The Most Notorious General You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

The man who called himself a war criminal.

By Alex Remnick
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Considered alone, with over 300,000 active duty members, the United States Air Force would be the 17th largest military force on Earth, larger than many countries’ entire operations. It flies over 5,000 aircraft and has over 400 nuclear missiles, with a budget of slightly over $153 billion this fiscal year. “In this day and age, you cannot undertake any military task unless you have superiority in air power,” a former Air Force chief of staff, General Curtis LeMay, said in an interview shortly before his death in 1990.

LeMay was a major force in expanding the United States' military power from the air. After joining the Army Air Corps in 1929, he climbed the ranks of the rapidly expanding Air Force, overseeing bombing campaigns in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. “No other U.S. military force commander so imprinted his personality and ideals upon his organization as LeMay,” the historian Walter J. Boyne wrote of the general. Gen. LeMay adhered to a simple strategy: “I'll tell you what war is about. You've got to kill people, and when you've killed enough they stop fighting.” The ramifications of General LeMay's tactics shaped many of the deadliest events of the 20th century, and affect global politics to this day.

In 1939, as Europe was descending into international conflict, President Franklin D. Roosevelt released a statement urging nations to avoid civilian targets.

“The ruthless bombing from the air of civilians in unfortified centers of population during the course of hostilities which have raged in various quarters of the earth during the past few years, which has resulted in the maiming and in the death of thousands of defenseless men, women and children, has sickened the hearts of every civilized man and woman, and has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity.

[If countries continue] this form of inhuman barbarism during the period of the tragic conflagration with which the world is now confronted, hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings who are not even remotely participating in hostilities, will lose their lives.”

When the United States entered the war against Japan, the Air Force attempted precision bombing. But poor visibility and bad weather meant that only about one in five bombers hit a target. That all changed in 1944 when LeMay was appointed to oversee the bombing of Japan. Aiming for maximum destruction, LeMay ordered that the Air Force use incendiary missiles, and had defensive weapons removed from planes to add more bombs.

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A view of Main Street in Tokyo after it was firebombed in 1945. Source: US Air Force

The results of LeMay’s strategy were devastating. On March 10, 1945, the United States carried out Operation Meetinghouse, an air raid of Tokyo that killed more than 90,000 Japanese, most of them civilians, and displaced over a million people. While later operations were more successful at hitting their much larger targets, the firebombing of Japan resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. (March 10, 1945 was the single most destructive air attack in human history, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.)

When asked later about his role in the air raids, LeMay said:

“There are no innocent civilians. It is their government and you are fighting a people, you are not trying to fight an armed force anymore. So it doesn’t bother me so much to be killing the so-called innocent bystanders.”

But many of his contemporaries, including LeMay’s frequent adversary, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, would come to see their actions differently. Six years before his death, McNamara took part in the documentary “The Fog of War.” When asked about U.S. actions in Japan during World War II, McNamara responded,“LeMay said if we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals. And I think he’s right. . . . LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose, and not immoral if you win?”

After World War II, LeMay served as head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, and was responsible for many of the early air raids using napalm and firebombs that claimed many civilian casualties. “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off — what — 20 percent of the population,” LeMay said in a 1984 interview. While little known in the United States, in North Korea, the bombings are a deep memory, with factual information of the real atrocities and distorted information mixed together to fuel anti-American propaganda, according to a report by The Washington Post.

LeMay was appointed Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force in 1961. During the Cuban missile crisis, LeMay was critical of Kennedy’s blockade, advocating instead for an invasion. As the United States was escalating involvement in Vietnam, LeMay once again advocated a strategy of scorched earth. In his 1965 memoir “Mission with LeMay: My Story,” LeMay recalls saying of North Vietnam, “They’ve got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression, or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.” While he would later argue that his words were misunderstood – he claimed in 1968 that he was discussing the US could do, not what it should do – the “Stone Age” quote would haunt LeMay for the rest of his career.

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Gen. LeMay (left) at a campaign event with George Wallace in New York City in 1968. Source: Library of Congress

Known for frequently clashing with President Johnson and Sec. McNamara, LeMay retired from military service in 1965. He briefly pursued electoral politics, and in 1968 was tapped by George Wallace as a running mate for Wallace’s presidential campaign. Despite running on a third party ticket, Wallace and LeMay were able to pick up 46 electoral votes over five states.

For the rest of his life LeMay staunchly defended his decisions and continued to advocate for military dominance. “So many people don’t realize that we are at war with communism, whether we like it or not.” When asked about his views on diplomacy, LeMay said, “I have absolutely no confidence in arms control agreements.” LeMay died in October of 1990, less than a year before the fall of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. But as long as there are American politicians threatening other countries with “fire and fury,” LeMay’s influence lives on, for better or worse.

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