Always at War: Organizational Culture in Strategic Air Command, 1946–62 (Transforming War)

  • Published

Always at War: Organizational Culture in Strategic Air Command, 1946–62 (Transforming War) by Melvin G. Deaile. Naval Institute Press, 2018, 328 pp.

Always at War examines the creation and formation of culture in the best-known command in the Cold War US Air Force: the Strategic Air Command (SAC). Melvin G. Deaile, a retired USAF bomber pilot, argues that SAC’s culture stemmed from a shared World War II experience and prioritized standardization, centralization of authority, and specialization. The work, Deaile’s revised 2007 University of North Caroline dissertation, relies on Air Force archival records, the personal papers of senior USAF officers, and some oral history interviews conducted with SAC veterans. Drawing upon the work of Edgar Schein on organizational culture, Deaile uses a foundationalist perspective that emphasizes the influence of group leaders in forming culture. In particular, he focuses on Gen Curtis E. LeMay and Gen Thomas S. Power who together commanded SAC for 16 years beginning in 1948.

The book begins by examining pilot culture in the Army Air Corps before World War II. Pilots tended to view themselves as a separate, superior group compared to other officers due to several factors: they received extra pay, the high attrition rate due to accidents, and the difficulty of passing the physical entrance exams. Within the pilot community, officer standing depended on physical characteristics such as flying skill and hand-eye coordination. SAC imported this pilot culture and consequently prized flying skill as the principal characteristic of leaders. The second chapter traces the shared experience of SAC’s leaders in World War II. LeMay’s initial experiences with the bombing campaign against Germany taught him the value of standardized training that eliminated individual squadron or wing eccentricities. Furthermore, a successful mission required each member of a bomber’s crew to focus on performing their specialized task. SAC reflected this World War II-inspired emphasis on specialization. Finally, LeMay insisted on realistic training for his bomber crews, which, in turn, led to a culture that prized constant readiness. LeMay carried these priorities with him when he went to the Pacific to direct the strategic bombing campaign against Japan based in the Mariana Islands. The Navy’s struggle to keep his bombers fully supplied with incendiary weapons shaped SAC’s reluctance to depend on the other services or branches of the Air Force. LeMay’s Pacific command stood outside the theater command structure and reported directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, another model that SAC followed.

SAC’s first commander, Gen George C. Kenney (1946–48), struggled to bring his squadrons up to combat readiness in the midst of postwar demobilization. While the US alone held the atomic bomb, the problems with SAC’s bomber squadrons meant that America’s atomic capability provided a relatively hollow deterrent, as historian John M. Curatola noted in Bigger Bombs for a Brighter Tomorrow (2015).

LeMay took command of SAC in 1948 and began to turn the force around. He instituted standardized procedures, required realistic training, and worked to provide better housing for SAC personnel, believing that improved housing would attract better people. He also brought the reconnaissance, weather, and transport aircraft required to execute a bombing campaign against the Soviet Union into SAC. LeMay believed that just as bomber crews needed to focus on their specialized task—strategic bombing—so, too, these supporting units needed to focus on their specialized task of making the bombing campaign possible. This approach not only helped integrate SAC’s various constituent parts but expanded SAC’s influence within the larger Air Force. Under LeMay, standardization and constant evaluation became the hallmarks of SAC culture, along with an emphasis on operating on a permanent wartime footing. LeMay left his mark on SAC which came to prize independent, self-sufficient operations. The Korean War showed one potential downside to this approach in that SAC formations in Korea insisted that other units in the Far East Air Forces adjust their routines to fit SAC’s methods, rather than the other way around.

By the mid-1950s the development of longer-range bombers allowed SAC to end rotational deployments to overseas locations. The newer aircraft could reach the Soviet Union with aerial refueling, reducing the need to operate from bases in the United Kingdom or Morocco. SAC’s leaders welcomed this shift as theater commanders such as the US European Command commander would no longer be able to exert authority over SAC units deployed into their area of operations. This redeployment corresponded with massive growth in the size of SAC. By 1956, the command had more than 60 wings of aircraft with more assets than the largest corporation in America.

SAC’s operations exacted a heavy toll on its personnel. Deaile describes the experience of spending hours on alert and flying long bomber missions. Long working hours impacted spouses and children, straining marriages and relationships. SAC’s leaders sought to alleviate this pressure through auto hobby clubs, wives groups, and sporting shooting organizations. Like everything else in SAC, the participation in these groups was monitored and recorded.

By the late 1950s, the ongoing development of ballistic missiles introduced a new subculture into SAC: the missileers. The crews who manned the launch control centers for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) formed a distinct group within SAC, although pilot culture remained dominant. In contrast to pilots, who prized physical skills such as hand-eye coordination, the missile field emphasized technical education. General Powers, who did not have a college degree, stood in contrast to the missileers who generally held  bachelor’s degrees. The introduction of ICBMs also added an element of fear to SAC’s culture as the force sought to prevent Soviet missiles from destroying America’s bombers on the ground.

Deaile’s book joins a growing number of works on America’s early Cold War nuclear force. A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon (2009), Neil Sheehan’s biography of ICBM pioneer Gen Bernard A. Schriever, is likely the most widely read. In 2012, Francis J. Gavin published Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age, a revisionist account of US nuclear history, challenging much of the received wisdom. More recently Curatola highlighted the Truman administration’s struggle to develop an efficient nuclear deterrent in the late 1940s in Bigger Bombs for a Brighter Tomorrow: The Strategic Air Command and American War Plans at the Dawn of the Atomic Age, 1945-1950. In To Kill Nations: American Strategy in the Air-Atomic Age and the Rise of Mutually Assured Destruction, Edward Kaplan examined the development of Air Force nuclear strategy and thinking in the same period covered by Deaile. Gavin, Curatola, Kaplan, and Deaile all benefited from recently declassified sources that only now allow historians to thoroughly examine the nuclear history of the early Cold War using primary sources.

Deaile’s book makes a significant contribution to this growing subfield of Cold War military history. His use of organizational culture theory is illuminating without being overly dense. He clearly demonstrates the strong connections between the experience of World War II and choices made in the early Cold War, a link too often ignored. The historical and bureaucratic context during which SAC came into existence exerted powerful influences on the new command. As a well-written account of his important Air Force organization, Always at War is recommended for general readers interested in aviation history as well as specialist scholars.

Dr. Corbin Williamson
Maxwell AFB, Alabama

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."