Bomber wars: Curtis LeMay, Robert McNamara and the B-70.

Author:Matusheski, Zachary M.



On a hot Colorado day in June 1964, Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, the outgoing Chief of Staff for the United States Air Force, looked at a collection of soon-to-be graduates of the Air Force Academy. He told the cadets they had three obligations. First, the cadets must continue the fight for "the maintenance of U.S. Strategic Advantage," or what LeMay called the "cornerstone" of deterrence. (1) Second, he advised students not to let "mutual stalemate" stand in their way because stalemate was false. (2) Third, U.S. security rested on "the continuous maintenance of superior military capabilities." (3) Although LeMay had lost his fight with Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara and the Kennedy Administration over the B-70 in 1962, he never stopped believing in the central importance of these forces and of technological superiority. His tenacity came not from service interest, but from how he viewed deterrence.

To understand LeMay, one must grasp his passion for machines, particularly airplanes. LeMay described as "divine" the first airplane he saw as a child. (4) He remembered wanting "not only the substance of the mysterious object, not only that part I could have touched with my hands. I wished also in a vague yet unforgettable fashion for the drive and speed and energy of the creature. I also needed to understand and possess the reason and purpose for this instrument--the Why of it as well as the What." (5) Young LeMay imagined that if he unlocked the secrets of the plane, he would gain super powers of speed and flight. (6)

As a member of the pre-World War II Army Air Corps, LeMay had expanded its capability by designing a celestial navigation machine. In the mid-1930s, the Army Air Corps could not fly long distances or over water. It used the roads below them for direction. The Army Air Corps decided to experiment with the navigational instruments to gain flight capabilities overseas. (7) After studying celestial navigation, LeMay helped design what he called the "celestial computer." The machine solved the celestial triangle, saving its user work with the help of trigonometry and logarithmic tables. (8) Here, LeMay learned that designing a machine could be helpful in solving a difficult puzzle, a lesson he would later employ in formulating a solution to problems relating to deterrence.

LeMay's entire career in the Army Air Corps, and later in the Air Force, taught him that technology was in constant motion. He began his career flying in a biplane and ended it by arguing for the B-70, an experimental two-man, six-engine Mach 3 bomber. After reflecting on his early days in the Army Air Corps, the newly minted Chief of the Air Force, LeMay, said before the Michigan Post of the American Ordnance Association:

In less than 60 years every nation on the face of the earth has been stripped of the traditional barriers to aggression. No longer is it necessary for an aggressor to conquer the seas and the land mass to strike directly at his target. Aerospace power can do this today. At this moment. This is one of the lessons we have learned and must not forget. This type of force in the hands of an aggressor is a constant threat to our existence. I feel that we have no recourse in light of our present circumstances but to continue to maintain superior aerospace forces that positively deter aggression. Should deterrence fail, these forces must be so constituted as to insure their survival and in addition they must be able to strike and restrike with a true war-waging and war-winning capability. To keep this capability, which we have today, we must look at tomorrow and not prepare for yesterday. (9)


Granted, more advanced planes in larger numbers benefited the Air Force, but beneath that logic, though, lay a lesson that LeMay had learned during his career: Technology was always improving. Because the United States and the Soviet Union were fully armed and competitive with each other, American security plans had to stay ahead of the Soviets in arms development.

LeMay's experience during World War II shaped his view of deterrence. Developments in flight during the war shattered the protective covering of geographic isolation. LeMay's deep involvement in strategic bombing convinced him that the strong application of air power was the key to winning the war. In 1946, LeMay believed that he:

... learned that you can use air power to destroy a nation's industrial potential and a nation's morale, and that if you do, you destroy its will and its ability to fight. You can conquer that nation whether you have conquered its armies in the field or not .... in our war against Japan we achieved unconditional surrender of the nation without landing a single soldier of an invading army on its well defended home soil. (10)

This statement revealed a degree of service interest; LeMay claimed his service defeated Japan. That noted, he believed that using bombers to run missions like those in Japan won the war. (11) His strong opinion on the matter shaped the early post-World War II Air Force--a branch that could have developed missiles after the war instead of bombers.

LeMay observed that the machines of war worked better with people at the helm. The human element in the application of air power encouraged innovation. LeMay created an open dialogue with the pilots under his command. He invited his men to criticize his leadership during the war, hoping to create an atmosphere of innovation. If he sensed tiredness or frustration, he moved his men around to either different types of planes or non-flying duty. (12) After the war, he was an advocate for his men. In a speech shortly after the war's end, he argued for compassion for the returning veterans. In one speech, he declared that there was nothing wrong with returning veterans "that a while at home will not cure." (13) He praised the intelligence and competency of the returning veterans. LeMay opened his speech by proclaiming, "I know of no assignment which could give me more pleasure than this one: to tell you business leaders something of the American boy as I saw him in combat. It is an opportunity for which I am extremely grateful." (14) Later, as Air Chief, he would remind audiences that people mattered just as much as weapons themselves. He usually connected this belief with the efficacy of the manned bomber in America's arsenal.

The manned bomber and the Air Force fared well under President Truman. Eisenhower supported a policy of massive nuclear retaliation to maintain international peace, a policy that benefited the Air Force. (15) The situation changed, however, in the Kennedy administration. Kennedy had a broad vision for changing security policy called "flexible response" that would move away from reliance on nuclear weapons and focus on giving the presidency a diversified set of tools with which to respond to a threat. Forced to reorganize the Pentagon to fit this plan, Kennedy hired Robert S. McNamara to do the job.

Like most of his generation, McNamara had served in World War II. He saw no direct combat, however. After college, McNamara got a degree from Harvard Business School where he learned that all business was the same and thus could be managed the same way. All a manager needed was the "facts" of the enterprise. (16) When McNamara first entered the Pentagon, he immediately used the lessons he had learned at Harvard. Instead of sitting down with generals and working with those already in the organization, he invited outsiders to hold managerial positions. He first hired Charles Hitch as a comptroller, doing so because he admired Hatch's The Economics of Defense in a Nuclear Age. In that book, Hitch advocated applying "systems analysis" to defense problems, contending that an examination of weapons development, disarmament, deterrence, and intelligence could enhance strategy. (17) Hitch's philosophy was to match strategies to what he and his team thought the enemy's plans were. Following the creed of "systems analysis," Hitch and others believed that war could be managed like a business. As such, this camp rejected LeMay's view that deterrence required an endless technological arms race.


Many of McNamara's hires also came from the offices of the RAND Corporation. RAND was a pseudo-public entity that was created after World War II to help the future Air Force make informed decisions. (18) However, members of RAND often contradicted Air Force policy, as did Albert Wohlstetter, the most influential of all of the RAND strategists. At that time, the Air Force was most concerned with...

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