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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
There were other bombers planned. SAC poured money into an atomic-powered bomber, which would have used only crew members who had already sired all their intended offspring. But the nuclear-powered bomber never worked. The B-36 was succeeded by the swept-wing jet B-47 and the B-52 and the B-58. LeMay planned the grandest of them all, the B-70, the Valkyrie, but Pentagon civilians argued that it would be obsolete before it was built. The bomber had been succeeded by the missile.
I put together plastic models of them all. And if my father’s injuries, the knowledge of the carnage of airpower past and future, might have given pause to the enthusiasm of a SAC child, it could also strengthen it. I spent my first decade in blind love for the shapes of the bombers.
For my ninth birthday I received a sleek plastic toy B-58 Hustler, SAC’s latest bomber then and LeMay’s delight in the late fifties, even while he was planning the larger B-70. Four jets hung from the B-58's delta wings, but the most noticeable feature lay beneath the fuselage: the “weapons pod,” a silvery torpedo shape containing the nuclear bombs. It was designed to dash in at treetop level and drop its payload. The B-58 never worked very well—its speed limited its range—but it was lovely. In his autobiography LeMay would wax positively effusive about its “ventral pod.”
LeMay had always counted on targets. Once while he was commanding the 20th Air Force B-29 group bomb- ing Japan in 1945, he was asked when the war would end. He motioned an aide over and asked him for a list. “How many targets do we have left?” he asked. The war would be over, he said, when he ran out of targets.
Even though SAC’s Cold War was a new kind of struggle, LeMay still needed targets. He needed them to etch into three-dimensional Lucite templates for the radar bombsights of his bombers. He needed them to shape the SIOP (single integrated operations plan), the blueprint for nuclear war.
And LeMay controlled the targets. Until the early sixties neither the Joint Chiefs nor the President knew what they’d be attacking if nuclear war broke out. Moreover, since there were no locks, no presidential codes for the weapons, LeMay’s bombers could have launched a nuclear war on his authority. LeMay feared dilly-dallying politicians; he wanted to “hit ‘em with everything we’ve got” at the first signs of any massing of the bombers he was sure the Soviets were rapidly building. He wanted to be sure he could launch Armageddon even if the White House was gone—indeed, if the White House hesitated.
When Elsenhower, in his 1955 Open Skies proposal, suggested that the United States and the U.S.S.R. allow each other free reconnaissance overflights, the Soviets were suspicious. They rejected the proposal immediately. So LeMay opened up the Soviet skies in his own way to find targets.
At the height of Cold War tensions, in the 1950s, LeMay sent a fleet of RB-47s over Vladivostok at noon one day. The crews took pictures boldly, and though two of the planes spotted MiGs, no interceptions were made. He could easily have started a war with such a flight. In fact there is evidence that he regretted not having done so. After all, he was always tormented by that wasting asset incarnated in SAC’s head start: Use it now, before you lose it, he thought. When he called in an RB-47 crew that had taken MiG damage on another mission, he actually joked that “maybe if we do this overflight right, we can get World War III started.”
Moved up to head the Air Force in 1961, LeMay demanded ICBMs as soon as they arrived. He wanted to get his hands on all three legs of the retaliatory “triad.” He kept in his office a model of a Polaris submarine, with its nuclear missiles, painted up in the SAC livery.
In the 1962 Cuban missile crisis LeMay was a hawk. He added bombers to the dozen or so that circled constantly on alert, and he urged President Kennedy to launch air strikes. When the crisis was over, he made it clear he thought we had lost. He told Kennedy that he should have forced out not only the Soviet missiles but the Soviets and Castro as well. We’ve got the Russian bear in a trap, he said, so “let’s take off his leg right up to his testicles. On second thought, let’s take off his testicles, too.”
But the missile crisis had in some way broken the fever of the Cold War. The sense of tension would never again be so great. SAC began to fade in the mid-1960s. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara put an end to LeMay’s beloved B-70 program. The plane had been called Valkyrie. Twilight of the gods! The prototypes were put to work for research until, in the summer of 1967, a chase plane struck the tail of one, killing the test pilot, Joe Walker, and providing a dramatic frame-byframe spread for Life magazine.