Curtis Emerson LeMay, the youngest and longest-serving general in modern American history, rose from obscurity, lacking social graces, old-boy connections, or lineage, to become America’s most innovative and—to this day—controversial military commander.
In 1945, LeMay was a national hero, celebrated in victory parades and on the cover of Time magazine. Twenty years later, everything had changed. Hollywood and the press vilified him. He was parodied as the mad general in Dr. Strangelove, longing for a nuclear exchange with the Soviets. In a searing essay, journalist I. F. Stone labeled him the “Caveman in a Jet Bomber.” At best he was considered a brutish thug; at worst, he was portrayed as demented. Oddly, LeMay never refuted his detractors and even seemed to encourage his negative reputation. “Many people you come up against in the world are all form and no substance,” observed Judge Ralph Nutter, who flew with LeMay throughout the war. “LeMay was the opposite . . . he was all substance and no form.”
Curtis LeMay’s career spanned an extraordinary time in America. He began flying bi-winged, open cockpit planes in the 1920s, commanded America’s postwar fleet of giant B-52 bombers, and ended his career in an age of intercontinental nuclear missiles. During World War II, LeMay helped turn the bombing effort over Europe from an ineffective and costly failure into a success. He was also the architect behind the firebombing of Tokyo and sixty-four other Japanese cities. But his enemy was not just the Germans and Japanese; he also fought complacent bureaucracy, laziness, and stupidity.
For three years, day and night, LeMay concentrated his very capable intellect on the new science of destroying property and killing people with aerial bombing. In his firebombing campaign over Japan, LeMay ordered the deaths of more civilians than any other military officer in American history—well over 300,000 and perhaps as many as half a million. No one else comes close—not Ulysses S. Grant, not William T. Sherman, and not George S. Patton. Yet in the strange calculus of war, by killing so many human beings, LeMay saved millions more by making an invasion of Japan unnecessary. Most people would not want to make that kind of decision—killing vast numbers of human beings in order to save even more. It requires someone with a ruthless sense of realism— and if LeMay was anything, he was a realist.
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