Dr. Strangelove’s Children

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George C. Scott’s version of LeMay in Dr. Strangelove rang true all except for the womanizing, which LeMay didn’t do.

By 1964, when Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove came out, the idea of SAC as protector of “our way of life” had come to seem dark comedy. George C. Scott’s version of LeMay rang true in every way except for the womanizing, which LeMay didn’t do. The World War II-style ethnically balanced crew of the bomber now featured a black man, James Earl Jones, as the bombadier and Slim Pickens, in his greatest role, as Major Kong, who, when the go code comes, swaps his helmet for a cowboy hat and solemnly announces to the crew that it is time to go into “nuclear combat toe to toe with the Rooskies.” The real question, never answered, was, Could anyone go through with it? “Heck, I reckon you wouldn’t even be human beings,” says Pickens, “if you didn’t have some pretty strong personal feelings about nuclear combat.”

Perhaps my father’s injuries should have made me sense that airpower was not as clean and neat as its proponents depicted it, but the bombers that arrived each year seduced me with their beauty and kept me from doubts. Until we moved away from the base, I put together my models and we kids played out bombing roles in the limbs of a crepe myrtle tree.

I outgrew the bombers, of course, as other children outgrow fire engines or trains, but I still sat baffled in the theater at the end of Dr. Strangelove , a first exposure to black humor, when Slim Pickens rode the bomb to target rodeo style. I was twelve; only with years of maturity would I realize that this was the moment that ended the Cold War for me.

By 1965 Curtis LeMay had retired, impatient with progress in Vietnam. Unmuzzled at last, he used in his autobiography such terms as yellow twerp for a bomber pilot he deemed cowardly and parlor pink to describe a journalist. On page 565 he enunciated his famous recommendation for U.S. policy in Vietnam: “tell them frankly that they’ve got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression, or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.” In 1968 George Wallace picked LeMay as his running mate.

It had all been far from fail-safe, we would learn much later. There were numerous failures in the primitive electronics of the time—mistakenly played exercise-alert tapes, radar artifacts that looked like attacking bombers, many close calls the public never learned of. Col. Jack D. Ripper was not an impossible nightmare; before 1960 a local commander could have launched bomber attacks.

The B-52 flew on. Formally the Stratofortress, it was known to its crews as the BUFF, a phrase the Pentagon euphemistically insisted stood for “big ugly fat fellow.” In Vietnam the BUFFs’ silver skins were painted in camouflage. They were again pressed into service in the Gulf War. “Planes older than the men who fly them,” the generals grumbled, but their successors, the highly politicized B-I and the billion-dollar-apiece B-2 stealth bomber, were held out of that war, too expensive and unreliable to use.

Missiles had long since supplanted the bomber as the tools of nuclear deterrence; the maintenance of a bomber force as a leg of the triad was more a concession to old-line generals than a realistic attempt at defense. Still, airpower’s advocates had their day once more in a new form when the F-117 stealth, called a fighter but in reality a bomber for precision-guided weapons, starred in the Gulf War.

LeMay in old age dwelt on his World War II career, not his leadership of SAC or the Air Force. Interviewed late in his life by the historian Michael Sherry, he became taciturn and defensive about only one subject: the carnage of the Tokyo firebomb raid. He died in 1990, just before the Gulf War left a new vision of airpower as clean and bloodless, of smart weapons and stealth airplanes clashing in the green skies of night-vision lenses. Only the enemies were different. “Dad,” my nine-year-old son asked me not long ago, “what was the Soviet Union?”

SAC: Forty-five Years on Alert