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

A new book comes up with some surprising findings.


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.