Dr. Strangelove’s Children


“Do you realize there are fifteen hundred babies born a month in SAC?” says Jimmy Stewart, playing a B-36 pilot in the 1954 film Strategic Air Command . I was raised among those babies. I grew up near Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, during the Cold War, amid the presence of the Strategic Air Command and the eagle vision of Curtis E. Lemay. I spent the first few years of my life with great silver B-36 Peacemakers flying overhead. “Silver overcast,” they were wryly called. I went to kindergarten on the base, where each morning one student was designated officer of the day, and I attended air shows where the latest planes were on display, like the F-106A Delta Dart. I was surprised that the edge of the F-106's wing didn’t cut my finger when I furtively touched it. We were carried up in helicopters with open doors and, hovering, looked down on the planes laid out on the tarmac, huge crosses and arrowheads. We passed the “clima,tic” hangar that could reproduce the conditions of bases in Greenland or the steamy tropics.

We have forgotten that SAC occupied the same place in our national consciousness as did the Royal Navy in the British one.

Half a century later we have somehow mostly forgotten that SAC (pronounced sack ) once occupied the same place in our national consciousness as did the Royal Navy in the British one —and perhaps the same as the imperial legions occupied in that of ancient Rome. Just a few years after military restructuring rolled SAC into the Air Combat Command, we have forgotten what the Strategic Air Command meant.

In the beginning SAC was staffed by a mixture of callow youths and seasoned World War II bomber vets who had pounded Germany and Japan from Flying Fortresses and Superfortresses and gotten the nod in 1948 to deliver the big ones. SAC’s job was to routinize doomsday, to bureaucratize Armageddon. Its planes stayed airborne twenty-four hours a day.

The B-36s flew over our house. In kindergarten I modeled B-36s from red and green clay. Often I gave them eight or even ten engines rather than the six props and dual jets podded at the ends of the wings. The specific number was inconsequential to a fouryear-old. There just sure were a lot of engines on that wing. The big bombers seemed one with the suburban tract houses and the bulldozers that came to strip out the thin pines and pile them up for burning. The smoke was often heavy and tangy with the pine sap.

SAC was the keeper of blue skies, the shield and umbrella under which the normal life of America in the fifties, of Elvis and Hula Hoops and college football and strip malls and tail fins, could proceed without dark seriousness. SAC’s bombers cruising above the earth without pause were aerial versions of the battleships their predecessors had helped make obsolete, back in the twenties, when Billy Mitchell sank the old German Ostfriesland .

Careful press relations shaped SAC’s image. A 1956 celebration book that captures the tone of the time, The Air Force , by Arnold Brophy, describes how LeMay improved barracks to keep SAC airmen happy and how fliers were trained in hand-to-hand combat in case they were shot down. Each SAC bomber, Brophy assures the reader, “can drop more firepower than all the Allied aircraft dropped on Germany and Japan during World War II,” the kind of boast LeMay himself always liked to make. “Manned by the most dedicated and single-minded men the U.S. has ever produced, SAC planes, with long, white vapor trails marking their lonely courses, head for specific enemy targets.”

The film Strategic Air Command was a virtual Pentagon tract. As the star, Jimmy Stewart seems Lindbergh grown up, or Mr. Smith gone to Armageddon—or at least to Omaha. He suffers under a LeMay-like general: “Don’t tell me your little problems, son. All I’m interested in is results.” Even so, even under the threat of the bomb, it’s a wonderful life. A good family man, out there defending “our way of life,” he’s loyal to his pregnant wife, played by June Allyson, until SAC calls. The message is clear: Constant vigilance was the price of the prosperity.

SAC was embodied by its commander, Curtis LeMay. Invariably referred to as “cigar-chomping,” LeMay had been the lead navigator on a crucial 1938 demonstration flight in which bombers took on Navy battleships and won the day, and the episode had shaped his thinking forever. LeMay felt the Navy had cheated in the tests, and he became a brutal practitioner of interservice rivalry, cutting down the competition first on behalf of the Air Force, then on behalf of SAC. Like the generals in Beetle Bailey , he knew that the real enemy was the Navy.

LeMay took command of SAC in October of 1948, two years after it had been formed, and declared it a shambles, with untrained crews who couldn’t hit their targets. He staged a mock bombing attack on Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, and it was a dismal failure: Not a single bomber completed the mission successfully. LeMay called it “just about the darkest night in American aviation history.” He proceeded to get SAC in shape.

SAC’s motto would become “Peace is our profession.” Its seal was a shield bearing an armored hand glinting against a blue sky, an image like a knight painted by Piero della Francesca. But it had three lightning bolts and only one olive branch.