Hitting the SAC

Design for Survival

by General Thomas S. Power
Coward-McCann, 255 pp., $5.00

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…

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