of men."

Whiteley: General LeMay, as you’ve thought about the national security of the United States, one of the key components for you is military preparedness. What experiences have led you to that conclusion.

LeMay: In spite of the advice that our first President gave us when he left office, that if we wanted peace, be prepared for war, or words to that effect, we never have. For instance, our peacetime Army Air Corps before World War II was composed of about 1200 officers and about 10,000 men, and we expanded to two and a half million during the war. So you can see we were spread pretty thin.

Whiteley: What problems did you encounter in going from 10,000 to two and a half million?

LeMay: Well, every problem you can imagine and a few more. With that few people to start with, when we had to build an Air Force - we didn’t have one - we had to build an Air Force, we had to build the airplanes, had to build the factories to build the airplanes, had to train the workers to build them, get them built, debug them, test them, put them into combat, train the people to fly them in combat, and fight at the same time. And it got to be pretty hairy at times. We were really unprepared. No doubt about it, and this made an impression on me that I still have, and that is that no American ought to ever have to go through that experience again, and I swore that if I ever had an opportunity to do anything about it I would do it. Well, I had that opportunity when I commanded SAC.

Whiteley: One of the lessons that you want to share with your fellow citizens is that America in the nuclear age cannot afford a level of unpreparedness.

LeMay: Well, that is quite true. In 1941 and 1942 we had England propping us up until we got our factories in high gear and got producing what was necessary to win the war, but while we could build an Air Force and fight in those days, you can’t anymore. In this modern day and age you’re going to fight and win or lose with what you have at the time you start. There isn’t going to be any time to build after the military action starts.

Whiteley: A second insight that you’ve wanted to share is that in your view we are at war, we have been at war since World War II.

LeMay: Well, that’s true. It seems strange to me that so many people don’t realize the fact that we are at war with Communism whether we like it or not. I don’t understand why they don’t understand it because in Karl Marx’s first Manifesto he advocated for more revolution, overthrow of governments by peaceful means if possible, but by force if necessary. And then his heir to the throne was Engels, who flatly said you couldn’t do it by peaceful means. It would have to be by violent means. And every Communist leader ever since has reiterated that point: overthrow of governments by force; world Communism, that’s their goal, and they frankly admit it. And they keep telling us and telling us and telling us that over and over again. Mr. Khrushchev even took his shoe off and beat on the table at Geneva, and told us that he would bury us. So we are at war with Communism - that is their goal. We’re not shooting at the present time but we’re at war nevertheless. And if anyone who has any doubts in their mind about it should look at the past recent history in the last 40 years at what has happened. Russia has taken over, and not only so many ethnic groups and what as we now think of as Russia, but Latvia, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, China is Communist. Now they’re going into Africa, and now they’re coming into our section of the world, Central America. So we are definitely at war with Communism.

Whiteley: A third insight that you’ve offered is that the arms race as it is thought of is far superior to a war.

LeMay: Well, once you accept this premise that we are at war with Communism, then it becomes a matter of strategy, tactics, how are you going to fight it. We have say three choices. We can give in, become Communist; intolerable to me at least, many other people in this country, too. The second is we can have an allout war, a shooting war, or I think there’s a third that’s attractive to me, and that is that we can build our strength to such a point that it would be very unprofitable for them to attack us. That worked in the 1950’s when we built up the Strategic Air Command to a point where it was such a strong and professional force that no one dare attack it. It’s doubtful whether that’s still the case or not because we, in my opinion, made a unilateral decision to disarm in the late 1950’s, and we’ve gone downhill ever since while the Russians have gone uphill.

Whiteley: So in the model you use to describe a better way for America to be is "Peace through strength." You used the porcupine as an analogy for what you think is the preferred posture.

LeMay: That is correct: "Peace through strength." And leave no doubt in anybody’s mind about the strength being there. You hear them, the clamor from the left-wing that this will produce an arms race. I see nothing bad about an arms race. To me it is a cheaper way of winning the war, and we’ll win it that way. If we can’t outproduce the Communist system we don’t deserve to survive. And we can outproduce it, we have outproduced it, and will continue to outproduce it because it’s a better system. And this is a better way, a far better way in my mind of defeating them than to have an all-out war.

Whiteley: In applying your model of outproducing them to the notion of keeping peace through strength, where would you begin?

LeMay: Well I would begin with our strategic strength to start with.

Whiteley: What do you mean?

LeMay: I mean by our strategic power: the long-range missiles, at the present time the so-called Triad that the Defense Department talks about, the missiles, the airplanes, the submarines. That’s strategic strength, although I’d rely less and less on the missiles and more and more on the manned systems; go ahead with a vigorous research and development program in that field too. The so-called Star Wars is very much misjudged in my opinion as to what we mean by that.

Whiteley: What do you mean by that?

LeMay: I mean that a full scale research and development program across the board is going out into space, yes. I mean offensive weapons as well as defensive weapons.

Whiteley: Because for you technology is one of America’s strengths, as part of its effort at achieving peace through strength.

LeMay: That is correct and I do not want to violate one of the basic principles of war: You win no wars on the defense. What I’m afraid of in the Star Wars complex is that we’ll think that we can get a shield up there that will protect us from the missiles, and therefore that’s all we need, and we’ll wind up with another Maginot Line. The Maginot Line was a defensive fortification, lots of concrete, deep tunnels built between France and Germany to keep the German out. And France thought that they were protected. They weren’t protected at all; France fell in a few days of fighting. The defense, you must have just enough to make the enemy honest, but your real strength is in your offensive weapon systems.

Whiteley: So in your view the history of wars that have been fought in this century is very clear, that defense does not prevail.

LeMay: Well, that was just one war. There are many, many other instances throughout the history of warfare, that has definitely borne out.

Whiteley: As you think about the components of deterrence, that which has kept us from an active fighting war in the nuclear age, what are the key components?

LeMay: Well, sustaining strength first, and mainly air power. In this day and age you cannot undertake any military task unless you have superiority in air power, control of the air at least in the local situation where you’re going to operate. It can’t be done. So that’s the first priority.

Whiteley: For you the major component of deterrence is air power.

LeMay: Yes, that’s true - strategic air power followed up with a strong tactical air force in case land operations or sea operations are necessary.

Whiteley: What is your assessment of the state of America’s preparedness in air power today?

LeMay: Technically I think we’re still slightly ahead; in numbers we’re sadly outnumbered. And we must catch up in that regard.

Whiteley: You’ve indicated that there is no such thing as absolute deterrence, that military superiority is ultimately a better guarantee.

LeMay: No deterrence means that you’ve convinced your adversary of your strength. That may or may not be true. You may be skilled enough in propaganda to convincing you’re stronger than you actually are; I wouldn’t depend on it however, particularly in a democratic country in our open society such as we have. That’s pretty much impossible to do.

Whiteley: In your assessment of the components of national security you’ve singled out the need for military preparedness, you’ve singled out the need for military strength, that those are important bulwarks in a nuclear age against a shooting war. Another component that is included by some in thinking about national security is arms control, arms control agreements. What is your assessment of those agreements since World War II?

LeMay: I have absolutely no confidence in arms control agreements. Throughout history I don’t know of a single case where an arms control agreement has been successful in keeping peace, and I don’t believe it will in the future either, particularly in dealing with our main adversary at the present time, the Russians. Their performance in living up to treaties and agreements in the past has not been very good and they frankly admit that lying, cheating, stealing, and all of the vices as we see them are perfectly legitimate to advance the cause of the revolution. And they tell us that beforehand, so I don’t see that a treaty would be very helpful unless it’s greatly to the advantage of the Russian Revolution to carry it out. No, I certainly don’t want to place my defense in a position where it depends on an agreement such as that to; for my safety, I just can’t agree to it at all.

Whiteley: You raised the issue of the role of the military. You offered a military judgment about the Test Ban Treaty that it was not in the country’s interest. You further said that the true role of the military is to be the servant of the people. As you’ve thought about the use of the military given the role serving a democracy, you have real problems with using military force without intending to win. What do you see the problems to be?

LeMay: Well, military force has been used in the past by some peoples in that manner. I don’t think it can be used that way by the American people. It’s completely foreign to the way we do things in this country. Vietnam was an example of it. We were in that war for ten long years without any intention of winning it. Even sitting on the Joint Chiefs of Staff it didn’t dawn on me for a long, long time that that was the case. That we had no intention of winning the war.

Whiteley: How should military force be used?

LeMay: Once the decision is made to use military force, and I think it should be used, as quickly as possible, with as much strength as necessary, more strength than necessary probably, so you don’t miscalculate. The main thing is to get it over with as quickly as possible. Any prolonged war not only deteriorates the whole civilized world and all of society, it spends - wastes resources (let’s put it that way), wastes resources and this is not the way to officially do anything.

Whiteley: As you reflect on the use of military force, you’ve urged your fellow citizens not to be afraid to win.

LeMay: Well, I don’t quite understand what you mean by not be afraid to win. To me winning is the only solution if you don’t like the war. And if you don’t think you’re going to win, you might as well give up without going, unless you prefer to be dead and defeated.

Whiteley: You believe that it is possible to win a nuclear war.

LeMay: Well, it all depends on what your definition of "win" is. I think so. The price that you’ll pay for victory is more than I would want to pay, however. It’s going to be a high price in this day and age of the strength of the weapons that we are using, but I think it’s winnable.

Whiteley: As you’ve thought about the difficulties of nuclear war, a clear difference from the battles in World War II, what lessons do you want your fellow citizens to understand about preventing a nuclear war?

LeMay: Well, all war is bad in my opinion, and we ought to be smart enough to prevent war. We haven’t up to date. The little success we have had occurred in the 1950’s when we had superior strength on the Russians. At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis the Administration were wringing their hands; they thought that they had a narrow squeak or more. I never felt so happy in all my life. I knew we had - there was not the slightest chance of that - going to war over that incident, and because of the strength that we had versus the Russians, and they didn’t move. As a matter of fact we could have not only got the missiles out of Cuba as we did, we could have gotten the Communists out of Cuba too.

Whiteley: General LeMay, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the ways to prevent war in the nuclear age and achieving an enduring peace.