[May 3, 2021] It is said that hard times create hard men. World War II was a war that characterized hard times, and out of that trauma came Curtis LeMay, a hard man; the youngest and longest-serving general in modern American history. He rose from obscurity, lacking social graces, old-boy connections, or lineage to become America’s most innovative and controversial military commander.1
LeMay’s career in the U.S. Air Force spanned a difficult time in history, especially in America. He began flying bi-planes in the 1920s, commanded the most extensive air armada ever in world history, and ended his career in an age of intercontinental nuclear missiles. During WWII, he turned the ineffective and costly European bombing campaign into a success. He was also the architect of the firebombing of Tokyo and sixty-four other Japanese cities.
“I’ll tell you what war is about. You’ve got to kill people, and when you kill enough of them, they stop fighting.” – Air Force General Curtis LeMay
Military wartime Generals practice leadership on a level rarely understood. The case of Curtis LeMay is an interesting one to profile because he is so unlike so many of the more successful profiled here. Curtis LeMay’s leadership traits are:
- A ruthless sense of reality
- Brilliant strategic thinker
- Brutally honesty
- Callous and abrupt
- Strong commitment to service
- Devoted to his men
- Did not tolerate falsification of data
- Leads from the front
- Morally and Physically courageous
In 1945, LeMay was a hero. He was celebrated in victory parades, on the cover of Time magazine, and met with the United States President. Twenty years later, everything had changed. He was vilified by Hollywood, labeled a “caveman in a jet bomber,” a brutish thug, and portrayed as demented. Many men are all form with little substance. Those who flew with him knew that he was all substance and no form.
Curtis LeMay was the type of leader that a country needs for war and when experiencing extreme danger. We need a man like LeMay when our survival is at stake. Much like Winston Churchill, once a nation is safe, these men are often rejected because they become a reminder of events most people would rather forget. Now, after a generation from the Cold War, we find it hard to remember why.
- Curtis LeMay: Strategist and Tactician by Warren Kozak, 2009: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lemay-warren-kozak/1100820366