The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay – by Jamie Glazov


Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Warren Kozak, an author and journalist who has written for television’s most respected news anchors. Winner of the prestigious Benton Fellowship at the University of Chicago in 1993, he was an on-air reporter for NPR and his work has appeared on PBS and in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Sun as well as other newspapers and magazines. In his new book, LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay, Kozak takes a new look at the controversial, total war general and comes up with some surprising findings.

FP: Warren Kozak, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

What inspired you to write this book?

Kozak: The short answer – I was surprised to find out that LeMay wasn’t at all the man I thought he was … and I didn’t think he got a fair shake in history. Here is a man who has been marginalized and even vilified as this mad bomber yearning for a nuclear exchange with the Soviets. Hollywood helped solidify that negative image with Dr. Strangelove and Thirteen Days and he became a favorite target for journalists beginning in the 1960s.

In truth, the real LeMay couldn’t have been further from the crazy brute that he’s been made out to be. He was a sober, strategic realist, who cared deeply for the men who served under him and for the country he defended.

LeMay was perhaps the most brilliant military strategist this nation has ever produced – not my words but those of the late Robert S. McNamara, whom I interviewed for the book. And LeMay was brave. He put his own life at risk insisting on flying the lead bomber on every dangerous mission over Europe. He was one of the most influential factors in our victory in the Pacific Theater. And if that weren’t enough, LeMay had a third act that equaled the first two, helping to win the Cold War by turning the Strategic Air Command into the most efficient and deadliest military force in history that kept the Soviets in check for decades.

I should add that it’s because of people like LeMay that his critics can sit in comfortable offices and have the freedom to write all those negative things about him.

FP: Today, LeMay is seen by some as a war criminal. How come?  His actions saved many lives didn’t they? Tell us the facts.

Kozak: Part of this is due to the age of moral equivalence that we live in and the other part is ignorance. LeMay ordered the deaths of more civilians than any other man in U.S. history – as many as 350,000 Japanese died in his incendiary raids in 1945. That’s a horrible fact and if you take that without understanding the context – what was happening in 1945, of course most people would call him a war criminal. But the Japanese started the war in 1937 and, like Germany, thought they had the right to rule over all of Asia.

And like Germany, the Japanese created a second Holocaust in World War II that most Americans know nothing about, killing upwards of 17 million Chinese, Koreans and Filipinos, sometimes in the most brutal and sadistic ways. That carnage came to an end when the Japanese were forced to surrender and the Imperial Army went home, in large part because of LeMay.

Also, in 1945 the U.S. was facing a land invasion of Japan that would have made the war in Europe look like a lark. People forget today that Japan was a death culture 65 years ago and not only its military but even Japanese civilians were willing to die for their emperor.  So in the strange calculus of war, LeMay wound up saving more lives (including and estimated 1-million American casualties and at least 2-million Japanese) by forcing a surrender before the invasion.

FP: Can you talk a bit about LeMay’s science of strategic bombing? Why did he insist, as you say, on flying as the lead bomber in the formation he would fly in?

Kozak: LeMay was one of the first commanders to come to England in 1942, less than a year after Pearl Harbor. The men in the U.S. Army Air Forces were the only Americans fighting the Germans at that early date. They were green and really not ready to go up against the best air force in the world at that time – the Luftwaffe. This was a calculated decision made in Washington to sacrifice these troops in order to whittle down the Germans. The U.S. leaders understood that they could replace their planes and crews faster than the Germans. It was a bloody war of attrition and the men in the 8th Air Force in England had a higher casualty rate than the Marines in the Pacific.

LeMay understood that the only way to hurt the enemy was to hit their war production, which was heavily defended.

Everyone wanted to zig-zag into the target to try to avoid the flak thinking they might have a better chance of survival.

On his very first mission, LeMay ordered everyone to fly straight in with no deviation so they could hit the targets. The men were horrified.

One pilot stood up at the pre-flight briefing and said they’d all be slaughtered. LeMay looked straight at him and, showing the most brilliant form of leadership, simply said: “No, I think we can take it and to prove it, I’ll fly the lead plane.”

That just stunned everyone. They thought that if this gruff, no-nonsense commander was willing to put his own life at risk, maybe there was something to his theory.

LeMay was the only general in World War II to fight in front of his troops. On every dangerous mission, he insisted on flying the lead plane in the formation which was the first plane the Germans targeted.

He worked 20 hour days for four years developing the strategies that defeated first the Nazis and then the Japanese.

FP: What exactly is the LeMay Doctrine?

Kozak: Simply put, a nation should think long and hard before it makes the fateful decision to go to war. But if all other diplomatic means have failed and there is no other alternative, then that nation should use every weapon in its arsenal to win the war as quickly as possible. And here’s the kicker: if it isn’t willing to do this, then it should not go to war in the first place. Prolonged conflicts help no one and wind up producing more casualties in the end. Think how the United States would have fought its wars differently since WWII … or not at all … if it had used LeMay’s doctrine.

FP: What were some controversies LeMay was involved in?

Kozak: That’s actually funny because it seems everything LeMay did was controversial especially by today’s standards. We mentioned the firebombing raids in Japan are seen as war crimes today. But in 1945, every American with a father, brother or husband facing a prolonged and bloody invasion was just relieved and thankful when the war ended. So were the millions of Asians who faced death and starvation at the hands of the Japanese.

And I discovered something very ironic. After the Tokyo incendiary raid on March 9, 1945 that killed an estimated 100,000 civilians, the New York Times ran the story on its front page for ten straight days suggesting it was one of America’s great technological achievements. In its lead editorial on March 12th, the Times warned the Japanese that if they did not surrender, more was on the way. (More was.) That’s not all. The New Yorker Magazine ran a glowing 3 part profile of LeMay. He was on the cover of Time Magazine. It’s almost like some bizarre world where the names are the same – New York Times, New Yorker, Time Magazine – but the editorial content is very, very different. Can you imagine something like this today?

I think everyone understood that these were totalitarian regimes led by fanatics that were intent on dominating the world and whoever didn’t fit their weird racial constructs was put to death. There was no alternative but to stop them and stop them as soon as possible. It was never a forgone conclusion that we would win this conflict. It was only because of people like LeMay and a lot of American teenagers that these monsters were defeated.

FP: Illuminate for us Lemay’s famously flawed personality.

Kozak: In an age of public relations where celebrities go to great lengths and great expense to bolster their image, LeMay seems like a dinosaur. He was dark, brooding and had absolutely no social graces whatsoever. He rarely spoke. Women who were seated next to him said he could sit through a two-hour dinner and not utter a single syllable. It was almost as if he wanted to be disliked. He made absolutely no effort to be liked.

His men detested him because he drove them so hard. It was only later, sometimes even after the war, that they realized that his demanding nature saved their lives.

I spoke to some of the last surviving men who flew under LeMay in both theaters. They have such reverence for him. It’s really quite touching.

FP: Then what about his run with George Wallace in 1968?

Kozak: LeMay completely destroyed his reputation by running as George Wallace’s vice presidential candidate that year. Wallace was a racist, but here is the distinction: LeMay was not. He actually helped integrate the Air Force ahead of the Navy and Army in 1947 and in all of his papers and letters, there is not one derogatory comment towards any minority group – which is something that can’t be said for a lot of the top commanders in World War II, including the Commander-In-Chief, Harry Truman.

Of course, just by running with Wallace, LeMay was supporting those policies, which shows that for all his military brilliance, LeMay was a neophyte politically. The reason LeMay ran with Wallace was because he was so angry at Lyndon Johnson for having lied to him about Vietnam that he thought he could draw more votes away from Hubert Humphry (LBJ’s Vice President) and deliver them to Richard Nixon. In truth, the only candidate LeMay wound up hurting was Wallace because he was so awful on the campaign.

FP: What do we learn from Curtis LeMay?

Kozak: First, he is not the man we were led to believe. He had an odd quirk – a radical mind rapped up in an extremely conservative personality. He was an incredibly hard worker, and he was totally devoted to his men and his country.

LeMay believed that you should always negotiate from a position of strength and he made sure that the civilian leadership in our country always had the strongest possible military in its dealings with our adversaries … and we certainly had some tough adversaries in those years, as we still do today.

He was brutally honest. After he retired, he never took a job with the defense industry because he didn’t think that was right.

Finally, here is the lesson that I learned that surprised me. I always thought that World War II was some great, global mass that swayed this way and that way and caught up everyone in its wake. But from watching LeMay I learned that one individual really could have a huge impact on the outcome. We were so fortunate to have men and women like LeMay during these dark times who stood up when we needed them most.

Thanks so much for letting me share this with you. It’s an honor to be on FrontPage.

FP: Warren Kozak, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.

  • Proxywar

    Interesting, I'll have to pick this bio up next time I'm at the book store.

    I just stumbled on to something I never knew about American history which I found pretty interesting. However, I don't think any analogies should be drawn from it and applied to our current situation. I think to do so would be a hindsight fallacy.

    “The Business Plot was a political conspiracy which involved wealthy businessmen plotting a coup d’état to overthrow United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1934, Butler came forward and testified to the McCormack-Dickstein Congressional committee that a group of wealthy pro-Fascist industrialists had been plotting to overthrow the government and had approached him to lead it.

    In March 1934, the House of Representatives authorized investigations into “un-American” activities by a special committee headed by John W. McCormack of Massachusetts and Samuel Dickstein of New York. The McCormack-Dickstein Committee investigated Smedley Butler's allegations as well as a number of other high profile topics of the era. In the opinion of the committee these allegations were credible. One of the purported plotters, Gerald MacGuire, vehemently denied any such plot. In their report, the Congressional committee stated that it was able to confirm Butler's statements other than the proposal from MacGuire which it considered more or less confirmed by MacGuire's European reports.However, no prosecutions or further investigations followed and some historians have questioned whether or not a coup was actually close to execution, although most agree that some sort of “wild scheme” was contemplated and discussed. Media initially dismissed the plot, with a The New York Times editorial characterizing it as a “gigantic hoax;”[4] When the committee's final report was released, the Times said the committee “purported to report that a two-month investigation had convinced it that General Butler's story of a Fascist march on Washington was alarmingly true” and “It also alleged that definite proof had been found that the much publicized Fascist march on Washington, which was to have been led by Major. Gen. Smedley D. Butler, retired, according to testimony at a hearing, was actually contemplated”.

    The McCormack-Dickstein Committee, which was a precursor to the House Un-American Activities Committee, confirmed some of Butler's accusations in its final report stating:

    “In the last few weeks of the committee's official life it received evidence showing that certain persons had made an attempt to establish a fascist organization in this country…There is no question that these attempts were discussed, were planned, and might have been placed in execution when and if the financial backers deemed it expedient.”

    Most interesting piece of American history I've read in some time.

  • Proxywar

    Most leftist would point to this as evidence Big Business & EX Generals can never be trusted.

    But I would say to those leftists:

    1.) Dwight D. Eisenhower and George Washington were excellent presidents who stood for the Freedom, Liberty, and the Constitution. Who respects the Constitution better than Military? Slimmy politicians out of grad-school?

    2.) Big Business can never be trusted = Hasty generalization.

  • earthman

    Great interview on LeMay. He was a great patriot.

  • thereisnosantaclaus

    Curtis LeMay is one of my all-time heroes. He was flawed. He wasn't perfect.

    One important note. Robert McNamara is on record saying that Gen. LeMay confided in him this: If America had lost World War II, he would have been a war criminal.

    I think Gen. LeMay understood the gravity of the effort he led during World War II; perhaps he was ahead of his time on that issue more than we realized.

    • Robert

      You see Lemay was wrong; he was a fucking WAR CRIMINAL; he just was on the winning side so he did not get what was coming to his murdering ass.

      Gee, I guess LeMay and Joe Stalin have some things in common.

      Happy Fourth of July!

  • Voltimand

    This study of LeMay reinforces the fact that much military history from the Civil War on is unpalatable to the left because it recounts wars that were waged against "civilian" targets. Scratch a lefty, particularly in academe in history departments, and you will find that when these people talk about civilian targets, these people can only think "me." In short, cowards.(1) LeMay as America's "greatest" strategist would have a major competitor in William T. Sherman, who was the first military commander with both the rank to command a significant military force on the move and the historical intelligence to be able to think in broad strategic strokes, to realize that modern wars can only be fought on the basis of broad and massive civilian support: ideological as well as material. Yup, "civilians" make war too. I haven't read this book and probably won't–too many claims on my reading time–but I wouldn't be surprised if LeMay was conversant with Sherman's extensive writings on this subject, not least in his wartime correspondence with Grant, where Sherman showed no hesitation in mixing dealings with current tactical issues with small sermons on larger strategic matters. (2) LeMay as "Dr. Strangelove" is a good example of the enormous advantage a leftist media-manipulator possesses by reason of selective ignorance. What you don't know–when you want to propagandize–can only help you. (3) LeMay's recognition of the necessities of war illustrates one of the most difficult kinds of thinking a human being can be called to tolerate. Today, lefties "are tired of the war in Afghanistan," sort of like being "tired of" the current TV offerings. These people have the leisure and comfort to think like spoiled brats only because there are people out there who put their lives on the line to protect them from other people who'd love to cut their heads off. An advantage, perhaps: with no head you don't have to think about getting tired of a war fought to protect you. LeMay would have recognized the meaning of the following sentiment: pacificists who are "against war" should be required to foreswear publicly all protection from America's armed forces. All should be required to write letters to the Department of Homeland Security stipulating that in the case of a terrorist nuclear or biological attack they forswear before the fact all medical help that that Department might otherwise give them. My point? You want to take the stance, you pay the price; you don't want to pay the price, you don't take the stance. But to posture in peacenik poses while expecting other people to help and protect you is something only spoiled brats expect to be tolerated.

    • Robert

      You see what fascist warmongering assholes like you do not understand is that "moral equivalence" is Newspeak for not holding the US to the same moral standards that warmongers like you and your Theocon and Neocon fellow travelers want to hold other nations to–unless, of course, that other nation is Israel which gets the same pass as Uncle Sam.
      Your a supposed patriot right?? Bullshit. If you are, remember the USS Liberty.

      • GI Jane

        Wow, you're so ignorant. Look at history through an unbiased lens. People like you make me sick.

  • Mark

    LaMay was definitely mentally unhinged. And not really much of a military genius. Firepower brought to bear on fixed targets was pretty much all he knew. He was a man with a taste for viciousness. A man who had a place in conventional war, but had no business being on global nuclear stage. Even his fellow generals thought he was hot headed and childish. If he had his way in 1962, none of us would be here to talk about it.

    • panam jack

      You are not fir to wash Gen LeMays feet with anything. You are a prime example of why we retreated in Vietnam an Iraq. No wmds humph exactly where did assad get the sarin gas from? A christmas package. If you think semi figting a war there is a job for you in the Pantagon as secdef… fit right in with the obamanation….

    • corinne27

      “If he had his way in 1962, none of us would be here to talk about it.”

      Such utter nonsense. By “1962,” you’re obviously referring to the Cuban Missile crisis. LeMay and the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted to bomb the missile sites and invade Cuba. Kennedy opted for a blockade instead, but not because he feared a nuclear war, but because he thought the Russians would retaliate by seizing West Berlin.

    • IdolHanz

      You sound like if you had been in charge, world war 2 would still be in progress as you built a bureaucratic empire or colluded with the enemy like Obama, Clinton or Carter!

  • PatG

    This gives the impression that the fire-bombing of Japan softened up the military to surrender. Japan’s military NEVER wanted to surrender, not even after the dropping of 2 atomic bombs. Hirohito decided to surrender after the atomic bombs to prevent further suffering of his people, but the Japanese military tried very hard to prevent the broadcast of his surrender message to the Japanese people. See “Japan’s Longest Day” for a good overview of what happened.

    • corinne27

      Only an element of the Japanese military still wanted to fight.

      More importantly, you seem to have overlooked that the firebombing, atom bombs, as well as the submarine blockade and the USSR declaring war on Japan, is what made Hirohito and others want to surrender. Without those things happening, Japan would have never surrendered.

  • IdolHanz

    That book and General Yeager’s book were both very inspirational and exciting to read. LeMay hated dumb cowardly people who just ran their mouthes. LeMay was a man of mostly action with few words. LeMay was an excellent government leader—the absolutely perfect man to run a government bureaucracy because he hated government bureaucracy! I don’t believe LeMay was self centered or egotistical—he had a sense of duty and just wanted to get the job done. LeMay is exactly what is needed now!