Cold War Files: All Units: People: Curtis LeMay

Curtis LeMay
Curtis LeMay
b. November 15, 1906 - d. October 3, 1990
Commander, SAC, 1948-1957; Vice Chief of Staff, US Air Force, 1957-1961; Chief of Staff, US Air Force, 1961-1965

After World War II, LeMay served in the Pentagon. In 1947, LeMay transferred to Wiesbaden, Germany to command U.S. Air Forces in Europe. LeMay returned to the U.S. in October 1948 to take charge of the Strategic Air Command (SAC).

In his first war plan drawn up in 1949, LeMay proposed dropping the entire stockpile of 133 atomic bombs in one massive attack on 70 cities within 30 days. By the end of his term, the SAC was on constant alert and ready to execute an all-out atomic attack at a moment’s notice. LeMay was SAC commander until June 1957.

LeMay was appointed Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force in 1957 and Chief of Staff in 1961. As a member of the Joint Chiefs during the Cuban Missile Crisis, LeMay recommended that President John F. Kennedy send the navy and SAC to surround Cuba and, if need be, "fry it." When the crisis ended peacefully, LeMay called it "the greatest defeat in our history."

LeMay was in policy conflicts with the Joint Chiefs. He battled with Admiral Arleigh Burke over the control of the nuclear Polaris submarines. LeMay wanted them under his command and actually achieved some control in the Pacific theater. But Burke successfully fought the Air Force every way he knew--in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in Congress, and in the press--any way to prevent LeMay's power grab.LeMay was a ringleader in the Joint Chiefs of Staff insofar as urging Kennedy to go to war in the Bay of Pigs and later in the Cuban missile crisis. Kennedy wisely resisted the Joint Chiefs' recommendations."

After LeMay retired from the Air Force, he teamed with Alabama governor George Wallace in an unsuccessful candidacy for the vice presidency. LeMay died in 1990. In the years following his unsuccessful political race, he became somewhat of a recluse, seldom leaving his home.

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