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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
Then airpower compounded the trainees into ethnically mixed Hollywood all-American crews—the kid from Brooklyn, the guy from Texas, the farm boy and the city boy—that would fly from Wichita to Khartoum and Bombay, to China and Guam, and eventually over the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. My father had bombed Tokyo in LeMay’s great firestorm and then been shot up over Osaka and left blind, a disabled veteran, with his right arm crooked and bent. His left arm compensated; from my earliest days I thought it looked like the arm on the baking soda box. Decades later bits of shrapnel were still working their way out of his skin.
The Bible of airpower was Victory Through Air Power , written in 1942 by Maj. Alexander P. de Seversky. Its cover showed a lowering gray cloud on a blue sky. Inside was laid out the ideology on which SAC would be built and which would send my father and thousands of other young men from small American towns and farms to war over the Himalayas, over Rangoon, over Osaka and Tokyo.
Seversky was a charismatic White Russian émigré who had distinguished himself as a naval aviator in World War I, during which he lost a leg. He allied himself with Billy Mitchell, the maverick general, and after Mitchell died, in 1936, he became the leading exponent of the faith that strategic bombing would be the dominant force in all modern wars.
The major founded Seversky Aircraft, which later became Republic Aviation, and his book was a huge bestseller and Book-of-the-Month Club selection. It warned Americans that they could no longer rely on the oceans but they could win World War II with superior airpower. They were no longer safe in Kansas City or Chicago. However, if Americans built a massive force of bombers and destroyed the distant cities of their enemies, they could return to their comfortable isolation.
Seversky laid out the rationale for fighting wars with the bombs that would lead to the A-bomb. Walt Disney, one of Seversky’s fans, made a film of the book at his own expense, as a contribution to the war effort. The 1943 movie, Victory Through Air Power , was a powerful piece of propaganda, offering a neat solution to the muddles of war with fantastic machines to keep the distant enemies at bay.
Seversky, nicknamed “Sasha,” narrated the film in his exotic and authoritative Russian accent. The movie blended newsreels of Mitchell and his famous demonstration of how to bomb battleships with cartoon explanations of the development of military aviation. Animated maps used shields and arrows and eagles to explain the situation, with the eagle of airpower fighting the Japanese octopus and destroying its head as the tentacles slowly released their hold. The film featured six-engine pusher-prop bombers, with streamlines running off their edges, foreshadowing the B-36.
James Agee, then the film critic for Time magazine, found the movie a skillful piece of propaganda and noted that it never showed civilians on the ground, never showed the target. The climactic battle of the eagle and the octopus, he said, perfected the abstracting of war. The movie offered, he wrote, “gay dreams of holocaust.”
Richard Schickel argues in his history of the Disney studios that Disney liked airpower because it made for efficient, clean warfare in which corpses are never seen. Airpower seemed to appeal especially to Midwesterners like Disney, LeMay, and Dwight Eisenhower. It was in a way the flip side of the region’s traditional isolationism, a way to play world power without sending soldiers overseas.
It was not long before Seversky and Disney’s dreams of holocaust would be realized. The B-29 long-range bomber was being developed in top secrecy at Boeing in Seattle even as the film was being made. And Curtis LeMay, then training at Muroc, California, would follow the B-29 from bases in India to China and then the Marianas, from which at last the bombers could effectively reach Japan, Disney’s eagle attacking the octopus.
When the first raids aimed at precision bombing failed to strike their intended targets, because of bad weather and bad bombing, LeMay was put in command, and he tried something new—gambling the lives of his crews. He turned to terror bombing, firebombing whole cities. Now his target problem was simpler: Find the areas of cities that were the oldest and had the largest proportion of wooden buildings. The first target was Tokyo’s Shitamchi district.
Stripping the bombers of most of their guns and sending them in low and at night, LeMay dispatched 334 bombers from bases in the Marianas on March 9, 1945, each carrying about six tons of incendiary bombs. The bombs burned more than the sixteen square miles targeted and killed between eighty and one hundred thousand people. In no other six-hour period of human history had so many people died. The firestorm was so powerful it sent updrafts that tossed the bombers about as their crews breathed the smoke of houses and flesh.