Curtis Emerson LeMay was born in Columbus, Ohio, on 15th November 1906. He studied civil engineering at Ohio State University. LeMay joined the United States Air Corps in 1928. Two years later he was commissioned as a second lieutenant.
In January 1937 he joined the Air Force GHQ at Langley Field. He was a co-pilot of a B-24 Liberator that in August 1941 made a record-breaking flight of almost 25,000 miles. On the plane was W. Averell Harriman, who was on a survey of routes the Ferrying Command would use to deliver Lend Lease to the Soviet Union.
When the United States entered the Second World War after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, LeMay was a lieutenant colonel and commander of the 305th Bomb Group. Five months later he was given the responsibility of taking the B-17 Flying Fortress unit to England. While based in England he pioneered daylight bombing, which the RAF had abandoned as it resulted in the deaths of too many men.
LeMay developed special defensive tactics that included tight formations for mutual support. He was also an advocate pattern bombing from lower altitudes. These tactics were fairly successful and the 305 Bomb Group lost only 13 planes in 25 missions.
The introduction of P-47 Thunderbolt fighters made B-17 Flying Fortress missions much more effective. On 17th August 1943 LeMay led 126 B-17 aircraft to bomb Germany before being refueled in North Africa. On their return flight they attacked the Focke-Wulf plant in Bordeaux.
Curtis LeMay was promoted to brigadier general on 28th September 1943. The following year he took over the 20th Bomb Group. Starting in August 1944, Lemay organized the bombing of targets in China, Manchuria and Japan.
On 20th January 1945 he appointed as head of 21st Bomb Group based on Guam. By this time the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Force had devised the strategy of creation firestorms. This was achieved by dropping incendiary bombs, filled with highly combustible chemicals such as magnesium, phosphorus or petroleum jelly (napalm), in clusters over a specific target. After the area caught fire, the air above the bombed area, become extremely hot and rose rapidly. Cold air then rushed in at ground level from the outside and people were sucked into the fire.
This strategy was used successfully by LeMay in Japan. During 1945 some 100,000 tons of incendiaries were dropped on 66 cities killing over 260,000 people and destroying an estimated 2,210,000 buildings. The large number of Japanese buildings made of wood made it easy for the bombers to create firestorms. On the 9th and 10th March 1945, a raid on Tokyo devastated the city. Robert McNamara, who served with LeMay during the war, later claimed that they would have been prosecuted as war criminals if the United States had lost the war.
Curtis LeMay was involved in the discussions concerning the use of the B-29 Stratafortress bomber to drop the atom bomb on Japan. He helped select the targets of Hiroshima (6th August) and Nagasaki (9th August). On 10th August the Japanese surrendered. The Second World War was over.
After the war Major General LeMay commanded the USAF in Europe. In 1948 he directed the highly complex Berlin Airlift. In 1951 LeMay became the youngest full general in American history since Ulysses S. Grant.
In 1949, LeMay was appointed as head of Strategic Air Command (SAC) and is credited with overseeing its transformation into a modern air force. LeMay was appointed Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force in July 1957, serving until 1961 when he was made the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force. In this post he clashed repeatedly with President John F. Kennedy and his Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara.
LeMay believed that nuclear war with the Soviet Union was inevitable. According to the Washington Post (19th July, 1961) he told people at a Georgetown dinner party that a nuclear war would break-out later that year and that major cities such as Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit would be destroyed.
On 20th July, 1961, at a National Security Council meeting, General Lyman Lemnitzer presented John F. Kennedy with an official plan for a surprise nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Kennedy was disgusted and walked out of the meeting and later remarked to Secretary of State Dean Rusk "and we call ourselves the human race."
Robert McNamara told David Talbot in an interview for the book Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years about Curtis LeMay's views on nuclear war. "LeMay's view was very simple. He thought the West, and the U.S. in particular, was going to have to fight a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, and he was absolutely certain of that. Therefore, he believed that we should fight it sooner rather than later, when we had a greater advantage in nuclear power, and it would result in fewer casualties in the United States."
LeMay argued that the United States should launch 5,000 missiles on the Soviet Union. He was convinced this would destroy their 350 nuclear missiles and therefore prevent an attack on the United States. John F. Kennedy and Robert McNamara rejected this strategy as immoral.
On 13th March, 1962, General Lyman Lemnitzer, with the support of Lemay, presented Robert McNamara with a top-secret memo, urging President Kennedy to order a variety of shocking incidents to create a rationale for invading Cuba. Code named Operation Northwoods, the memo suggested that the administration should arrange a terror campaign in Miami and Washington that would create international revulsion against the government of Fidel Castro.
President John F. Kennedy summoned Lemnitzer to the Oval Office on 16th March, 1962, where they discussed Operation Northwoods. Kennedy rejected the idea and three months later he told Lemnitzer that he was being moved from the Pentagon to become Commander of U.S. Forces in Europe.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in September 1962, LeMay wanted to bomb nuclear sites in Cuba. When John F. Kennedy asked LeMay how the Soviet Union would respond if the United States bombed their missiles in Cuba. He replied that they would "do nothing". Kennedy argued for a blockade of Cuba. LeMay responded by accusing the president of acting like Neville Chamberlain during the Munich Crisis and that the blockade scheme as "almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich".
Ted Sorensen, who was at the meeting later commented: "Telling Kennedy this is like Munich, is too soft, and the American people will think so too! That's what outraged me - a general telling the president of the United States what the people think."
Thirteen days after the crisis began, Nikita Khrushchev announced that he would withdraw the missiles from Cuba. He opposed the naval blockade, and after the end of the crisis, suggested that Cuba be invaded anyway, even after the Russians agreed to withdraw. LeMay told a friend: "We had a chance to throw the Communists out of Cuba. But the (Kennedy) administration was scared to death (the Soviet Union) might shoot a missile at us."
After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Curtis LeMay enjoyed a better relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson. LeMay argued that by using the latest technology, North Vietnam could be blasted "back to the Stone Age." Others pointed out that "terror" raids on civilian populations during the Second World War had not proved successful and claimed that a better strategy would be to bomb selected targets such as military bases and fuel depots.
Lyndon B. Johnson preferred the latter proposal but was aware he would have difficulty convincing the American public and the rest of the world that such action was justified. He therefore gave permission for a plan to be put into operation that he surmised would eventually enable him to carry out the bombing raids on North Vietnam.
Operation Plan 34A involved the sending of Asian mercenaries into North Vietnam to carry out acts of sabotage and the kidnapping or killing of communist officials. As part of this plan, it was decided to send US destroyers into North Vietnamese waters to obtain information on their naval defences. On August 2, 1964, the US destroyer, "Maddox" was fired upon by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. In retaliation, "Maddox" fired back and hit all three, one of which sank. The "Maddox" then retreated into international waters but the next day it was ordered to return to the Gulf of Tonkin.
Soon after entering North Vietnamese waters, Captain Herrick reported that he was under attack. However, later he sent a message that raised doubts about this: "Review of action makes reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather reports and over-eager sonar men may have accounted for many reports. No actual sightings by "Maddox". Suggest complete evaluation before further action."
Lyndon B. Johnson now had the excuse he had been waiting for and ignored Captain Herrick's second message. He ordered the bombing of four North Vietnamese torpedo-boat bases and an oil-storage depot that had been planned three months previously. Johnson then went on television and told the American people that: "Repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met not only with alert defence, but with a positive reply. That reply is being given as I speak tonight."
The Congress approved Johnson's decision to bomb North Vietnam and passed what has become known as the Gulf of Tonkin resolution by the Senate by 88 votes to 2 and in the House of Representatives by 416 to 0. This resolution authorised the President to take all necessary measures against Vietnam and the NLF.
On 2nd March, 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson telephoned Robert McNamara, to prepare a statement on Vietnam. Two days later, McNamara issued a statement rejecting withdrawal, neutralization, or American ground troops. This was discussed with the five Joint Chiefs of Staff. General Maxwell Taylor argued for “the progressive and selective attack against targets in North Vietnam”. General LeMay advocated an immediate “hard blow”. Johnson replied he did “not want to start a war before November” (the date of the 1964 presidential election).
The Republican Party surprisingly nominated the extreme conservative, Barry Goldwater. During the election campaign Goldwater called for an escalation of the war against the North Vietnamese. In comparison to Goldwater, Johnson was seen as the 'peace' candidate. People feared that Goldwater would send troops to fight in Vietnam. Johnson, on the other hand, argued that he was not willing: "to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves."
In the 1964 presidential election. Lyndon B. Johnson, who had been a popular leader during his year in office, easily defeated Goldwater by 42,328,350 votes to 26,640,178. Johnson gained 61 per cent of the popular vote, giving him the largest majority ever achieved by an American president.
After the election LeMay was disappointed that Lyndon B. Johnson did not order a sustained bombing campaign like the one he organized against Germany and Japan during the Second World War. Once again LeMay clashed with Robert McNamara. According to Daniel Ellsberg McNamara was the main person responsible from stopping LeMay "from firebombing or nuking Vietnam".
In February, 1965, General Curtis LeMay retired from the army. Patrick J. Frawley of the right-wing pressure group, the American Security Council (ASC), approached LeMay about standing against liberal Senator Thomas Kuchel. However, the candidacy went to Max Rafferty, who unseated Kuchel in the primary but lost to Democrat Alan Cranston in the election.
George Wallace, the racial segregationist, persuaded LeMay to become his running-mate in the newly formed American Independent Party. Wallace had a 21% approval rating until LeMay gave a nationally televised press conference where he argued that the government should consider using nuclear weapons to bring an end to the Vietnam War. This shocked the American public and LeMay's comments helped Richard Nixon win an easy victory in 1968.
Curtis LeMay died on 1st October, 1990.