Academic journal article Air Power History

Ready for the Worst: Preemption, Prevention and American Nuclear Policy

Academic journal article Air Power History

Ready for the Worst: Preemption, Prevention and American Nuclear Policy

Article excerpt

Between October 1948 and July 1957, General Curtis E. LeMay served as the commander of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), the United States' airborne nuclear force. As commander of this force, LeMay was responsible for deterring any potential Soviet attack on the United States. If deterrence failed and the Soviets attacked, LeMay and SAC were charged to respond with a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. This scheme served as the basis of deterrence and retaliation, the essential military policy of the United States for the duration of the Cold War. LeMay, however, had no desire in waiting to respond; he wanted to attack first if he believed a Soviet assault was imminent. LeMay argued for the adoption of such a policy, carrying this argument across many years and multiple venues, despite a national policy of deterrence and retaliation. Evidence of this desire can be found in LeMay's statements during his command of SAC. Ranging from public and classified speaking appearances to written correspondence, LeMay left little doubt as to his belief that attacking first in a war, specifically a nuclear war, was warranted and necessary.

Though cast as a warmonger in the years following his time at SAC, the historical record reveals a more complex man. His statements also render a seemingly honest concern for national survival and self-defense in the nuclear age. Today it may be hard to fathom the fear of a surprise nuclear assault that pervaded military thinking of the early Cold War, but at the time LeMay was making these proclamations, this fear was real and legitimate. Few, if any, effective defenses against a nuclear attack existed; this left preemptive attack--military action taken under a belief that an enemy attack is shortly pending, and preventive war--war predicated upon a belief that enemy action could occur at a future but yet undefined date, as perhaps the only effective options available.

In his book, Counsels of War, Cold War historian Gregg Herken noted that, "the topic of preventive war--meaning an unprovoked attack by the United States on the Soviet Union--had been discreetly discussed in some government and military circles since the advent of the atomic bomb." (1) According to Herken, the possibility of undertaking a preventive war had been considered by members of Congress, the Truman Administration, and Paul Nitze. (2) These considerations, however, did not proceed past the discussion stage. Herken reported that, "in every case, the alternative of preventive war was finally rejected by civilian and military leaders alike as inimical to the nation's principles, and contrary to the popular will." (3) Similarly, by 1950, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) had made clear that the execution of a preventive war against the Soviet Union was "'not politically feasible under our system to do so or to state that we will do so.'" (4) This decision was further clarified by President Truman, who removed Secretary of the Navy, Francis Matthews, following Matthews' urging "that the United States become the first 'aggressors for peace.'" (5) Herken stated that Truman believed "the American people would never tolerate the use of the bomb for 'aggressive purposes.'" (6)

In historian Peter J. Roman's article "Curtis LeMay and the Origins of NATO Atomic Targeting," appearing in the Journal of Strategic Studies, Roman argued that during "SAC's formative period (1948-1952)" ..."LeMay's effective bureaucratic politicking enabled his doctrinal vision to become reality." (7) Roman went on to explain that, "LeMay's conception of SAC rested firmly on an unflinching commitment to the decisiveness of strategic airpower as evidenced by World War II." (8) Roman pointed out that, in the Cold War, "given SAC's mission, the Soviet threat, and American reliance on atomic weapons, LeMay quickly decided to build an organization which could execute its war plans immediately, massively, and under the direction of one central command. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.