“He wasn’t the man that I – and my entire generation – had been led to believe.” – Author Warren Kozak discusses Curtis LeMay: Strategist and Tactician

I just sat back in my chair and had the realization: “My God, what if he had been on the other side?”

In November 1910 a four-year-old boy looked up into the sky above his home in a run-down section of Columbus, Ohio. To his amazement, and quite contrary to the laws of gravity, he saw there a flying machine, a Model B Wright Flyer. The boy set off in hot-footed pursuit, through lawns, streets and fields, chasing the airplane until eventually he lost sight of it. “It came from nowhere,” General Curtis LeMay wrote decades later, “…and I wanted to catch it.”

During WW2, LeMay oversaw incendiary bombing raids on 67 Japanese cities. In a three-hour period the firebombing of Tokyo killed an estimated 100,000 civilians, destroyed 250,000 buildings, and incinerated 16 square miles of the city. LeMay was unapologetic for the devastation. ”We’re at war with Japan. We were attacked by Japan. Do you want to kill Japanese, or would you rather have Americans killed?”

In a candid and challenging biography journalist and author Warren Kozak untangles many of the inconsistencies knotted together in the peculiar genius of Curtis LeMay (1906-90). Kozak unflinchingly sets his subject in context. LeMay’s times included the interwar depression years; the founding of American airpower; the European and Pacific theatres of WW2; the Berlin airlift; the reorganization of America’s Strategic Air Command and the brinksmanship of nuclear war; LeMay’s service as Chief of Staff of the US Air Force (1961-5); and (perhaps most controversially) his idiosyncratic run alongside former Alabama Governor George Wallace on an Independent ticket in the 1968 Presidential Election.

Curtis LeMay: Strategist and Tactician (published by Regnery History; Reissue edition September 9, 2014) To find out more click here.

Why Curtis LeMay?

Probably the best question because he isn’t an obvious war hero or glamorous in the slightest. But I discovered that he wasn’t the man that I – and my entire generation – had been led to believe. In the 1960s, Curtis LeMay became the caricature of the inhuman, brutal militarist. He was the George C. Scott character in Dr. Strangelove. Leftist journalist I.F. Stone called him “the caveman in the jet bomber.” He was completely dismissed by an entire generation and the country that he helped save.

I had the same attitude … based on nothing. And it was a throw-away line in a college lecture years before that always stayed with me. “You may not agree with his politics, but if you have a son serving in combat, you want him serving under someone like LeMay.” I thought that if you could entrust your child’s life to this man, there had to be more to him than the one-dimensional view I was given.

In pop culture LeMay became something of a ludicrous figure. He was the caveman in a jet bomber, a source of inspiration for Dr. Strangelove. What are the more important features to be observed once the satirical fog lifts?

When I started to research him and when I spoke to men who served under him, I found that depiction wasn’t true at all. He was brilliant, incredibly brave and cared deeply about the men who served under him. He also cared about the country he swore to protect and took his job very seriously.

The problem was that LeMay didn’t give a damn what anyone thought of him. In an era when political figures and celebrities spend vast sums of money on image makers – who coach them on what to say, how to say it and even what to wear – LeMay went in the opposite direction. He only cared about doing his job and in a strange way, he almost cultivated the sour image.

LeMay arrived in England with 35 B-17 bombers in 1942. His pilots were so inexperienced that he was afraid they wouldn’t even make it across the Atlantic. And he knew they were going to go up against the best air force in the world at that time – the Luftwaffe. So LeMay came up with one ingenious strategy after another – all of which were quickly adopted by the entire air force because they worked. The man worked 24 hours a day developing a whole new type of warfare.

Perhaps the most important skill came on his first mission. When he ordered his crews to fly straight into the target – right through the flak – they balked. They thought they would be slaughtered. But then he demonstrated the most important form of military leadership – he told the crews he believed they could take it and to prove it, he would fly the lead bomber. The lead bomber in the formation was the first bomber the enemy would target. LeMay insisted on flying the lead on every dangerous mission. He was the only general in World War II who fought in front of his troops. He thought his life was less important than accomplishing the mission.

Because of his command style, the men were willing to follow him. They came to believe in him. And although he terrified them, they revered him.

What was the LeMay Doctrine and does it have any relevance today?

The LeMay Doctrine was important then, throughout history and today. Basically, a nation should think long and hard before it makes the fateful decision to go to war. But if all diplomatic measures have failed and there is no choice, then that nation should use every weapon in its arsenal to end the war as quickly as possible. Prolonged wars help no one – not your country, not the enemy, no one. More people die and more damage is created.

But here is the kicker to the doctrine: if a country isn’t willing to do that, then it shouldn’t go to war in the first place. Think of all the wars that wouldn’t have been fought or would have been fought differently if that doctrine had been applied.

Could the LeMay Doctrine have been successfully applied to a regime such as North Korea’s in the early 1950s?

LeMay suggested it. So did MacArthur for that matter. Would the world be better off without the last six decades of the Kim crime syndicate, especially now with nuclear proliferation? Would the North Koreans be better off? Just look at the standard of living in South Korea and compare it to the millions of Koreans who have died of starvation in the North. And add their collusion with Syria and other rogue states selling nuclear technology.

Curtis LeMay won battles. He won battles as Grant and Sherman won battles, by beating the enemy overwhelmingly no matter the cost to the other side. Why did he fail in the battle of ideas against those advocating the incremental meeting of aggression with proportionate force?

You are referring to the strategy employed by Robert McNamara and Lyndon Johnson in the Vietnam War. That strategy worked in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 – which was not a war but a tense negotiation – and McNamara thought it would work in Vietnam. It didn’t and the war went on for ten years and killed many more thousands of people.

If the LeMay doctrine had been put into place in Vietnam, it would have ended in either the country being free … or no war at all.

But remember, LeMay was just one member of the Joint Chiefs and the United States President is the Commander-In-Chief. Their job is to provide the President with military options. In the end the President decides. They take orders from him and they follow those orders, whether they like them or not. It was LBJ’s call and in my opinion, it was a bad one.

Hindsight is famously 20:20, but do events in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Iran suggest to you that the time has come for a reassessment of the LeMay Doctrine as applied to war and peace?

Just look at the disaster that was Vietnam and the disaster in the Middle East today. The U.S. should have fought to win or not fought at all. However, winning in the Middle East today would have required an American troop commitment for perhaps decades. That would have taken a great deal of political will to get the American public on board and I’m not sure that was something any president could have accomplished. Don’t forget, the entire country was behind the effort in World War II but we still have troops in Germany 70 years after V-E Day. Japan too.

Wallace’s plan in ‘68 was to deadlock the Presidential election in the hope of securing victory when the tie was broken by the House of Representatives. You pull no punches in Curtis LeMay: Strategist and Tactician demonstrating why LeMay was a dire choice of running-mate for Wallace, one that made little sense for either man. Could LeMay have been unleashing a kamikaze strategy, one that would divert electoral college votes from Hubert Humphrey, denying LBJ’s Vice President victory over Richard Nixon, while also undermining Wallace (with whom he seemed to have little sympathy) as a credible candidate? If not, why on Earth did he run and run the way he did?

Very good question. Why on earth, indeed. No one I spoke to could answer that – not even his family. In the end, I could only speculate. But he was a disaster on the campaign stump. LeMay had zero political skills – actually less than zero. He didn’t even like Wallace and disagreed with Wallace’s views on race. In the end, I believe he thought he could push more votes to Nixon. The truth is that Wallace, who was a real threat in the beginning of the 1968 election, reached his high point two minutes before he announced LeMay as his running mate. Perhaps Wallace would have collapsed on his own, but there is no doubt that LeMay was a disaster on the campaign – saying everything a candidate should not say.

What sort of people did you meet, and what sort of places did you go, in your search for Curtis LeMay?

I met the most extraordinary people I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. Men in their 90s – many gone now – who served under LeMay in World War II. These men were extraordinary heroes – and I believe that word is over used today. But they went in those planes for 25, 35 some even flew 50 missions. Statistically they shouldn’t have survived. Over 60,000 U.S. airmen were shot down. But they kept going back. When I asked Judge Ralph Nutter, a Harvard trained lawyer and judge how he could do that, he looked at me and said: “It was just that kind of war.”

The reason I have lived a wonderful life in freedom is because of these men. It was just an honor to be next to them. I wanted to set the record straight about LeMay and I wanted people to know that he wasn’t what they were told he was … but meeting these men was such an added benefit. I will be grateful for this forever.

A few years ago I was invited to address the Air Force Academy. I flew into Denver and met Janie LeMay Lodge, his daughter, at the airport. We drove down to the Academy together and stopped along the way to have lunch. When we sat down, she put a box on the table. I asked “What’s this?” She said, “Just read the card.”

She wrote how grateful the family was to have the record set straight. She said she wanted me to have something of her father’s, but almost everything went to the Air Force Museum or the Smithsonian. Writing a biography of someone who is no longer living can be strange – I spent 4 years trying to get into this man’s head and understand him and I knew I would never meet him nor did I have anything that actually belonged to him. So I opened the box and there was his Zippo lighter … very well used. In the U.S. military, Zippo lighters are a very personal object. They are a very big deal. I was very moved.

What is the most common misconception you encountered from friends and family who heard about the project and what did you do to put them right?

I was walking down the street and ran into someone I knew right when the book came out. When she saw me, all said was: “I hated him.” Not “how are you?” or even “hello.” Just “I hated him.” I understood whom she was referring to. I must have been feeling some of LeMay’s belligerence and instead of just smiling, I asked her a counter question: “Did you like winning World War II?” … “Did that work for you?” She was silent.

Most people under a certain age never heard of LeMay. He’s been forgotten. That’s another reason I wrote the book.

I have to tell you one thing that I learned. Up until I wrote the book, I always thought of World War II as some gigantic mass that fell upon the earth and swayed this way and that way from 1939 to 1945. If you were lucky, you survived. If you weren’t, you died or someone close to you died.

I never thought one individual could make a difference in something that big. But one night … late … I just sat back in my chair and had the realization: “My God, what if he had been on the other side?” Just a simple question, but I realized just how much this one man had accomplished through sheer force of will. Of course one man didn’t make the difference between winning and losing, but there were a few who had a huge impact on the outcome and LeMay was certainly one of them.

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading LeMay?

Sorry, can’t help you with this one. I read in quiet.