Thomas S. Power
Thomas S. Power; drawing by David Levine

“The 12th of October dawned like any other day for the Strategic Air Command, poised as always to spring into action at a moment’s notice.” This is the opening sentence of General Thomas S. Power’s Design for Survival, describing how SAC gave Khrushchev the heave-ho and chased the Russians from Cuba. It is a story with overtones of Zorro and even a heartwarming account of “the little old lady who adopted a B-47 detachment and regularly brought the alert crews home-baked cookies and hot coffee,” but somehow one can’t help wondering if there isn’t a little more to it than that. Which is pretty much the impression left by this glowing account of how SAC does everything, from cleaning up dirty guerrilla wars to defending the American Way of Life—and would do it even better if only stingy politicians would vote it more money. Written by the man who had his finger on The Button for the past seven years, this book describes how a little more SAC in the arsenal can give us “peace on our terms” (without saying what the terms are) in the cold war, and “military victory” (whatever that is) if the button ever gets pushed.

No matter what their opinions, attention must be paid to men who push buttons. As commander in chief of SAC from 1957 until his retirement last year, General Power deserves our attention. He also deserves our gratitude, both for not pushing the button during the seven years he had his finger on it, and also for letting us know what he has been thinking all this time. In fact, he would have liked to let us know sooner, but the Eisenhower administration turned thumbs down on an earlier version of this book in 1959—presumably in the belief that generals with their fingers on the button are better seen in Omaha than in print. Now it can be told, and in this book—part Air Force brochure, part lecture on why you can never trust a Communist, part critique of current defense policy—he gives us carping laymen just a hint of what Secretary McNamara and his civilian helpers must be up against.

Responsible, as he says in his ghost-writer’s style, for “over 90 per cent of the nuclear firepower of the entire Free World,” General Power has been a very powerful man indeed. And whatever the demands of his office, silence on matters of public policy has always been a relative one. The hearing rooms of Congress and the columns of the press are always open to the man responsible for all that nuclear firepower—whether it be General Power or his garrulous predecessor, Curtis LeMay. No gag, after all, prevented General Power, in his capacity as SAC commander, from testifying in the Senate against the nuclear test-ban treaty—despite the fact that the treaty was endorsed by his bosses the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Secretary of the Air Force. Nor did it prevent the officers of SAC, with the help of a breathless Joseph Alsop, from publicizing a terrifying “missile gap” during the late Fifties—a gap which after the 1960 election suddenly turned out to be as nonexistent as Eisenhower claimed it was all along. The publication of this book makes General Power’s voice heard across the land. But it is hardly the first time.

Surrendering to an impulse most retired officers find irresistible, General Power treats us to his own interpretation of world affairs—one which seems to rest upon the belief that “agreements with the Soviets can be expected to be meaningless” since they are dedicated to the “ultimate Communist objective, which is the annihilation of the capitalist system.” While such a concern with free enterprise might seem a bit overdone from one who has spent most of his adult life on the public payroll, enjoying such socialistic benefits as free medical care and officers’ clubs, it is perfectly common in the upper echelons of the military where the oil depletion allowance is equated with the right to vote—and perhaps one notch above freedom of speech. We are even warned that the tendency “to impose certain controls on private enterprise” may continue piling up “until we reach the ‘point of no return’ and have, in fact, a controlled economy.” But then the book itself, as we are informed in the Preface, “is intended mainly as a report to the nation’s stockholders—almost 200 million of them,” which I suppose is meant to endow it with the virtues of the reports issued by General Motors and General Electric.

Since Communism is defined as “the most insidious and gigantic plot in history,” and since “many of the Russian intellectuals are not educated in our sense,” it is obvious that there is scarcely “any possibility at all of reaching an agreement with the Soviet Union” which, as Senator Dodd’s theme song has taught us, “has broken its word to virtually every country to which it ever gave a signed promise.” Aside from being uneducated, the Soviet rulers are “merely tools of the system” and thus “are not easily deterred from anything or by anything—except that which threatens them personally”—which might lead one to assume that the most effective deterrent would be a bomb hidden in a samovar in the Kremlin basement. But that would eliminate the need for the Strategic Air Command, which could hardly be what General Power has in mind.


In fact, it is sometimes hard to know what he does have in mind. At one point we are told that we need a “war-winning capability” which will ensure “military victory,” and thus deter the Russians from aggression. But even that is not enough, since “deterrence is not a goal in itself; it can contain Communist aggression but it cannot defeat Communist ideology which must be our ultimate goal if we are to survive as a sovereign nation.” Whether this is to be done by some act of mass conversion—an auto-da-fe in Red Square under the guidance of the Reverend Billy Hargis—or through the mailed first of the organization whose motto is “Peace is Our Profession,” the General does not tell us. But we can get a glimpse of his thinking when he muses wistfully on that period in the late Forties when we had the Bomb and the Russians didn’t: “It is academic to reflect whether, in the long run, we have done a greater service to the cause of freedom and democracy by listening to the voices of restraint and caution, or whether we should have used every opportunity to crush Communist aggression—as long as we had such an opportunity.”

Leaving behind General Power, foreign policy analyst, we are left with the counsel of General Power, strategist. Aside from deterring (personally threatening?) the Soviet rulers, he describes how an all-purpose SAC can be used to stamp out rebellions in troublesome countries “without excessive drain on our military resources.” Writing last year on the war in Vietnam, he suggests that we warn the Communists that “unless they ceased supporting the guerrillas in South Vietnam, we would destroy a major military supply depot in North Vietnam.” We would continue this strategy—is it all beginning to sound familiar?—until Peiping and Hanoi run up the white flag. Thus General Power assures us, in the same firm tones which no doubt convinced Lyndon Johnson, “within a few days and with minimum force, the conflict in South Vietnam would have been ended in our favor.” Fanfare, trumpets, and jet trails into the wild blue yonder.

Except that it hasn’t worked out that way. Which is not to knock General Power for making a mistake. After all, he has distinguished company. But it does raise a few questions about the rest of his strategic advice, and makes us wonder whether the case against disarmers, one-worlders, minimum deterrers, limited warriors, test ban treaties, and arms control is nearly so clearcut as he would have it. Or for that matter if the manned bomber really is the key to world peace. In an eloquent plea for more strategic bombers, at a time when virtually everyone who doesn’t wear an Air Force uniform or manufacture airplanes considers them obsolete, General Power confesses endearingly: “I may be accused of being prejudiced in favor of bombers because of my long association with SAC which, until not so long ago, was strictly a bomber force.” Which is like a man who has spent his life as an elevator operator remarking that he really does prefer manually operated elevators to automatic ones.

But then the gradual obsolescence of the bomber has been an unkind blow to SAC’s share of the defense pie, which fell from 13 per cent of the total in fiscal 1962 to 8 per cent in fiscal 1965. Small wonder that there are screams from the men in blue. And small wonder that those screams find an echo on Capitol Hill among Congressmen determined to cut their districts in on the lucrative contracts handed out by the Pentagon. More than one Secretary of Defense, from James Forrestal on, has fallen victim to the Air Force Lobby, an informal pressure group combining the talents of Air Force generals who just love planes and missiles, powerfully placed Congressmen for whom a big defense budget means vote-getting jobs and factories in their districts, and manufacturers who whisk them both away on handsome (tax deductible) expense accounts to weekends in the Virgin Islands where they are gently persuaded of their patriotic duty to plonk down public cash for their new products.


Rarely has mutual back-scratching developed into such a fine three-way art. Over the years the Air Force lobby—part of that “military-industrial complex” that Eisenhower denounced, better late than never, during his last month in office—has secured billions of dollars for flying hardware for which there was no need, and which occasionally (as in the case of the Atlas missile) was obsolete even before delivery. With heroic effort Secretary McNamara has managed to put the lid on this free-for-all. But an indomitable Congress is still trying to force him to spend money on a bomber, the illfated B-70, that he declares to be unnecessary and probably technically impossible as well.

General Power, not surprisingly, doesn’t deal with that particular aspect of SAC’s activities. Nor does he tell us about the bitter inter-service rivalries that have led to duplicate weapons systems and ferocious empire-building among Pentagon generals. This is unfortunate, because the General could have given us a rare insight into the inside operations of that mammoth machine controlling “over 90 per cent of the nuclear firepower of the entire Free World” with its 52 bases, its 260,000 men, its 2200 tactical aircraft, its 800 ICBMs, and its $6 million a day budget. Instead, he has chosen to treat us to his quaint views on foreign policy and explain how SAC can do everything—except wrong. In so doing he has convinced us of his patriotism and sincerity, but also made us once again agree with Clemenceau that war is, after all, too serious a matter to be left to generals.


Let us assume that, in the fall of 1964, we would have warned the Communists that unless they ceased supporting the guerrillas in South Vietnam, we would destroy a major military supply depot in North Vietnam. Through radio and leaflets, we would have advised the civilian population living near the depot of our ultimatum and of the exact time of our attack so that civilians could be evacuated. If the Communists failed to heed our warning and continued to support the rebels, we would have gone through with the threatened attack and destroyed the depot. And if this act of “persuasive deterrence” had not sufficed, we would have threatened the destruction of another critical target and, if necessary, would have destroyed it also. We would have continued this strategy until the Communists had found their support of the rebels in South Vietnam too expensive and agreed to stop it. Thus, within a few days and with minimum force, the conflict in South Vietnam would have been ended in our favor. Beyond this, we would have gained immeasurably in prestige and in the credibiilty of our determination to prevent further Communist aggression against our allies.

—from Design for Survival,
pp. 224-225

This Issue

May 20, 1965