‘Winning Armageddon’ Offers New Insights into the Cold War

 

The United States won the Cold War, a victory so complete its main adversary, the Soviet Union, vanished, replaced by a collection of independent nations. The foundation of that American victory was the security provided by the Strategic Air Command.

“Winning Armageddon: Curtis LeMay and Strategic Air Command, 1948–1957,” by Trevor Albertson, tells how that foundation was built.

LeMay took charge of the Strategic Air Command in 1948. It was then an organization unable to achieve its mission — protecting the United States by deterring attacks from the Soviet heartland. LeMay left SAC in 1957. It had become a world-spanning unit with outstanding discipline and readiness.

Albertson shows how this transformation took place. Under LeMay’s prodding, inadequate B-29 and B-50 bombers were replaced by the more advanced B-36, followed by the B-47, and ultimately the B-52 jet bombers, which remains in use today.

Albertson also demonstrates LeMay’s emphasis on infrastructure and training. LeMay arranged for the creation of air bases and supply centers to support SAC. This wasn’t limited to infrastructure supporting the aircraft, such as runways and hangers. LeMay actively pursued better quality enlisted housing and mess halls. Improving his men’s quality of life was a priority. In return, LeMay demanded competence. This was developed by incessant training.

Albertson reveals the evolution of LeMay’s strategic thinking. When LeMay took command of SAC, the emphasis was on targeting enemy population centers, the major cities containing industry and government. LeMay shifted that to a focus on destroying the enemy’s capability to strike the United States. A first strike would be made at enemy aircraft and missile bases, not cities. He also favored preemption — striking before a potential enemy launched their first strike.

“Winning Armageddon” reveals LeMay as more nuanced than his warmongering public image. He didn’t want war; he sought to protect the United States. He advocated preemption because he felt it more useful than retaliation. Preemption could end the war before it was necessary to target enemy cities.

Those seeking a fresh view of and new insights about the early days of the Cold War will find “Winning Armageddon” worthwhile.

“Winning Armageddon: Curtis LeMay and Strategic Air Command, 1948–1957,” by Trevor Albertson, Naval Institute Press, 2019, 304 pages. $40

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.

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  1. Tex929rr Coolidge
    Tex929rr
    @Tex929rr

    SAC was such a world unto itself that its dismantling was a huge surprise to me.  I wonder how the Air Force ever merged SAC and TAC into Air Combat Command.  It must have been something.  

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  2. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    What about ballistic missiles?  From a bio of General Bernard Schriever, who ran USAF ballistic missile programs, I got the impression that LeMay had not been very supportive of the missile effort in general or of Schriever in particular.

    A Fiery Peace in a Cold War

    • #2
  3. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    David Foster (View Comment):
    programs, I got the impression that LeMay had not been very supportive of the missile effort in general or of Schriever in particular.

    Book ends with LeMay’s departure of SAC in 1957. LeMay opposed deployment of ballistic missiles at that time because of concerns about reliability. At one point earlier in the book LeMay had a large number of B-47s inoperable due to design flaws. They were fixed, but between 1951 and 1953 LeMay was running a bluff with his B-47s. (Fortunately the Soviets were also bluffing about their capability to hit us and neither side was ready to call the other’s bluff.) 

    When the ballistic missile came along one thought LeMay had was been there, done that with the B-47s. He wanted greater reliability before depending on them. The second thought was they were a lot less accurate than bombers.  Why was that important? Because LeMay wanted to move away from targeting cities, instead targeting air and missile bases. He could attack military installations with sufficient accuracy using bombers. If we abandoned bombers in favor of ballistic missiles with 1950s accuracy we would again have to target cities and LeMay did not like that.

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  4. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Seawriter: “Winning Armageddon” reveals LeMay as more nuanced than his warmongering public image.

    Public images are seldom close to the truth.

    • #4
  5. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Seawriter: “Winning Armageddon” reveals LeMay as more nuanced than his warmongering public image.

    Public images are seldom close to the truth.

    I can attest to this as my followers refuse to understand that my god-like image only rarely reflects my demigod-like reality. 

    • #5
  6. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    After the end of WWII one thing that was produced with SAC, and the Boomers (Polaris, Poseidon, and Trident submarines) was the end of a major land grab by the Soviet Union in Europe. An uneasy peace at times to be sure, but Russian tanks never found their way to Normandy.

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  7. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    What do you reckon causes all the smoke coming out of the fuselage?

    • #7
  8. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    What do you reckon causes all the smoke coming out of the fuselage?

    My guess would be JATO rockets. Jet Assisted Take Off. They were also used by C-130’s for quick take-offs when resupplying forward fire bases in Vietnam. The rumor is that no more JATO’s exist. 

     

    • #8
  9. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    IIRC there was an article in a magazine called “Invention and Technology” that the Air Force ran tests of its ability to intercept Soviet bombers coming over the arctic circle. B-47s were used as the bad guys. The tests were run on Sundays with all commercial traffic grounded. Something like 90% of the bombers got through the DEW Line and the interceptors even when we knew it was coming and there were no other planes in the air. The last test was cancelled because the earlier ones had shown such a dramatic failure of our ability to intercept. We lived through those days with a very false sense of security, if indeed these were the facts. Perhaps the Russian defenses were just as bad, or at least they thought they were. I have lost the magazine and have not found the article on-line.

    • #9

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