Curtis Lemay Military Success Political Demise Research Paper

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Curtis LeMay:

Using Hersey-Blanchard leadership theory to analyze LeMay's strengths and weaknesses as a leader

Situational leadership theory and LeMay

The Japanese campaign

The Cold War


Contrasting military and civilian leadership

How first, personal successes influence leadership

Four-star General Curtis LeMay is one of the most controversial figures in the history of the modern U.S. Air Force. LeMay's philosophy can be summed up as follows: it is more advantageous and ultimately more compassionate to use massive levels of force against the enemy. This results in a quicker victory and ultimately preserves more civilian lives. However, LeMay's legacy as a military leader is complex. On one hand, he is credited with speeding the end of World War II, thanks to his superior leadership style, tactical ability and boldness. However, as a political leader and advocate of U.S. interests, his legacy is mixed. "When he retired in 1965, LeMay was widely regarded, and probably rightly so, as a great commander of SAC [Strategic Air Command] but as a poor chief."[footnoteRef:1] He served as Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force from 1957 and often clashed with more 'dovish' assessments of the Cold War's geopolitical landscape during the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Administrations.[footnoteRef:2] [1: "General Curtis E. LeMay," Arnold Air Squadron, (accessed 21 Aug 2013).] [2: Michael H. Hunt, Lyndon Johnson's War: America's Cold War Crusade in Vietnam, 1945-1968(Hill & Wang, 1997).]

This paper addresses this apparent paradox: how a man who was so successful in military positions was not so in others. It will argue that 1. LeMay's style was well-suited to the ruthless needs of the Japanese front 2. LeMay's uncompromising anti-communism made him an effective leader in the Cold War for his troops but that 3. Such an uncompromising and unbending vision is not equally well-suited to articulating political ideals within the American democratic context, particularly in light of the anti-war developments of the 1960s.

Situational leadership theory and LeMay

LeMay's career embodies one of the paradoxes of the philosophy of situational leadership, as delineated by theorists such as Hersey & Blanchard, who stressed that leadership objectives must be harmonized with leadership style. When quick, decisive action is needed as during a military campaign an autocratic style may be acceptable. However, in the realm of political leadership, the LeMay style was not nearly as effective. Hersey and Blanchard argue that leadership is a dynamic dialogue between followers and leaders. Leaders may need to be autocratic when there is a demand for swift action and the followers are not as well-versed in the situation on the ground as the leaders themselves.[footnoteRef:3] However, when followers have equal knowledge (or in the case of a democratic environment equal power as the leadership) as in the realm of politics, a more participatory style is demanded in which leaders coach followers by informing them rather than ordering them or delegating authority. [3: P. Hersey & K. Blanchard, Management of organizational behavior: Utilizing human resources (New Jersey/Prentice Hall, 1969).]

LeMay refused to bend his will to the demands of the American populace and make his views more palatable as support for the Vietnam War waned. Despite LeMay's leadership of the Pacific bombing of World War II and his subsequent leadership in Germany and the SAC, the public's negative view of his hawkishness when he served in an administrative and political capacity later in his career (he famously inspired a militaristic character in the film Dr. Strangelove) resulted in his political demise. It also proved to be ineffective in his negotiations with both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson when he demanded a more aggressive response to various administrative crises. One of LeMay's most famous quotes regarding the North Vietnamese was: "My solution to the problem would be to tell them frankly that they've got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression, or we're going to bomb them back into the Stone Age. And we would shove them back into the Stone Age with Air power or Naval power - not with ground forces."[footnoteRef:4] Deploying this type of autocratic style was not nearly as persuasive in the more nuanced realm of politics and civilian public relations. (Although LeMay later stated that his ghostwriter misquoted him and he merely stated that the U.S. had the capabilities to bomb the North Vietnamese into the Stone Age, yet lacked the political will to fight an effective campaign of any kind.)[footnoteRef:5] [4: Curtis LeMay, Mission with LeMay: My Story. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965.] [5: David Stubblebine, "Curtis LeMay," World War II Database, (accessed 7 Sept 2013).]

The Japanese campaign

LeMay's military philosophy is credited with speeding the end of World War II on the Pacific Front. "Instead of the established U.S. policy of daylight, precision bombing, he ripped out the armaments on 325 B-29s and loaded each plane with firebomb clusters. On March 10, 1945 he ordered the bombers out at 5-9,000 feet over Tokyo. The devastation wrought that first night was catastrophic: the raid incinerated more than 16 square miles of the city, killing 100,000 people."[footnoteRef:6] It was the most destructive air attack upon any location during World War II, ultimately killing more than half million Japanese and was a fundamental break with how many generals wished to approach the Pacific Front at the time. LeMay used his determination to have his way. LeMay perceived the weaknesses in the Japanese forces and firmly believed that the small, resource-poor nation could not stand -- conservative measures would merely prolong things and cause needless causalities. "Political elements cannot offset material or military deficiencies if imbalances are too severe."[footnoteRef:7] No matter how willing to sacrifice and how well-trained the Japanese pilots, LeMay believed that ultimately victory would be in the hands of the U.S. The only question was when victory would come and half-measures were a disservice to the lives of soldiers. [6: "General Curtis LeMay," The American Experience, 2009, (accessed 21 Aug 2013).] [7: H.P. Willmott, The War With Japan, (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002), 170.]

LeMay's military philosophy of leadership, as reflected in his actions, was that "all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you're not a good soldier."[footnoteRef:8] But it should be noted that LeMay did not believe that all violence was good, nor was he always able to have total control over how his autocratic leadership style was enacted: he opposed the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, believing his non-atomic campaign was enough. "We went ahead and dropped the bombs because President Truman told me to do it. He told me in a personal letter."[footnoteRef:9] In this, he showed some initial reluctance to adapt to new military technologies although his earlier air strikes ultimately made the atomic bombings so decisive. But just as he expected his men to obey his autocratic decisions with unquestioning obedience as a military leader, he also expected the same consideration of himself, when bowing to the will of Truman. Regardless of one's view of the ultimate decision, LeMay's deference to the president actually underlines his belief once again in autocratic leadership, namely that command and control is required for a war to be fought effectively.[footnoteRef:10] Unlike the leadership style of General Patton, LeMay had respect for the Commander-in-Chief.[footnoteRef:11] [8: "General Curtis LeMay," The American Experience, 2009.] [9: Alfonzo A. Narvaez, "General Curtis LeMay," The New York Times (obituary), 2 Oct 1990, (accessed 21 Aug 2013).] [10: John W. Dower, "Three Narratives of Our Humanity," in Edward T. Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt, eds., History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1996), 63-96. ] [11: Michael D. Pearlman, Truman and MacArthur: Policy, Politics, and the Hunger for Honor and Renown. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2008.]

The Cold War

After World War II, LeMay continued his service, first in Germany, and then by assuming command of Strategic Air Command (SAC),which was responsible for orchestrating any future U.S. atomic attacks: LeMay's single-minded leadership transformed it from a relatively ragtag bunch of soldiers to one of the most elite and feared units in the world. Once again, the high stakes of the Cold War were served well by the LeMay style.

But later on in his career, when he entered the realm of politics, LeMay was not able to translate his military success into political capital. LeMay's personal views of politics were often criticized. He was noted for his politically conservative views and hatred of communism, sentiments which made him popular during the height of the Cold War in the 1950 but which he did not adapt to the changing needs of the 1960s. He was respected by his men even though he did little to ingrate himself into their favor or even the favor of his fellow generals and felt that compromising with others showed weakness.

LeMay's popularity in the military was rooted in his willingness to practice what he preached and to get his hands dirty when necessary. At his Air Force…

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