1. TITLE AND BIBLIOGRAPHICAL INFO: 15 Minutes:  General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2011

2. AUTHOR: L Douglas Keeney                       

3. AUTHOR’S BACKGROUND: Cofounder of The Military Channel.  Military historian/researcher.  M.S. USC 


4. SCOPE: :  Study of Nuclear Age / Cold War from Hiroshima/Nagasaki (1945) to the deactivation of SAC (1991)

Thesis: U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War relied on a credible nuclear deterrent that only existed on paper in 1950.  The forging of SAC into the tool of deterrence it would become required risks and a complete dedication to building a no-fail culture.

EVIDENCE: Declassified records, interviews, press reports.


I have taken just one story from nuclear testing, one from SAC, and one from Air Defense Command to characterize the enormity of the entire Cold War machinery (4)

Evolution of SAC’s elite/no-fail culture under LeMay/Power – enabled U.S. foreign policy.  Kennan:  “Soviet power is impervious to the logic of reason and is highly sensitive to the logic of force” (21)

Seriousness of Cold War—victory not “pre-ordained”—willing to risk lives (Operation CASTLE civilian/military fallout casualties and Collapse of Texas Tower 4)

Analysis of previously classified documents provides new insight into decisions made during Cold War (3)



Deterrence was premised not only on having a striking force so inextinguishably powerful that even after absorbing a devastating first blow it could deliver a strike of nation-killing proportions, but on having the will to pull the trigger. (1)

SAC initially opposed air defense radar stations and slowed their funding until it was clear that early warning was essential to its own survival. 2

Free people must have faith that their government is living up to its promises and conforming to the nation’s laws and directives 2

When viewed through a properly refracted lens of history (i.e. declassified documents), current military practices take on new meaning. 3


How then was a winner to be determined in a nuclear war? “Accompanying these assumptions is the notion that prevailing in general war means coming out relatively ahead of the enemy. Does the US still “win” if it loses 30% of its population and the Soviets lose 60%? 5

1945 NECESSITIES:  WRT political consequences of atomic bombs. “In no other type of warfare does the advantage lie so heavily with the aggressor.” 7

And thus it was that in the Pacific, with a bomb, air power entered its primacy. 15

George Kennan, who wrote that “Soviet power is impervious to the logic of reason and is highly sensitive to the logic of force.’ 21


As General Groves would later say, the atomic bomb made war “unendurable— it’s very existence makes war unthinkable.”* But \ But unendurable and unthinkable hardly seemed to matter. Rather, how best to use the atomic bomb in the next war was a far more domineering line of thinking. 23

“Water Supply was the blueprint for a postwar distribution system that would send atomic bombs from Los Alamos to highly secret and heavily guarded storage facilities Each National Stockpile Site would operate within a current military base but with its own people and its own guards, an 25

As it is often said among military people, one seldom finishes a war with the same weapons that one started a war. 27

1946 DISORGANIZATION for almost ten years, one-way missionss were a fact of life in SAC 32

Nuclear weapons required testing and testing required explosions of atomic bombs. As the pace of weapons development accelerated, so, too, would the pace of testing. 36


National Security Act of 1947 Title 10 best summarized the responsibility handed to the new air branch. The United States Air Force’s primary responsibility was to “overcome any nations responsible for aggressive acts that imperil the peace id security of the United States.” 39


On March i8, 1948, a lone B-29 landed at what is now Heathrow Airport.  Two sets of an in-flight refueling system developed by the British called the “looped-hose system.” Byby the end of June, SAC established its first aerial-refueling units. In a 43

Aircrews would learn to insert plutonium capsules into atomic bombs after takeoffs and remove them before landings. That this made flying safer, however, hardly crossed anyone’s mind as they crawled into the bomb bay and came face-to-face with an atomic bomb. 48

By 1948, one-third of le-third of SAC’s B-29s were sitting idle, out of commission but for parts or mechanics to repair Lindbergh concluded: “The average pilot’s proficiency is unsatisfactory, teamwork is not properly developed, and maintenance of aircraft and equipment is inadequate.” 48

October 19, 1948, Vandenberg gave LeMay command of SAC. 49

No longer would Strategic Air Command bomb the Soviet Union on a forty-fiv eday, bomb-as-you-build plan. Rather, said Montgomery, SAC would launch the counteroffensive with every atomic bomb they had and on the very first day :hey would deliver the entire atomic stockpile in a single blow. 51


In august 1949 the Soviets had detonated an atomic bomb. While the American nuclear stockpile now stood at an impressive 235 bombs. The atomic monopoly was over. On 58

Emergency War Plans did not directly tie in to the official stockpile numbers. Rather, they provided guidance to the AEC on how many bombs would be needed, given specific scenarios. One version of Offtackle called for 220 bombs against 104 cities, while another called for 292 against 104 cities. 59


Because it was stated policy that the United States would not attack first. Strategic Air Command would have to absorb a blow while still retaining the capability to deliver a counterattack. LeMay 67

LeMay s. First, provide an overriding priority for the establishment of an intelligence system which will tell us the where and when of the enemy’s atomic force. Sec Second, place the Air Force on a war footing without further delay. Third, provide funds in such quantities as may be needed to ensure that the striking force will be operational as a long range intercontinental force not later than July of 1952, and fourth, reexamine resent policies which imply that we must absorb the first blow.” 67

‘I believe that we have got to do something about the conception that we must wait until Russia hits us before we can start shooting,” said Kenney. “By all previous definitions, we are now in a state of war with Russia. The only way that we can be certain of winning is to take the offensive as soon as possible and hit Russia hard enough to at least prevent her from taking over Europe.” 69

It was November 10, 1950 Five atomic bombs had been lost in accidents. 72


President Truman to release nine pinonium capsules for the nine bomb assemblies already on Guam. On April 6, President Truman approved the request and released the ruman released he bombs personally to air force chief of staff General Hoyt Vandenberg, who was formally designated a “personal representative of the President of the President.’ 76

It was that for the first time since World War II, war-ready atomic bombs with their plutonium capsules were deployed to a forward base and were ready to strike. 77

SAC disliked others speaking on its behalf and wanted its information direct. They wanted feeds inside Air Defense Command’s situation rooms so that it could access and evaluate the radar returns on its own, but the immediate issue was the type 79

LeMay’s point was that the size of bombs should be based not on what was scientifically possible but on military variables such as the distance a given bomber could fly with a bomb of a certain weight, or the need for higher-yielding oo to destroy hardened targets, or to account for the simple reality that bombers would be shot down en route to their targets, making it all the more important :hat the bombers that did get through had the largest bombs possible. 79

I could beco Semiautomatic Ground Environment netwoi IBM, th. 1 produce Whirlwind II, the world’s first true mainframe computer. Twenty-five SAGE control centers were built. In a marvel of redundancy. Any one of the centers could take over the entire nation should the enemy destroy any one of the others. 81

Included in the recommendations were a cluster of ocean-based radar stations called Texas Towers. For detecting low flying aircraft coming in from the Atlantic. Years later the press would marvel at the Distant Early Warning line of radar stations (the DEW line). The Texas Towers would be dubbed an “inglorious failure.” 87


In1953, RAND analyzed the vulnerability of Strategic Air Command bases to a surprise Soviet attack and concluded that SAC would be all but decapitated.  73 percent of SAC’s U.S. bases would be caught with their bombers on the ground, and even more overseas. For wings on rotation overseas will be caught on the ground.’’ 97

Deterrence depended on the “maintenance of a massive retaliatory capability that could not be neutralized by a Soviet surprise attack.” Further, it required “the clear communication of the U.S. intentions to the Soviet Union.” 98

In October 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower endorsed National Security Council 162/2, which would become known as the New Look. New Look called for “retaliation” against Soviet hostilities when and where America chose. No Ion massive retaliation. 99

October 1953 . A series of tests called “Quick Strike” were developed. A certain number of SAC bombers would be set aside in a state of readiness that would allow them to take off upon receipt of an execution order. Those “it was probably one of the most important developments in the ten-year history of the command. It was a harbinger of a new era.” That era would be an era when everything was measured in minutes. 100

On February 24, 1954, President Eisenhower approved the construetion of the Distant Early Warning line of radar stations, a chain of sixty-three radar stations impossibly clawed out of the frozen tundra two hundred miles north of the arctic circle in a line thirty-two hundred miles long, beginning at 113

AC trained more, subjected their men to more tests, busted rank and spot promoted, but also had their own lines for meals and their own checkout lanes in the base exchange. In a word, SAC had swagger. 117

A. quick-strike bomber could be airborne in less than six hours, but half that time was spent aading the bomb, one person noted. The suggestion was made to preload the bombers with bombs and place the bombers in special “ready” hangars guarded by armed soldiers. These “ready” bombers, as they would be called, could be airborne in just an hour. 118


An individual’s exposure to radiation came down to a policy that House called “military need.” Said In practice, this system seemed to allow soldiers to absorb contamination in direct proportion to the importance of their jobs. 143

In what was fast becoming the largest radiological disaster in nuclear testing, some eight hundred men required waivers and some eight hundred men were given waivers. 1447

The cover-up:  March 11, 1954, the Atomic Energy Commission issued a press release about what had occurred out in the Pacific: “During the course of routine atomic tests in the Marshall Islands 28 U.S. personnel and 236 residents were transported from neighboring atolls to Kwajalein Island according to a plan as a precautionary measure. 146


In 1955 President Eisenhower agreed and approved the development of not only Atlas and Titan but also an intermediate range ballistic missile called Thor. I 148

1956 THE TWO-MAN RULE No, our pilots go into targets alone. It’s a matter of ethics whether they press through the attack. 1 154

Of the 642 SAC bombers launched in the first wave, 610 would not make it home. 155

The Two man rule, which stated that whenever nuclear weapons were handled, two men had to be present. Said the concept was designed not only to prevent a technical slip such as the wrong sling attached to the wrong bomb but to prevent sabotage, say in the instance where one member has become psychotic or is otherwise mentally unstable. 155

Operation Castle, largely seen by historians as a precursor to deliverable hydrogen bomb for SAC, in fact greatly benefited the emerging missile program. In a word. Operation Castle sliced off more than a year in the development of ICBMs not because of any breakthrough in boosters or guidance systems but because of bigger blasts that compensated for both. 159

Said Eisenhower: “The government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.” Eisenhower called this a “technocratic state” where research and intellectual creativity were driven by military requirements and military purchasing instead of the natural processes of research and development. The military-industrial complex.” 161


Operation Castle would be remembered for its contrasts—both as a radiological disaster yes, but militarily, as one of the most important  nuclear tests yet. All but one of the seven experimental bombs were proof tests of weapons or elements of weapons that when confirmed would be manufactured and placed into the stockpiles. For 170

In short, a good map found at a gas station would do what a U-2 could scarcely hope to accomplish in a dozen missions—something the Soviets may have taken into account. The Soviets may also have been swayed by the tacit American acceptance of Soviet “base watchers.” Base 176

In what was perhaps the best-kept secret of the Cold War, President Eisenhower gave a specific number of air-defense military commanders authority to use nuclear weapons without further consultation with him. Eisenhower pre-delegated additional authority to use nuclear weapons without further approval from him in a 1957 document titled “Instruct! 179

Perhaps the most important refinement of ground alert was called ‘cocking the bomber.” Cocking entailed pulling a bomber out of a hangar. Positioning it on the alert ramp, presetting switches in the cockpit, selecting departure frequencies, opening navig; 181

At its peak, the nuclear shield consisted of some 1,600 Nike launchers, 224 long-range antiaircraft guided missiles, and, at any given hour, some three hundred or more fighters on strip alert. More than 10,900 atomic warheads were earmarked for air defense. 181

On July 1, 1957, after a historic nine years as the head of Strategic Air Command, General Thomas Power replaced Curtis LeMay as commander in chief of Strategic Air Command. In no way, however, did LeMay’s presence shrink. General Power was of the LeMay mold. SAC would not just continue the disciplines put into place by LeMay; under Power those disciplines would be hardened, the 183

T sealed pit bomb. B< uclear bombs no longer needed to have removable capsules; rather, the capsules could be sealed inside the bomb without sacrificing safety. 205

After-action report on Taiwan, SAC, was a nuclear weapon. SAC continued and added that it would “relieve itself of any conventional weapons delivery requirement” hereon out and would instead use the nuclear weapon of a yield appropriate to a target. 209

19 58 IRRETRIEVABLY LOST Four months later, on June 9, 1958, General Loper wrote the Joint Committee to tell them that the search for the bomb in Savannah had been called off. “The weapon is considered irretrievably lost,” said Loper, atic 212

As 1959 came to a close. Strategic Air Command was at its peak strength. of 2,921 bombers and tankers, from which it would steadily decline as 3verseas,. 225

The first SIOP plan was developed for fiscal year 1962 and was thus called SIOP-62. 238

“Experience has shown the extreme difficulty if not impossibility, of getting the same degree of motivation and dedication from organizations which must support but are not a part of SAC.” 248


January 1961,. In a total of three sweeps of the radar the image of the tower disappeared.” Sutton said the tower shifted, then tilted, and then slid into the sea. Tower Four was gone. 269 all hands lost


SAC simplified the process. If a member of a flight crew scored 100 percent, he passed. If he scored 99 percent, he failed. 277

Russians were so thoroughly stood down during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and we knew it. They didn’t make a move. They did not increase their alert; they did not increase any flights, or their air defense posture. They – Cuban missile crisis 284

1963 came to an end, there were 922 bombers and tankers on alert but there were also 631 ICBMs in silos, of which 426 were on alert. 295


On March 15, 1964, for the first the first time in Cold War history, the number of ICBMs on alert exceeded the number of manned bombers. A total of 620 missiles were on SIOP alert, as opposed to 619 bombers. Wit 296


Strategic Air Command reluctantly entered the Vietnam War. On June 18, 1965, twenty-seven of these bombers flew to Vietnam and bombed areas suspected of being Vietcong staging areas. 303

COMPLETE WEAPONS On January 19, 1966, a pair c It an American B-52 had exploded over Palomares, Spain, and Soviet trawlers promptly made their way to Palomares.  On April 7, 1966, the bomb was pulled out of the water and laid on the deck of the USS Petrel. 306-7

196 6 PRESS TARGETS SAC wa unhappy about its involvement in Vietnam as it continued to be with the unwelcome transition to missiles. It didn’t entirely believe in missiles and Vietnam was a distraction. 313

‘On January 22, 1968 SAC terminated the carrying of nuclear weapons aboard airborne alert aircraft indoctrination level missions. No publicity is being given this fact.” The 318

He proliferation of Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) put the network of Airborne National Command Posts and the NEACP EC-135s at risk.: “Under 15-minute ground alert but all bases are within 13.8 minutes flight time of the S-N-6 launch locations.”

On September 27, 1991, President George H. W. Bush ordered Strategic Air Command to stand down their alert forces. On June 1, 1992, Strategic Air Command was dissolved.

As of September 2010, the United States Air Force nuclear bombing Force consisted of 96 B-52s, 66 B-IB bombers, and 20 B-2s. 1,450 Minuteman s. The F-15, F-16, and F-22 fighters were nuclear capable. 319

EPILOGUE Robert McNamara said it best: “Nuclear weapons serve no military purpose whatsoever. They are totally useless . . . except to deter one’s opponent from u them.” 321


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