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Winning Armageddon: Curtis LeMay and Strategic Air Command, 1948–1957

Winning Armageddon: Curtis LeMay and Strategic Air Command, 1948–1957 by Trevor Albertson. Naval Institute Press, 2019, 270 pp. 

Having done my active duty Air Force service in the late 1980s as a flight test engineer on bomber and cruise missile programs, I didn’t have a need to know about the Strategic Air Command (SAC) war plans. But between widely publicized national policy and the requirements for the weapon systems that I tested, it wasn’t difficult to infer the strategy and doctrine, at least in general terms. The American strategic nuclear forces operated by SAC and the US Navy needed the ability to survive an attack by Soviet offensive forces and then penetrate Soviet defense forces under any conceivable set of circumstances to deliver a devastating and fatal blow to Soviet power. With the Soviet Union having no chance of surviving a nuclear war as a functional state, the Soviet leadership would be deterred from launching a nuclear attack or conducting coercive diplomacy using the threat of an attack. This strategy seemed like such an obvious and effective one that it must have always been this way. 

Except it wasn’t always this way. SAC had been formed in 1946, but it took the assumption of command by Gen Curtis E. LeMay to turn it into the highly-trained and “always at war” nuclear strike force of renown. The story of SAC and LeMay has been extensively covered in the literature and yet another book going down that well-trodden path would have been unnecessary. In Winged Armageddon, Trevor Albertson, an academic and former Air Force officer, explores a different angle to the SAC/LeMay story. Largely based on LeMay’s archived papers, Albertson tells enough of the SAC story to provide context. But the central thesis of the book is that LeMay strongly advocated a policy of a preemptive first strike on the Soviet Union and not a policy of deterrence through an assured retaliatory capability. 

As told by Albertson, LeMay advocated preemption but not preventative war. Preemptive war and preventative war sound similar, but LeMay clearly distinguished between the two (p. 14, pp. 42–43). In LeMay’s thinking, a preventative war was an offensive act against a foe that posed a general but not a specific threat. In contrast, a preemptive war, although also a first strike, was a fundamentally defensive act to blunt an enemy’s imminent attack. To LeMay, the proper target for preemption was an enemy’s airpower, not his cities. Most of the book covers the evolution of LeMay’s thinking about preemptive attacks and his attempts to advocate a preemptive doctrine, both to the public and within the Air Force and government. 

While Albertson’s thesis is well-supported in this book, he leaves two critical questions unanswered. 

An effective preemptive counterforce attack requires superb intelligence, both accurate and timely. Given that during LeMay’s tenure as commander of SAC, the only photographic intelligence of Soviet targets was obtained by rare and sporadic overflights, what gave LeMay confidence that intelligence was adequate to execute a preemptive attack? 

In the US, the ultimate decisions about when and how to go to war are made by the elected civilian leaders, not by military officers. There are some brief mentions of Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, but there is insufficient information to know the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with LeMay. Albertson does not tell us if a doctrine of preemption was merely LeMay’s recommendation or adopted as national policy. Presumably (but not necessarily), SAC war plans of the period were based on preemption, but were those war plans congruent with national policy? Was the effect of preemptive war plans to lock national leadership into a type of war not necessarily of their choosing? 

Winning Armageddon is readable and provocative, but it raises at least as many questions as it answers. Since the policy makers from the period 1948–57 have long passed away, our only hope of answers to these questions lies in declassified archives from the period. Let’s hope that researchers are using them to better understand this critical period in the history of the Cold War. 

Kenneth P. Katz 

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