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