Dr. Strangelove’s Children

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I put together plastic models of them all. I spent my first decade in blind love for the shapes of the bombers.

To those on the ground the thousand or so bombers silhouetted against the sky looked like black knife-blades or, when the flames lit them from below, like silver moths trapped in amber. The bombs themselves were more a liquid silver rain than a series of objects. Women fleeing, carrying babies on their backs, continued to run, unaware that the bundles had burst into flame. Bodies twisted and turned into the pumice of Pompeii. Those who jumped into canals or pools were boiled to death.

The fires died down fairly quickly, after which processions of silent refugees moved under the moonlight amid the ruins. One man paused to light a cigar from a still-burning telephone pole.

Time called the raid “a dream come true.” It showed that “properly kindled, Japanese cities will burn like autumn leaves.” In the first great triumph of airpower, approximately as many people died that night as in the Hiroshima or Nagasaki atomic bombings. The step to the atomic bomb was only a technical one.

Whether or not airpower really won World War II—its bad report cards in postwar analyses were overlooked by the public—it won its own war. The Air Force became an independent service and quickly grabbed the lion’s share of the budget from the Navy and the Army. Moreover, the atomic bomb meant that accurate bombing would no longer be an issue. The cult of airpower would grow as strong in the 1940s and 1950s as the cult of the battleship that LeMay and the others had fought in the 1920s and 1930s.

Eisenhower went for airpower, despite being an Army man. He saw it as a way to keep from becoming bogged down in another conventional war like Korea, and an inexpensive way at that. He adopted strategic airpower as part of his “New Look” defense policy (the phrase came from Christian Dior’s fashions of the time), the heart of the policy being that we would no longer fight messy conventional wars like Korea; we would prevent them by threatening direct nuclear retaliation against any Soviet or Chinese aggression.

Only time and the mounting strength of a counterdeterrent, the crises of brinksmanship and confrontation, would show that the policy of massive retaliation was unrealistic. No one would trade Washington or New York to defend Saigon or even Berlin.

Serious as the mission was, the tone of life around SAC was always business as usual. There was never the World War II sense of making a “big push.” My father, for instance, was neither an especial enthusiast nor a skeptic about the new kind of constant war. Once I heard him describe a reunion of his World War II bombing unit as an occasion “for telling old war lies,” but he went nonetheless and enjoyed the camaraderie of those far more militant than he. Like many Americans, I suspect, he was so happy to have made it through the hot war that he considered the requirements of living in the cold one a small price. Toward the physical price he had paid for his own survival, he never showed bitterness, and he wisely foresaw that I would outgrow my affection for the big bombers before there was any risk of my following him into their service. Later, looking back, he would laugh at what he, like most Americans, saw as LeMay’s rhetorical excesses, but during the years of Eisenhower he was determined to live deeply in the long-awaited peace, even if it could be ended at any moment by a klaxon calling SAC’s crews to scramble.

The B-36 that seemed so grand to me as a child, the flagship of SAC during the 1950s, was actually something of a turkey. Originally designed in 1941 to reach Germany from the United States in case England fell, it first flew in 1946. A mechanically ragged airplane, it was saved by its abundance of engines. There was a joke about it: Pilot: “Feather four.” Engineer: “Which four?” The bomber’s big, slow propellers emitted a distinctive whumpwhump sound. One pilot recalls its sounding like a streetcar as it rumbled toward takeoff.

It was huge, with six pusher-prop turbojets set along its wings; jets were added later. The dome and the bulbous nose gave the plane a stupid, brontosaurian look. The frame of its Plexiglas canopy suggested a transparent view of the globe itself, crisscrossed with latitude and longitude lines. SAC’s heraldry was filled with images of the globe.

In flight the turtleback canopy atop the bomber was often filled with blue smoke from the cigars the pilots felt free to enjoy on long flights because LeMay was rarely without his own. In SAC the stogie was a symbol of jaunty esprit, a accent of »lan on the way to the final calamity. One year the winning crew in a SAC competition was awarded ashtrays with a B-36 mounted on the rim.

After the B-36 came the jet B-47 (chosen over the flying wing, the dream of the aviation executive John Northrop, which would later be realized in the shape of the B-2 stealth bomber) and the only airplane that can steal Jimmy Stewart’s heart from his wife. “She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” he gushes when he first sees one.