Despite being one of the most important military leaders in World War II — he led the United States bombing campaigns against the Japanese — you often don’t hear very much about General Curtis LeMay, aside from an odd quote or two in the history books. The reason for this is likely because if we take a closer examination of LeMay, it becomes clear that some of the Allied leaders were hardly distinguishable from the monsters we were fighting on the other side. LeMay was a monster, but he was our monster, so we hid him under the bed instead of demolishing his character and everything he stood for.
10. His Unending Brutality May Be A Big Reason The USA Used The Atomic Bomb
Most people know the popular arguments for why the United States dropped the big ol’ bomb on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The biggest granddaddy argument of them all, of course, is that if we hadn’t used our giant atomic bombs to make such a huge impression (all at once) of our ridiculously horrific new implements of destruction, that the Japanese would have never, ever surrendered and would have fought down to the very last man, woman and child. Without using the atomic bombs to essentially scare them into submission, the argument postulates, this would simply have been the only other reasonable outcome.
Now, some people argue that the real reason the Japanese surrendered was not even because of what we did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but because the Russians were about to create a new front against them if they didn’t, and they simply did not have the resources to fight both of the remaining superpowers that had emerged from the rubble. However, even if that were the case, many who wanted it dropped did believe it could quickly bring an end to the war, and the claim it would avoid further loss of life was a very common point to bring up — and is still today.
However, the truth is that we likely never would have even gotten close to such a point, or really felt that that was the only option, without the brutal tactics of General Curtis LeMay. He was the general in charge of the Pacific bombing campaign against the Japanese, and he was one of the most bloodthirsty men in military history — modern or otherwise. The Japanese likely felt that their backs were against the wall, and surrender was a last resort, considering the unrelenting brutality they had been shown by General LeMay. It is quite possible, considering how much of a butcher he was, that some were unsure he would even accept a surrender if it were up to him.
9. The Massive Bombing Campaign He Orchestrated Against Populated Cities
Some people are aware that General LeMay was in charge of the bombing campaigns in the Pacific and some people know that he was quite brutal, or that he firebombed Tokyo — more on that later — but many people are totally unaware of just how widespread, horrific and unrelenting his bombing campaign on the Japanese was in its entirety, and just how much he focused on civilian cities and installations. Under the direction of General LeMay, who felt that anything was justified as long as it meant finishing the war, directed bombers to go after heavily populated cities and industrial centers full of workers whenever possible.
Considering the chaos of the war, the amount of casualties and wounded is really hard to properly quantify. However, we do know that the amount of killed civilians amounted in the hundreds of thousands and may have gotten close to a million, with hundreds of thousands more wounded. LeMay, in his lifetime, never seemed to show any regret for these actions at all. To his thinking, what he did was the quickest and best way to beat down the enemy, and he was just doing what needed to be done. It is quite a wonder the Japanese people do not hate us to this day, after the horrors we inflicted on heavily occupied cities.
8. His Brutality In North Korea May Be A Big Reason They Still Hate Us To This Day
The Korean War is probably the most forgotten war in history. While people love to talk about the glories of World War II, or reenact the Civil War in great detail, there are very few movies or media about the Korean War. Now, we know a lot of M*A*S*H fans are going to be up in arms, but the show (and book, and movie), while excellent, is a lot more lighthearted than something like Band of Brothers or The Pacific, and doesn’t really go out of its way to show you all the worst of the gritty, horrible things that happened in the Korean War. And the truth is, the reason why the Korean War is largely not talked about is because it was really a pretty shameful chapter in our history.
The way the war was run was filled with paranoia and unnecessary aggression to begin with, and we allowed the South Koreans to get away with many war crimes in the name of victory, and defeating communism. General Douglas MacArthur wanted to toss down a ring of nukes to irradiate the area above South Korea so nobody would be able to invade for decades. However, it was our old friend General LeMay, who once again took things too far, and proceeded to demolish civilians with horrifying speed. As the head of strategic air command for the whole operation, he had them go for occupied cities, civilian infrastructure, and once again made a lot of use of incendiary ammunition. He set most of North Korea on fire, and they simply were unprepared for it. In an interview on TV in the 1980s, he stated without any hint of remorse that we had likely destroyed about 20% of their population. And people wonder why they hate America.
7. He Was a Vice Presidential Candidate For The Racist Segregationist George Wallace
George Wallace is famous for being the biggest perennial loser in the history of American presidential politics, which is no easy task. This was a man who managed, throughout the course of his life, to have a grand total of 16 years as the governor of Alabama, and he first put himself in the history books with a despicably racist action. The Supreme Court had ordered desegregation of schools, but Governor Wallace made a mockery of his office by literally standing in the doorway of the University and not letting a new black student through. While this did gain him a certain popularity with a particular type of voter, it did not do much for his national reputation.
During his 1968 run, where he was trying to split the election enough between himself, Nixon and Humphrey to stop anyone from winning the electoral college, he decided he needed someone on the ticket who would garner more respect than himself. For that reason, after approaching a couple people who were incompatible with his segregationist views, he found General LeMay, who was more than happy to join him on the independent ticket as his vice presidential running mate for the 1968 election. Now, we aren’t saying LeMay was known for being a vicious or particularly cruel racist, but there is something to be said about a man by the company he keeps — or runs for the White House with.
6. He Orchestrated The Firebombing Of Tokyo, And Personally Encouraged Napalm
General LeMay may not have had much of a soul, but he was certainly good at finding his enemies’ vulnerabilities. One thing he noticed quickly about Japanese cities was that they tended to be extremely flammable. For that reason, he usually used incendiary ammo like napalm in order to firebomb his enemies and make the destruction and civilian death toll that much worse. While these actions taken together are bad enough, there is hardly any one action of any military that can match the brutality of the firebombing of Tokyo — also known as Operation Meetinghouse. This campaign was carried out in 1945 on the night of March 9, and set a record for horrendous brutality.
Most people like to think of the destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the worst single attack in history, but while it was significant because they were two single bombs, the air raid carried out over Tokyo was easily more deadly than either of those explosions. By some estimates, may have beat them both combined.
While estimates for Hiroshima and Nagasaki often go anywhere from a few tens of thousands to a little over one hundred thousand per event (the nature of the incident and the chaos of the war makes exact numbers difficult), the bombing of Tokyo had at least one hundred thousand confirmed dead, and with the intense conflagration (which LeMay called “the biggest firecracker the Japanese would ever see”), we may never even get close to the real number of dead. The United States targeted Shitamachi district, a heavily populated area with about 750,000 people living in it, so the loss of life could be even more heartbreaking — we just may never know. Without even using an atomic bomb, and with well under 300 American casualties, LeMay has set a standard for brutality that has not been broken to this day.
5. He Suggested Nukes In Vietnam And Ruined His And Wallace’s Chances At The Election
We mentioned earlier that George Wallace, known for being a bit of a kooky segregationist, had picked General LeMay as his running mate. At first, this was exactly the man he was hoping for: He would talk tough, shore up Wallace’s credentials to deal with the Vietnam situation, and give him more military support for his segregationist beliefs. However, despite being a bit out there himself, Wallace started to feel that LeMay was actually hurting their candidacy with a lot of his comments, and likely had a long talk with him, because LeMay later walked some of his comments back partially — although he was still, in general, a very belligerent and aggressive person.
The comments that alarmed Wallace also alarmed the media. LeMay suggested that we should bomb Vietnam back to the stone age, and he also suggested that he would use nuclear weapons against Vietnam “if necessary.” He felt that nuclear weapons were just another of the many tools of war, and that people shouldn’t be so particularly afraid of them, or afraid of using them — especially on civilian populations. While LeMay would, as we said, try to walk some of it back later, it certainly didn’t appear to help Wallace win the election, as he eventually went on to lose.
It should also be noted that while LeMay may have tried to walk it back, he was not really being very honest with himself. As a four star general who had a coveted position with the joint chiefs of staff, he actually strongly advised more bombing in Vietnam in general, especially on more civilian populated centers or infrastructure hubs. For LeMay, the same old strategy never got old, and he never put any new tricks in his playbook.
4. He Was Willing To Lead From The Front, And Would Court Martial Immediately For Cowardice
General LeMay was one of the most vicious generals in history. But he was also a man like no other, and while he was brutal, he was also no coward. He was quite a skilled bomber pilot himself, and never forgot it even after he rose up through the ranks. As he started to take command, he noticed problems with his men. Oftentimes, when they got close to the target, they would veer off and make evasive maneuvers too early to properly get in close and do damage. They were protecting their own safety, but they weren’t putting in enough risks to properly get the mission done.
While General LeMay was disgusted by their cowardice, he also knew that with so many men entirely new to the military, he had to do something to show them that they should not be afraid. Even though he was a general and probably should not have been putting his life directly at risk — and would likely not have been allowed in our present age — he went ahead and led bomber missions from the front, piloting and leading his men into battle.
After several missions like this, and many threats to court martial anyone who dared to be a coward when they got near the target, he was satisfied that his men would no longer cut and run out of fear when the going got tough. Everyone knew that he would fully go through with the court martial, and they respected his bravery and dedication to duty. Putting his life on the line showed his men that he was not asking them to do anything he would not do, and that had a great effect on them for the rest of the campaign.
3. LeMay Foresaw Being Tried For War Crimes If The USA Lost — He Knew He Was Doing Wrong
When the Nazis were defeated, the Allies held the trials at Nuremberg to punish Nazi war criminals for their atrocities. However, many — even at the time — found the whole thing to be extremely hypocritical and some just thought it would be completely ineffective. The argument of those who wanted the trials was a combination of ensuring justice, and also acting as a deterrent so people like Hitler and his men wouldn’t do what they did again. However, some at the time argued that it wouldn’t be much of a real deterrent, because people who do what they did aren’t really planning to lose, and in their minds, if they lose, they will likely run off or end their own lives before being captured — even if it doesn’t turn out that way in reality.
As the saying goes, history is written by the winners. And this is the other argument that some had: That many Allied war crimes were being ignored, and we were really just punishing those who were beaten into submission, and not really appropriately punishing all of the people who committed crimes against humanity.
And there is no greater example of this miscarriage of justice than the fact that, because the Allies did not punish the war crimes of their own, General LeMay got away without any punishment at all. He went on to live most of his life with a coveted position on the joint chiefs of staff advising the president, and lived until he was an old man. Even LeMay himself knew he deserved it. After World War II, he admitted that he knew he likely would have been tried for war crimes if the United States had lost.
2. If General LeMay Had Had His Way, The Cuban Missile Crisis Would Have Ended In Disaster
General LeMay was not only brutal — sometimes he was just straight up reckless, and arguably bullheaded to the point of stupidity. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the most dangerous fortnight in our history, and many people today still praise Kennedy for his handling of the situation, even if they liked nothing else about him at all. During the Crisis, the Cold War was at its worst point. The United States had staged a sort of mini-failed invasion of Cuba, and had even sent nuclear weapons to Turkey, near Russia. The Russians, feeling they needed to answer tit for tat and also push the United States away from Cuba, sent nuclear missiles to the island. Kennedy followed up by blockading Cuba to prevent further nuclear missiles being sent. The world held its breath, as many feared the world’s two greatest nuclear powers may usher in an entirely manmade and avoidable armageddon.
As we know, history turned out rather well. Kennedy made a quiet, backroom deal with Kruschev — the missiles at Turkey were withdrawn, as were the ones at Cuba, and relations slowly improved to the point that the countries were a little less likely to try to kill each other at any minute, and the world breathed a sigh of relief. However, General LeMay was positively fuming, and believed our even partial backing down during the situation, our giving of any ground, was basically just giving up to the enemy and allowing them to defeat us.
It was LeMay who vociferously argued with Kennedy, in his position as four star general and Chief of Staff of the Air Force, that we should bomb the hell out Cuba, and then go ahead and invade it like we originally tried before at the Bay of Pigs. Even after the Crisis was officially over and done, LeMay still groused that we could have beaten the Russians, taken back Cuba, and that the whole thing was a disaster. As far as he was concerned, if we had just thrown more bombs at the problem, it would have solved everything. Fortunately, Kennedy’s thinking was not as binary as LeMay’s, and he saw what LeMay didn’t — that bombing and invading Cuba could lead to an all out nuclear war with the Soviets; a war in which everyone would ultimately be the loser.
1. General LeMay Simply Knew No Other Way Of War Apart From Demolishing Everything
Some may suggest that General LeMay was simply a man from another time, or what happens when men go to war, but there were plenty of generals in the worst modern and ancient wars, and even among the Nazis, who had more respect for life — especially civilian life — than Curtis LeMay. The man was, by all accounts, a monster who had absolutely no remorse, no conscience and saw nothing wrong with destroying absolutely massive amounts of civilians if it would bring about the end he wanted. For LeMay, the ends justified the means, and the means were always killing as many people, and as much destruction of homes and infrastructure, as possible.
As we talked about throughout this article, his obsession with destruction and inability to see war in any other terms became the defining characteristic of his life. Even as the joint chiefs of staff worked to find ways to make peace with the Soviets, he still stubbornly believed that the best option was to bully them, and if they didn’t do what was desired, annihilate them from the Earth entirely.
And as he started to reach the twilight of his life, and joined a presidential campaign, he continued to be marked as nothing more than a man obsessed with violence even when it really didn’t make any sense, and brought himself out of obscurity only to be mocked and scolded for the way he wanted to make the world a much worse place. Even in his old age, he never showed remorse, and never showed that he had learned anything about peace, or diplomacy. Until the end, he remained an angry, fiery man who wanted to bomb the world to smithereens until it submitted to his will.
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