Gen. Curtis LeMay doesn’t enjoy the fame fellow World War II hero Gen. Douglas MacArthur does. Blame it on LeMay’s joining forces with presidential candidate George Wallace in the late 1960s, or a culture with too short a memory span.
A new book, LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay, aims to right this historical wrong.
Author Warren Kozak explains to readers about one of the country’s most remarkable warriors, a man whose bravery and military genius helped Allied forces smash the Axis in the Second World War.
LeMay was a social outcast, a cold, stern leader who could barely carry on a conversation in polite society. But few men could engineer more successful bombing plans or shift strategies in mid-war as well as he could.
LeMay emerges as a complicated hero, a man who orchestrated the deaths of thousands during World War II but harbored no ill will toward the people living in his cross hairs. He labored mightily to improve the U.S. military machine during World War II but then quickly shifted his energies and intellect toward helping Germans via the Berlin airlift.
Military buffs will delight at the colorful details that punctuate LeMay’s life. Kozak’s meticulous retelling of key war decisions and the reasons a particular air raid met with spectacular success — or failure — will grab even casual military buffs.
And when Kozak isn’t describing the horrors of war, he turns to the men and women who lived through it to paint the picture. Here’s French journalist Robert Guillain recalling the sound of Allied bombers attacking Tokyo:
“For a moment, antiaircraft fire shook the horizon with a noise of doors slamming in the sky,” Guillain wrote.
The LeMay Doctrine stated that if a country decides to go to war, it must use all of its resources to win — quickly and decisively. Other options only prolong the bloodshed and, ultimately, put more lives at risk.
“We didn’t start this war,” the general once wrote, “but the quicker we finish it, the more lives we will save.” For LeMay, that could mean a cluster bomb attack or a nuclear bombardment.
That philosophy didn’t sit well with some.
Kozak doesn’t sugarcoat LeMay’s flaws. He consistently paints the general as aloof, socially awkward, even distant to his closest associates. And anyone who served under him will likely say the same thing. But they’d also say how fiercely he fought for his country, and how much they respected him for it.
Much of that respect disappeared when LeMay’s post-war career led him into politics, deciding to join George Wallace’s presidential ticket, a decision born out of a fear that the nation’s foreign policy wouldn’t be tough enough against the Soviet Union.
“He was the worst person possible to go into politics,” his daughter Janie LeMay said. Plus, he didn’t agree with Wallace’s views on race. But the general feared a continuation of existing foreign policy could be disastrous to the country, so he set aside his disdain for politics and joined the ticket.
That unwise decision stained his character, erasing his heroism in the minds of some Americans. The media, in reporting his death, focused on his hawkish comments and his Wallace ties but not his great heroism.
LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay salutes a man who rose to prominence precisely when his country needed him the most. The lessons of his victories are ones today’s politicians would be wise to consider.
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