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The Cabinet of Dr. Strangelove

This is a sizable claim for Schriever, and not a particularly convincing one. Perhaps Schriever was, at times, an indispensable man in the military rocket program, but at a minimum, the general shared his place with other figures, many of whom populate A Fiery Peace—particularly the brilliant von Neumann and the cantankerous engineer Edward Hall (whose brother Ted spied for the Soviet Union at Los Alamos, even as Ed helped the United States overcome the humiliation of Sputnik). Moreover, Schriever does not emerge as an interesting man. He played golf well; he got along with his peers (other than LeMay, with whom hardly anyone got along); and he usually completed his projects successfully, even under great pressure. He was an outstanding technocratic leader and manager, that is, but also a conventional military careerist of his era. After retirement, Schriever spent some of his days playing golf at the Burning Tree Country Club, outside of Washington, where he joined other members in resisting ardently the admission of women.

It is a testament to Sheehan’s gifts as a writer that these difficulties with his choice of a protagonist do not burden his book unduly. Sheehan turns great swaths of his narrative over to more interesting figures, such as von Neumann, Hall, and Trevor Gardner, a Welsh-born civilian technology specialist assigned to the Air Force who periodically balled up sheets of paper during meetings and chewed them, and who, not incidentally, had a serious drinking problem. Of all the secondary figures the author brings to life, however, it is LeMay, who was often Schriever’s antagonist, who looms largest. Sheehan offers a partially revisionist, consistently thoughtful account of the general, who was one of the less thoughtful architects of the early atomic age.

Like Bernard Schriever, Curtis LeMay came of age in the US Army Air Corps during the 1930s, one of a generation of military and civilian pilots who learned about instrument navigation and night flying through perilous trial and error. At the onset of World War II, LeMay held the rank of major. He made his reputation—and won rapid promotions—as the commander of a bombardment group of B-17s that flew against German targets from England. Sheehan observes that LeMay displayed “the genius of the implementer.” Under unimaginable pressure, as scores of pilots alongside him fell to their deaths from the skies, LeMay not only held his nerve, but he developed one bombing innovation after another—better flying formations, expanded gunnery training, insights into navigation problems, and improved bomb-dropping techniques. At thirty-seven, he became the youngest major general in the United States Army; by then, Sheehan writes, the modern bomber aircraft had become “a fighting machine to which he was deeply wedded emotionally.”

Early in 1945, as the long-range B-29 Superfortress established itself in the Allied aerial forces, Hap Arnold dispatched LeMay to Asia to lead a strategic bombing campaign against Japan, one that might soften up the Japanese homeland for a US-led invasion. Asia’s high-altitude jet stream thwarted some of the bombing tactics LeMay had employed over Germany. “LeMay was not a man to persist in a futile exercise and the challenge he faced brought out the ruthlessness in him,” Sheehan writes. Nearly all of the buildings in Tokyo and other Japanese cities were constructed of wood. This fact produced the most infamous tactical insight of LeMay’s career: by dropping oil-gel and napalm bombs, he could ignite devastating fires that would spread uncontrollably, particularly on windy nights.

The firebombing of Japan commenced on March 9, 1945. It was a tactic supported at every level of the American chain of command. Ultimately, LeMay burned sixty Japanese cities. Six hundred and seventy thousand Japanese civilians died from American bombing, the majority because of LeMay’s fire raids, Sheehan estimates. His judgment about this death toll is matter-of-fact:

While LeMay’s willingness to engage in slaughter on such a scale demonstrated the remorselessness of the man, he was not attempting to be deliberately cruel…. Balanced against the bloodletting the American infantryman and Marine would have to endure to invade and physically conquer the Japanese home islands, the agony of Japan’s civilians had no weight in the scales. No American leader, military or civilian, was going to protect Japanese civilians at the expense of American soldiers.

This is accurate about the historical setting, but it is also forgiving. LeMay eventually campaigned in 1968 for the vice-presidency on a ticket with the segregationist George Wallace, a decision that seems to have been motivated by defense issues, but which at least suggests the possibility that his racial attitudes lay outside even the then-prevailing mainstream. Sheehan does connect LeMay’s coarsening experiences in Japan with his willingness in later years to contemplate nuclear exchanges with the Soviet Union, including during the Cuba crisis:

Taking human life on a horrendous scale once apparently made it easier for him to contemplate taking it on a far more horrendous scale the next time. It was therefore not that difficult for him to go from anonymous Japanese men, women, and children by the hundreds of thousands to the planned killing of tens of millions of anonymous civilians in the Soviet Union, the East European states, and China.

LeMay emerged from the war as America’s preeminent Air Force commander. His heroic performance during the Berlin Air Lift further cemented his power. He was the obvious man to address the disarray and unprofessional practices that had built up at the Strategic Air Command during its first years. LeMay soon organized the SAC into a highly alert, well-drilled nuclear bombing force that could evade a Soviet surprise attack and drop atomic weapons on Soviet cities within hours of a presidential order.

During his rise in England, LeMay had succeeded by inviting fellow pilots to speak freely, without respect of rank, about the practical problems they confronted in the air. By the time Schriever began to tinker with missile research, “The Cigar,” as LeMay was known, had evolved from a pilot’s pilot into an isolated, arrogant man whose attitude toward his superiors bordered on insubordination. LeMay fought Schriever over budgets, research priorities, and the very premise that missiles should play a significant role in America’s nuclear force. “These things will never be operational, so you can depend on them, in my lifetime,” LeMay predicted. He once asked Schriever how large a warhead an intercontinental missile could carry. Told that the answer was a megaton—a bomb eighty times more powerful than Little Boy—LeMay replied dismissively, “When you can put something on that missile bigger than a fucking firecracker, come and see me.” Slowly, however, LeMay relented, overruled by the White House.

In Sheehan’s judgment, LeMay “always remained subordinate to civilian authority.” The general did occasionally engage in loose talk about nuking the Soviets before they could nuke America, however. These remarks involved a scenario in which LeMay might judge it to be clear that the Soviets had already decided to attack, and were in the midst of advanced preparations. In that case, Sheehan writes, LeMay “would strike first. Whether he would check to make sure the president agreed with him, LeMay did not say.” At that time,

the generals had the ability to act on their own. That alternative had to exist in case the president was incapacitated and beyond reach. Knowing the characters of LeMay and [his contemporary Tommy] Power, one can again conclude that had an order to launch not been quickly forthcoming from the White House, they would not have waited.

Cold war nuclear deterrence strategy emerged in part from John von Neumann’s work on what came to be called “game theory,” which Fred Kaplan has described as “a mathematically precise method of determining rational strategies in the face of critical uncertainties.” In the case of nuclear arsenals, the rational approach is obviously to manage the weapons and associated technologies so as to prevent their deliberate or accidental use. In a sense, however, Sheehan’s narrative describes the dangers of any “rational” regime grounded in these premises of deterrence—problems that have persisted until today, and may soon increase.

One of these problems is the occasional emergence of irrational or at least borderline personalities in control of nuclear weapons—in this respect LeMay and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are two faces of the same recurring difficulty. Another problem is the persistence of uncertainty, deception, bewilderment, and miscalculation in the decisions of global statesmen. Nuclear weapons can make a state more dangerous but they have not yet made any state smarter about its adversaries. Even the most rational leaders repeatedly make bad decisions because they possess poor information. The Cuban missile crisis, where Sheehan’s narrative ends, is the best-known example of how routine failures of this kind can produce terrifying risks when nuclear weapons are involved. Although less severe than Cuba, the miscalculations that have unfolded along the India–Pakistan border since both countries tested nuclear bombs in 1998, particularly Pakistan’s rash covert raid into the Kargil section of Kashmir in 1999, have a similar quality.

Sheehan implies in his treatment of Schriever that the emergence of nuclear missile forces stabilized the deterrence regime between the United States and the Soviet Union. It is true that the strong improvement and huge buildup of nuclear missiles on both sides, after the shock of the Cuban crisis, coincided with a more stable era. However, as David Hoffman’s recent volume The Dead Hand (2009) documents, the political arrangements of détente hid automated nuclear strike systems on the Soviet side that were fundamentally unstable. American nuclear planning also became automated; during the late cold war, the Strategic Integrated Operational Plan, the basis for American nuclear bombing against Soviet targets, made assumptions about the number of bombs required for deterrence that, in hindsight, appear absurdly large.

All along, both governments recognized that some of the particular properties of nuclear missiles—their rapid flight times and their potential to deliver an overwhelming surprise attack—were fundamentally destabilizing. For one thing, they sped up dangerously the time that leaders in Moscow and Washington had to make decisions about the other’s actions in a crisis. As soon as the ideological and strategic competition of the cold war ended, both governments moved quickly not only to reduce the sizes of their missile arsenals, but to create more transparency and confidence around their previous hair-trigger alert systems. There is more work to be done in this field of nuclear weapons policy, but the chances of miscalculation have been reduced.

It is possible to delineate three periods in the sixty-four-year history of nuclear weapons. The first is the subject of Sheehan’s narrative, the period of zigzagging technological changes and disequilibrium culminating in a clarifying crisis around Cuba. (Dr. Strangelove, which mocked the assumptions of early nuclear strategists, helped to mark the end of this era by rendering it comical.) The second period, between the Cuban missile crisis and the Indian nuclear tests of 1998, was one in which, despite the enormous US– Soviet buildup, the risks of nuclear war receded. The number of nuclear weapons deployed declined dramatically; a test ban entered into force; several states voluntarily surrendered their weapons; and many other industrialized states effectively froze their potential weapons capabilities.

We are now a decade into a third and much less encouraging epoch. Three states have tested nuclear weapons since 1998, and a fourth, Iran, seems determined to acquire them. All four of the newest entrants—India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran—also have robust missile programs that are related to their nuclear ambitions. It is not difficult to imagine, within twenty or thirty years, a crisscrossing array of nuclear missile and deterrence regimes in Asia and the Middle East. We can assume that strategists in these emerging nuclear states will be no more or less rational than their earlier Western exemplars, but this, as Sheehan’s narrative makes frighteningly clear, will prove to be of little comfort.

Letters

The Cabinet of Dr. Strangelove’ May 13, 2010

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