BOOK REVIEW: 'LeMay': Warts and All Portrait of a Great But Woefully Misunderstood General

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'LeMay': Warts and All Portrait of a Great But Woefully Misunderstood General
Patton, Sherman, LeMay: Three American generals who believed in using maximum force to kill the enemy and bring the war to a successful conclusion. Of the three, perhaps Curtis LeMay (1906-1990) is the most difficult for modern readers to understand, as the paperback edition of Warren Kozak's 2009 hardback "LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay" (Regnery History, 434 pages, color and black and white glossy photographs, index, notes, $18.95) graphically demonstrates.

Kozak is an unabashed defender of a man whose 1945 firebombing of Japan's bigger cities in the months before the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused many more deaths than the August 1945 nuclear bombing of the two cities.

Kozak argues that LeMay's total war strategy using low-level incendiary bombing with B-29 bombers was necessary to force the Japanese to surrender, even as plans went ahead for invasion of the Japanese home islands. In the aftermath of bombing of Tokyo, Nagoya and other cities, evidence in the form of drill presses and other manufacturing tools in the rubble attested to the dispersion of Japanese industry in "civilian" areas, as opposed to the large slave labor factories on Nazi Germany -- which LeMay's Eighth Air Force also bombed.

Kozak notes that Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film "Dr. Strangelove" had not one but two erroneous portrayals of LeMay: Sterling Hayden's cigar chomping Gen. Jack D. Ripper and George C. Scott's Gen. Buck Turgidson. Neither was an accurate portrayal of a man who played by the rules of civilian control of the military, although Kozak says that LeMay wasn't above bending the rules as in his (unsuccessful) lobbying for the B-70 bomber to replace the B-52s.

When he died in 1990, after seeing the end of the Cold War, newscasters like the late Peter Jennings pointed to LeMay's vice presidential run on the George Wallace American Independent third party ticket in 1968, neglecting to explain that -- according to Kozak -- LeMay ran in a successful attempt to prevent the election of Hubert Humphrey and ensure the election of Richard Nixon.

Revisionist obits in 1990 also reminded people of the firebombing of Japan, even though the Japanese themselves awarded LeMay with one of their highest honors -- the Order of the Rising Sun, First Class, Grand Cordon -- in the mid-1960s, just before he retired in 1965. They understood that the military cabal that ran Japan -- and caused the deaths of 15 million Asians in another, Asian, holocaust -- had to be defeated by "Brutal LeMay" as the Japanese newspapers dubbed LeMay after the firebombing raids.

Not even the most devoted admirer of Curtis LeMay would accuse him of being a brilliant public speaker with suave manners. His devoted wife Helen constantly told him "Curtis, you shouldn't have said that," Kozak relates. His appearance, in part affected by paralysis from Bell's Palsy, which resulted in a lopsided face, contributed to the "caveman" image of LeMay. Kozak says the portrayal of LeMay as a trigger-happy war lover failed to take into account the respect that was granted the brilliant general by his superiors and those who served under him, including a liberal Harvard educated lawyer named Ralph Nutter, who recognized the superior qualities of LeMay. Nutter later became a California Supreme Court justice.

Nutter, and others who served under LeMay saw the Columbus, Ohio native as a brilliant tactician who was gruff yet compassionate, brilliant yet misunderstood, accomplished yet vilified. Kozak's biography digs beneath the surface stereotypes of LeMay to show why we need generals like him.

In addition to his bombing campaign of Japan which eliminated the need for a land invasion that would have resulted in more than a million casualties on the allied side and millions of deaths of Japanese, LeMay championed the creation of an independent Air Force, which became a reality in 1947. He led the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and won the admiration of the recently defeated Germans, and the respect of the Russians who never underestimated Curtis Emerson LeMay. He turned the Strategic Air Command from a disaster to a success which contributed mightily to the end of the Soviet Union, Kozak writes. The SAC (1946-1992) was located at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha and, despite his lack of polish, LeMay won over the solid Midwesterners of the Nebraska metropolis, who welcomed SAC and LeMay, his wife and his daughter Janie as locals.

My sole criticism of the book is its incomplete index. There are no entries for Omaha or Offutt Air Force Base or Dresden, even though Kozak mentions the February 13-15, 1945 firebombing of the German city by the British and American air forces. That caveat aside, I recommend "LeMay" for anyone who wants to understand the nature of war.

About the Author:

Warren Kozak is an author and journalist who has written for television’s most respected news anchors, including Diane Sawyer and Peter Jennings. Winner of the prestigious Benton Fellowship at the University of Chicago in 1993, he was an on-air reporter for NPR and his work has appeared on PBS and in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Sun as well as other newspapers and magazines. Warren Kozak was born and raised in Wisconsin and lives in New York City with his wife and daughter.

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