The Life and Wars of General Curtis Lemay, Part V: Vietnam, Wallace and Nuclear War

With this article I wrap up my review of Lemay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis Lemay by Warren Kozak.

“Cometh the hour, cometh the man,” I’ve said many times during this narrative of the life and wars of General Curtis Lemay (1906-1990). And when the hour has passed? Well, so passes the man, one might think.

But the muse of history seldom lets go of a good story. Recall, as I’ve counseled before, the first words of Virgil’s Aneid. “Arma virumque cano.” I sing of arms and the man. Though time and history overtake the man of the hour, can he ever really exit the stage?

In the last article, about Lemay and what he told President Lyndon Johnson, we left the general as he retired from the Air Force in 1965 and moved to the tony Bel Aire section of Los Angeles. Lemay took a good job with a fine technology firm. He and Mrs. Lemay settled in, and — it being Los Angeles in the mid-1960s — life was good.

1968 – Vietnam

But time passes, and by 1968 Lemay was frustrated with the direction that the U.S. was taking. The country’s social fabric was fraying. There were riots on college campuses, as well as in the streets of major cities. What was happening to the nation that Lemay had served for his entire career?

Much of the national discord crystallized around opposition to the war in Vietnam. It’s certainly fair to say that Lemay’s frustration came from watching the Johnson administration bungle the fight. And this was no abstract or academic matter to the old bomber pilot from Ohio.

That is, in 1964 Johnson rejected the military advice of his Air Force Chief of Staff, a certain General named Curtis Lemay. Lemay counseled Johnson that if the U.S. was going to fight the North Vietnamese — a big “if,” in Lemay’s view — then the U.S. needed to hit North Vietnam hard and up front with air power. “Throw a punch that really hurts,” said Lemay, and wreck the means by which North Vietnam was waging war against South Vietnam.

This advice was not what Johnson wanted to hear. Instead, Johnson and his counselors escalated the war gradually, on land, sea and in the air, and by 1968 waged it to a bloody stalemate. (“I g****m told you so,” Lemay surely thought.)

Strategy, Operations and Logistics

There were many reasons, at many levels, for what happened in Vietnam. First of all, at the strategic level, the North Vietnamese Communists actually knew what they wanted and what they were doing. The North Vietnamese were serious students of the theory of war, from Sun Tzu to Mao Zedong. They had a plan and an end-game, and it was all quite simple. It was to unite North and South Vietnam into one large, Communist state.

At the operational level, the North Vietnamese also had a thoughtful plan to implement their strategy. They took massive aid from the Soviet Union, Peoples’ Republic of China, and other like-thinking Communist and Socialist nations. Well-armed by the outsiders, the North Vietnamese intended to pour troops and equipment into the South, build up forces and capabilities, and fight for as long as it took to prevail.

What would it take to prevail? In one word, logistics. “In large part the history of the (Vietnam) war,” wrote U.S. intelligence analyst Cynthia Grabo in her insightful book Anticipating Surprise: Analysis for Strategic Warning (Defense Intelligence Agency, 2004), “was a chronicle of ingenious and unrelenting North Vietnamese efforts to sustain their logistic movements and of our (U.S.) attempts to disrupt them.”

It gets back to the old military saying that amateurs study battles, while professionals study logistics. Lemay’s advice to Johnson had been to “disrupt them” by bombing North Vietnamese supplies at the source. Kill the logistics, and you kill the enemy’s ability to wage war.

Thus in 1964 Lemay presented Johnson with a plan to bomb the ports of North Vietnam, and mine the harbors through which Soviet and other Communist-bloc aid poured into North Vietnam. Lemay advised mining the coastline to prevent infiltration. Lemay also advised destroying North Vietnamese oil supplies at the storage facilities.

Johnson did none of this. Instead, Johnson’s operational plan was to bomb the jungle trails, through which North Vietnamese supplies and troops poured south. At the end of the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail, Johnson’s operational plan was to “disrupt” North Vietnamese efforts via direct action against an armed invasion force. It was as if someone was squirting you with a fire hose. But rather than turn off the hose at the source, you stood there trying to soak up the water with a towel.

To top it off, Johnson pursued his operational plan gradually. Johnson escalated the Vietnam war slowly. In particular, there was on-and-off bombing, punctuated by well-publicized “pauses.” While the aircraft were chained down, the North Vietnamese rearmed their gun pits and recalibrated their antiaircraft tracking radars.

A Proxy War, a Long War, and Many Mistakes

In the larger scheme of things, the Vietnam war was a proxy war. Other powers — Soviet Union, Warsaw Pact, Cuba, China, et al. — waged war against the U.S.

North Vietnam was the proxy in this proxy war, of course. But the prize was conquering the South and defeating the U.S. So the North Vietnamese were OK with their role.

Indeed, the North Vietnamese “gradually” adapted to the gradual war escalation of the Johnson administration. The Northerners dug in and took their hits. They wanted to win. They were patient and ruthless. In a war, that helps.

On the U.S. side there were fundamental misperceptions and misunderstandings. At many levels of command – starting in the Oval Office and moving down the chain — there were geostrategic blunders, strategic errors, operational miscalculations and tactical mistakes.

After he retired, whenever Lemay was asked for his opinion on how the war was playing out, he answered honestly and with characteristic bluntness. Primarily, Lemay criticized Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and his crew of “whiz kids” at the Pentagon. The McNamara team was “mirror-imaging” its values onto the North. For as smart as they were — and many dripped with academic wax and ribbons — these geniuses couldn’t make hard choices. They let things drag out.

For most Americans, by 1968 the central point of the Vietnam war was that it was a televised meat grinder, killing hundreds of U.S. soldiers per week. The war cost untold billions and wrecked both the U.S. military, and the larger American economy, from the inside out. So much for Johnson’s “coonskin” that he was going to “nail to the wall.”

The U.S., Painted into a Corner

The year 1968 was a historical tipping point for the U.S. and the Vietnam War. It started with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, in January and February. Overall, the Tet campaign was a battlefield defeat for the Communists. But the Tet Offensive crystallized one overarching idea inside the head of many an American. The Vietnam War had lasted too long and cost too much.

As the Tet fighting wound down, U.S. leadership and decision-making was paralyzed, starting with the top echelons of the Johnson administration. It dawned on the U.S. political classes that they were painted into a corner. The historical record is that Americans will fight a war. But not a long war.

By stringing out the Vietnam fighting over many years, Johnson had squandered the political will of the nation. Where could the U.S. go from here? Who could untie this Gordian knot? The battleground of the Vietnam War spread to U.S. campuses and streets. It was a mess.

A Year of Living Dangerously

Add to this, that the nation was living dangerously. On the worst day of the Vietnam war, there was never a military threat from Hanoi against the U.S. homeland, or towards U.S. allies in Europe and Asia outside Indochina.

But from what Lemay knew – and he knew a lot because he received regular classified briefings as a courtesy extended to a former Air Force Chief of Staff — the Soviets were building a powerful nuclear force with which to challenge the West. At the strategic level there was a “breakout” in the making.

In Lemay’s opinion, with the focus on Vietnam and the accompanying policy paralysis, the bulk of the policy-making class in Washington was oblivious to the Soviet nuclear threat. (Looking ahead to the 1970s, a Soviet nuclear breakout occurred. The top echelons of the U.S. political-media classes eventually figured it out, for the most part — except for some of the supremely stupid ones.)

On March 31, 1968 Johnson announced that he wouldn’t run for reelection. At the national level the Democratic Party descended into chaos. By August the Democrats pulled their party together and nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey as their candidate for president.

Lemay knew Humphrey, but didn’t trust him because of events that dated back to Lemay’s Air Force tenure during the Johnson presidency. “I thought that Humphrey was as big a liar as Johnson,” remarked Lemay at one point.

The Republicans in turn nominated Richard Nixon, with whom Lemay had worked during the Eisenhower administration when Nixon was Vice President. Nixon had his flaws, Lemay thought, but at least he understood foreign and military affairs.

George C. Wallace

In response to the Vietnam War, and a long list of other national issues, a relatively obscure, but smooth-talking lawyer named George C. Wallace (1919 – 1998) appeared on the national horizon.

Wallace had served in the Army Air Corps in World War II. He was part of the 20th Air Force under Lemay in the Pacific, although then-Gen. Lemay and then-Staff Sergeant Wallace never met. After the war Wallace returned to his native Alabama and made a career in politics. By 1968 Wallace was a former governor of Alabama, and his wife Lurleen held the job after Wallace could not run due to term limits.

Wallace offered a Southern-fried version of segregationist populism. Wallace preyed on the social and economic fears of lower-class and working-class white people. Wallace particularly touched nerves with peoples’ fear of the unfolding civil rights movement.

“When I talk about roads and schools,” Wallace once remarked, “nobody cares. But when I talk about black people moving in down the street, people listen real hard.” On this point, Wallace made political hay out of federal efforts to integrate the races. In one famous comment about federal efforts to promote racial integration, Wallace stated “there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Democrat and Republican Parties.”

Wallace believed that there was a market for his brand of political moonshine outside of Alabama. Hence in 1968 Wallace campaigned as a third-party candidate for president. In order to qualify for the ballot in most states, Wallace needed a running mate.

Wallace went through a long list of possibilities for VP. All of the candidates turned him down, including a private citizen living in Los Angeles named Curtis Lemay, Gen., USAF, Retired.

Vice Presidential Candidate

But Wallace pressed on. He needed somebody to balance the ticket and get on the ballot in most states. And oh, Wallace was smooth. He was slick. He could turn on the charm.

In one call after another, Wallace urged Lemay to become the VP candidate. Wallace enticed Lemay with the idea of speaking to a national audience. Lemay could help, said Wallace, with getting out the message to resolve the Vietnam War. Lemay could focus on national security and defense preparedness.

Finally in October, towards the end of the 1968 campaign, Lemay rose to Wallace’s bait. The reason? In September Lemay learned that, if elected, Nixon planned to negotiate over “arms control” with the Soviets. Lemay didn’t trust the Soviets to negotiate in good faith. Lemay believed that the Soviets would wage a propaganda battle. The Reds would talk nice and smile in public, and then build nuclear missiles in secret. (This is exactly what happened.)

Lemay disagreed profoundly with the direction in which he believed Nixon was heading. So in early October, about 30 days before the election, Lemay agreed to be Wallace’s running mate. Many members of Lemay’s family were shocked. Old friends and colleagues could scarcely believe the news. What the hell was Lemay doing?

Irony of ironies, it’s fair to say that George Wallace was soon shocked as well. From Lemay’s very first day on the ticket, the old warhorse started discussing the possibility of “thermonuclear exchange with the Soviet Union.” Huh? People couldn’t believe what they were hearing. Say again? Sure enough, there was Lemay on national television, talking about “radioactive crabs” at the nuclear testing site at Bikini Atoll. Say what?

Lemay Was No Politician

It dawned on Wallace – too late – that Lemay was no tub-thumping, stump-talking, man-of-the-people politician. Not only was Lemay no politician, but he was reverting to his inner-SAC general. Lemay went out on the campaign trail to meet the voters, but he acted more like he was giving a seminar about nuclear war at the RAND Corp.

For all his image as the gruff, profane war-general, Lemay was an exceedingly intelligent man. When it came to airplanes and weapons, he knew his stuff. Actually, he knew his stuff inside out, down to the last technical detail.

It came naturally for Lemay to talk like he was running a SAC staff meeting, where his targeting cells planned the nuclear strike packages. Even worse for the Wallace campaign, Lemay wouldn’t shut up. Nuclear war? Lemay was an expert. Lemay wrote the book on nuclear war — several of ’em, in fact, and all classified. Sweet Jesus! Now Lemay was talking up a nuclear storm. And the press loved it.

But could nuclear war really be a campaign issue? This was hardly the kind of thing the American people wanted to hear during a presidential election. In every election, as the saying goes, “It’s the economy, stupid.” But in 1968 there was more on the national plate. Vietnam and civil rights worried people — and angered a lot of them. A candidate could talk about those topics out on the campaign trail. Nuclear war, however, was over the top. That scared the voters.

Furthermore, many public opinion surveys indicated that the core of Wallace’s supporters – his political base — were former enlisted soldiers from World War II and Korea. And here was Wallace, the former staff sergeant, choosing a retired general officer as his running mate. It didn’t balance.

Wallace’s ploy backfired. While many Americans admired Lemay the war hero, many old troopers didn’t like him on first principles. Wallace’s political problem boiled down to the fact that Lemay was a general. In the minds of many old soldiers, he was one of those “brass hats” who made their lives miserable for several years during the war. (Many old soldiers did like Lemay, to be sure. Particularly the troops who served with him. Many of “Lemay’s boys” revered their former boss.)

And the train rolled on. Throughout October 1968, the Wallace-Lemay ticket fell in the polls. By Election Day in November, the Wallace-Lemay ticket was adrift. Wallace-Lemay picked up a lot of votes, and even won entire states in the South — which broke the back of a century of Democrat political dominance in Old Dixie. But at the end of the day, Nixon was the one.

Tarred By Association

Lemay was a national political candidate for all of about a month. In his entire life, he never planned to enter politics – and it showed. Yet there was something worse for Lemay than losing his one and only election. He was instantly tarred with the label of racism that accompanied much of Wallace’s political baggage. The media-historical complex promptly turned its darkest lights onto Lemay. Now it was Lemay’s turn to get firebombed.

After a mere 30 days on the campaign trail, Lemay’s career and accomplishments of almost 40 years went down the memory-hole. Lemay’s long list of accomplishments was replaced by the simple notation that he was “George Wallace’s running mate.” Period.

Lemay Confined WHO to Quarters?

By all accounts Lemay was a tough-as-nails general, but entirely fair-minded and non-biased over issues of race. During World War II in England, for example, Lemay went out of his way to ensure that black troops in the then-segregated Army had access to the same opportunities for housing, food, recreation, training and advancement as did the white troops. One time when Lemay learned that there was a racial fight off base, he confined all the WHITE troops to quarters.

Lemay did much the same thing with black troops in the 20th Air Force in the South Pacific. Everyone got a fair shake from Lemay. He judged people by work ethic and performance.

Pres. Harry Truman officially desegregated the U.S. military in 1948. And during Lemay’s tenure at SAC, in the years after 1948, he made great strides in recruiting and training black personnel to work on and fly the world’s most advanced bomber fleet. Indeed, Lemay was a leader in implementing the Truman desegregation order.

There’s no body of evidence that Lemay shared Wallace’s racial views. But still, Lemay ran on Wallace’s presidential ticket. He spent a month talking about Vietnam and the Soviet military threat. Then the election was over and Lemay returned to private life.

Footnotes to 1968

There’s a short footnote to the story. In 1969, newly-elected Pres. Nixon ordered an IRS audit of Lemay’s taxes, just to send a message. Typical Nixon.

Oh, and there’s one more footnote. In 1972, Nixon implemented Lemay’s old plan to bomb the tar out of North Vietnam and wreck the logistics effort at the source. For about two weeks in December, near 200 heavy bombers of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) — B-52s commissioned by Lemay, with pilots trained and doctrine designed by Lemay — pounded targets in North Vietnam. The effort was called Linebacker II. By the end of the Linebacker II, the North Vietnamese came to the peace table and made a serious effort to end their battle with the U.S.

According to accounts by American prisoners held captive in North Vietnam, the North Vietnamese could not believe that the U.S. had such awesome firepower as SAC delivered, yet had not used it earlier in the war. One North Vietnamese officer told an American prisoner, “If we knew you could have done this to us, we would never have fought against you. Why did your government wait so long?” Why indeed?

Thanks for reading. Until we meet again…

Byron W. King

November 2, 2009