- Historic Sites
Dr. Strangelove’s Children
Growing up on a Cold War air base in the shadow of the big one
November 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 7
LeMay’s premise was: We are at war already. Since the next war would be a war of deterrence, won or lost before it started, we were in effect already fighting World War III. So LeMay kept some of his planes in the air at all times. Some had pushbutton starters so they could scramble quickly.
To LeMay it was clear that when World War III came—and he almost longed for it—there would be no chance for the big comeback America had staged in World War II. A Pearl Harbor would be fatal. So he had no hesitancy about striking first if attack seemed imminent. With every passing year the margin of advantage for the United States was growing smaller. SAC’s advantage, LeMay said, was a “wasting asset.” It seemed crazy to him to let the other guys strike first. “Catch ‘em with their pants down,” as George C. Scott urges, playing the general modeled after LeMay in Dr. Strangelove .
In June of 1950 SAC staged an exercise involving dozens of bombers targeting Eglin Air Force Base. In Mission With LeMay , a 1965 autobiography he wrote with MacKinlay Kantor, he described the constant practice of which the Eglin run was a good part: “We attacked every good-sized city in the United States. People were down there in their beds, and they didn’t know what was going on upstairs. By the time I left SAC . . . every city in the United States of twenty-five thousand population or more had been bombed on innumerable occasions. San Francisco had been bombed over six hundred times in a month.”
In the spring of 1953 a top-secret CIA report revealed the vulnerability of the United States to a surprise attack by Soviet long-range bombers. That August, just nine months after the first American H-bomb blast, the Russians tested their first hydrogen bomb. LeMay thought they would be ready to attack by 1954, the year of “maximum danger.”
Beyond the danger of attack from the air, LeMay developed an obsession with security and sabotage on the ground. He gained national publicity when he staged a surprise visit to a SAC hangar and found the security guy eating lunch. “I found a sergeant guarding a hangar with a ham sandwich,” he said. He had crack Air Police patrolling SAC bases, like the commando units in Dr. Strangelove . He dispatched trained “penetrators” to plant notes that said things like, “This is a simulated bomb that will explode in five minutes.”
Sometimes his agents would paste a baby picture or an animal picture on their I.D. badges just to test the security guards. Once LeMay himself found soldiers entering his office to repair phone lines. It took him several minutes to remember that the Air Force used outside repair people. He drew his automatic before the intruders had time to deposit the slip of paper that read, “You will be blown up at 1030.” LeMay even had his wife tested by a security guard, who demanded that she produce identification while she was working in her back yard. She had to get up and go into the house for it.
SAC’s headquarters was at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, formerly a dreary Army post. The location had been chosen carefully: It was especially far from the bases of Soviet bombers. Offutt and the other distant SAC bases at Rapid City and Minot quickly turned into isolated Americandream towns. Most of them were in the middle of nowhere, so LeMay made SAC into a housing developer, creating whole new developments, green-grass Levittowns under blue skies. He set up hobby shops to improve base morale. The hot rods built there raced on the runways. It was Pax Atomica, as LeMay liked to call it.
LeMay developed an obsession with security and sabotage. He even had his wife tested by a security guard.
Growing up in the shadow of the B-36 meant growing up amid the lore and legend of airpower, the belief that wars would now be won or lost by great silver bombers, raining destruction on distant cities. The last war airpower had won was less than a decade behind us.
Living near Eglin I was raised in the religion of airpower. I must have been but three or four when my mother brought home a model of the B-29 on which my father had flown, all silver with burgundy prop and tail tips, and I was taught that the airpower that had won the last war was there to prevent the next. I “imprinted” on these aircraft the way Konrad Lorenz described goslings imprinting. The B-36s overhead were just a larger version of the B-29; the B-52s and B-47s and B-58s would continue the evolution.
My father figured as a heroic warrior of airpower. Family myth fitted neatly into the national myth that arrived on our primitive black-and-white television set via Walter Cronkite and the program “The Twentieth Century": Eager American youths from small towns across the country were being sent for training to the new bases set up far from the vulnerable coasts.
In these bases my father had learned bombing and radar and navigation and gunnery so he could help win World War II. He had been sent to San Angelo, Texas, and Wichita, Kansas. The strains of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys had drifted through his barracks at Clovis, New Mexico. He had learned gunnery in Boca Raton, Florida, where the luxury Boca Raton Hotel had been requisitioned by the military and the nude statues out front had been boxed in plywood for the duration.