An inside look at the “forgotten” crisis that shook Washington when the Kennedy Administration shot down Gen. Curtis LeMay’s pet bomber.
The first of March, 1962, was a busy news day fort he readers of The New York Times and other major American dailies. The previous day, February 28, returning space hero John Glenn had been treated to one of the largest, noisiest tickertape parades since Charles Lindbergh’s triumphant visit to New York 45 years before. That same afternoon, in a tragic coincidence, a TWA jetliner out of Idlewild Airport had fallen into Jamaica Bay and exploded, killing all 95 passengers and crew. Photos and banner headlines about these two stories dominated the front page of the Times — as well as the consciousness of the American public — the following day.
Meanwhile, yet another aviation-related story had broken, as a smaller story on page one of the Times noted — although probably few outside of Washington, or the aviation industry, grasped its full import.
“HOUSE UNIT ‘DIRECTS’ PRODUCTION OF B-70,” the headline on the Times story read. According to the piece, the House Armed Services Committee at the direction of its powerful and well-armed chairman, Carl Vinson, Democrat of Georgia, had unanimously voted to “direct, order, mandate and require” the Secretary of the Air Force — in other words, the Kennedy Administration — to “utilize the full amount of the $491,000,000 authority to proceed with the production, planning, and long lead-time procurement for and RS-70 weapons system” in the proposed military appropriations bill for fiscal year 1963.
What was that again — the RS-70?
Aeronautically astute readers may have recognized the RS-70 as the designation for the B-70, the advanced supersonic strategic bomber which the Air Force and its backers in Congress had been battling for nine years.
Whatever its designation, there was more behind Vinson’s move than the fate of a single weapons system, as Hanson Baldwin, the military editor of the Times pointed out several days later. By seeking to force President Kennedy — who had unceremoniously impounded monies the Congress had voted for the B-70 in 1961 — to produce the bomber now, the Armed Services Committee’s unprecedented “directive” had posed a “direct challenge to Executive control of the military.”
At the same time, the committee, by explicitly basing its order to the executive branch on its own belligerent interpretation of the federal legislature’s powers under the Constitution to provide for and maintain the armed forces, had deliberately set the legislative and executive branches of the American government in a collision course. A constitutional crisis was at hand, one which conceivably could wind up in the Federal courts, and, at least, theoretically, with the House serving articles of impeachment on the President. “If this language constitutes a test as to whether Congress has the power to so mandate,” the committee declared in the test attached to the “spiked” military appropriations bill it sent the following week to the full House for a vote — a vote that Kennedy, weak in the House, appeared most certain to lose — “then let the test be made and let this important weapon be the field of trial.”
At the White House, and in the office of the Secretary of Defense, there was alarm at Vinson’s sudden legislative broadside, as top Kennedy aides recall.
“This was more than just a fight over a bomber,” says Kennedy’s special counsel, Theodore Sorenson. “Never before had the Congress sought to tie the president’s hands on a discretionary military matter in this fashion.”
Privately, Kennedy was furious at this unprecedented attack on his powers. Publicly, the president decided to low-key the matter, deflecting questions about Vinson’s move at several news conferences during the weeks leading up to the scheduled vote on the bill itself. Indeed, with the exception of a much-publicized “walk in the Rose Garden,” the B-70 crisis was essentially resolved behind closed doors, which helps explain why almost no one remembers it.
For one thing, Kennedy was wary of attacking the powerful Congressional chairman in public and jeopardizing other aspects of the administration’s program. “So far the President has said very little,” James Reston of The New York Times wrote on March 8th, “not because he fears Mr. Vinson’s argument, but because he fears Mr. Vinson, who has the power to flow up [his] trade and medical care programs, with or without the B-70.”
Furthermore, the “Swamp Fox,” knowing when to pick his spots, had challenged the White House on a major weapons procurement issue at a particularly tense juncture of the Cold War, square between the Berlin and Cuban missile crises, as well as at a time when Kennedy and McNamara were under attack from right-wing critics both in the armed forces and on Capital Hill for having a “no win” policy towards the U.S.S.R.
It was the administration’s publicly declared position that a nuclear war was “unwinnable.” Vinson, for one, begged to differ. So did the United States Air Force. A nuclear war was still winnable, in the view of certain Air Force generals, so long as it maintained strategic superiority over the Soviets — and it would continue to be winnable as long as the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command continued to receive the bombers it needed to keep its “strategic edge.”
According to General Curtis Emerson LeMay, Air Force Chief of Staff, the B-70/RS-70 was that kind of bomber; he wanted a fleet of 150 for his boys back in Omaha. Indeed, as the tough-talking four-star general had recently made clear to Vinson’s sympathetic committeemen — too clear for the likes of LeMay’s angry boss, Defense Secretary McNamara — the B-70 could mean “the difference between victory and defeat” in a future nuclear war.
Of course, North American Aviation, the prime contractor for the threatened weapons system, also wanted those 150 superbombers; indeed, it was counting on them. So were eighteen subcontractors and their employees scattered around 25 states.
In fact, no weapons system of the economic magnitude of the B-70/RS-70 had even been cancelled before.
Indeed, there was a lot more to his whole brouhaha over the B-70, or the RS-70, or whatever its designation, than readily met the average newspaper reader’s eye back in March 1962. A lot more.
To be sure, an entire complex of people and organizations had been depending on the B-70 becoming America’s bomber of the future — but no one had been counting on it more than the superbomber’s real godfather, and the principal instigator behind the March, 1962 showdown: Curtis Emerson LeMay. For half a century, LeMay had been a man with a mission: American Strategic Air Power. For LeMay, like other air power zealots before him — most notably the court-martialed “father of American air power,” Colonel Billy Mitchell — this essentially entailed the religiously-held belief that most, if not all military-politico problems were readily susceptible to treatment by the large-scale deployment and use of long-range, high-altitude, heavy bombers. This belief was born on experience, experience which began when LeMay piloted America’s first heavy bomber, the B-17, in several well-publicized demonstrations of its range and might during the late 1930s.
LeMay’s commitment to the Strategic Air Power-heavy bomber gospel began to take on the nature of an obsession during World War II, when he commanded and personally led English-based B-17′s and B-24′s in pulverizing bombing raids against Nazi Germany. Later, after being transferred to the Pacific theater of the war, the brilliant bomber tactician masterminded the B-29 fire-bombing attacks against Japan’s major cities which brought Nippon to her knees; later still, as head of the 20th Air Force base on Guam, LeMay also played a major role in the planning for the B-29 Super fortress nuclear attacks against Hiroshima and Nagasaki which ended the war.
By the time LeMay came home in 1945, the fearsome bomber general, who had already attained two-star rank at the young age of 38, was an authentic military aviation hero, with numerous medals to his record, as well as sufficient political clout to be considered for a Senate vacancy in Ohio. LeMay declined the honor, preferring to continue his bomber career with the newly-created U.S. Air Force. Twenty years later, following his retirement from the Air Force, the lifelong arch-conservative would enter politics, running for vice-president alongside George Wallace, with farcical consequences, but that was far into the future. For the greatest part of his career, Curtis LeMay was far more interested in strategic air (read bomber) power than political power.
In 1948, LeMay was rewarded for his good works on behalf of Air Power (which had included commanding the transport plane fleet in the 1947 Berlin airlift) with the reins of the Air Force’s newly created nuclear bomber arm, the Strategic Air Command. Warming to the talk, the “Iron Eagle,” as he was called by his men, successfully employed the same draconian methods he had used to whip his wartime commands into shape to do the same for SAC, transforming the latter into one of the most powerful armed forces of any kind the world had ever seen, with an armada of hundreds of nuclear-equipped, intercontinental B-36 bombers and several hundred thousand combat-ready SAC-men based around the country and the Western hemisphere.
While the Iron Eagle was whipping his men — and SAC — into shape, he was also honing the political skills he needed to obtain for his men the pay, bases, and, above all, the bombers they needed to fulfill their mission — often at the expense of the other armed services and other components of the Air Force. LeMay made no apologies for his bomb-sight view of things. “I make no claim to objectivity,” he wrote in his book, America is in Danger. “It is well known that I am partial to air power. However, I have been an continue to be as fair to the other services as my experience will permit.” Which wasn’t much. Later, when he became Air Force Chief of Staff, LeMay’s parochialism would work against him during his fight with Robert McNamara over the B-70.
But during the 1950′s and early 1960′s, the beribboned bomber man was highly popular in official Washington, especially on Capitol Hill. One of the Congressional allies who won LeMay over to his cause during his yearly forays to Capitol Hill was Carl Vinson. Elected to the House in 1914, the courtly Dixiecrat from Milledgeville, Georgia, had once been asked by President Truman to head the newly-integrated Department of Defense himself, according to the account. “Shucks,” the self-anointed custodian of the military purse is said to have replied, “I’d rather run the Pentagon from here.”
And so, in many ways, he had. Vinson, who had sat on congressional military committees since 1917 and chaired the Armed Services Committee from 1949 on, was a past master at controlling the military appropriations process, usually to the benefit of his favorite service, the Navy, and the consternation of the Bureau of the Budget under every president from Wilson to Roosevelt.
However, “The Admiral” — or “Uncle Carl,” as he also liked to be called by his “nephews” in the armed services — wasn’t as successful as he would have liked in providing for the Air Force under Harry Truman. Vinson was especially upset when Truman, on the advice of his civilian budget planners, impounded the extra $80 million that Vinson’s committee had tacked on the 1949 military appropriations bill for the building of a 58-group force, and refused to spend the additional allocated monies. Vinson was even angrier when, the following year, the President cancelled his pet project, the proposed supercarrier “Forrestal.”
Vinson didn’t like having his — or Congress’s — will (which he saw as interchangeable) rebuffed. “Until and unless the Constitution of the United States is amended to relieve Congress of the United States’ responsibilities to provide for the common defense, to raise and support a navy, and provide and maintain the army, Vinson thundered in 1948, “the Congress cannot, and, so far as I am concerned, must not sit idly by and leave to administrative whimsy how small a national defense this nation will have.” One can see in such statements the seeds of the intergovernmental “declaration of war” that triggered the B-70 crisis.
One of those rooting for the feisty Georgian in his skirmishes with the non-uniformed types in this Bureau of the Budget was Lieutenant General Curtis LeMay. Appearing before Vinson’s committee year after year, the imposing airman became one of “Uncle Carl’s” favorite uniformed “nephews,” and the two deeply conservative men became close friends. Together, the two formed a political alliance that would eventually rock Washington.
LeMay’s — and SAC’s — power and prestige were significantly enhanced after the apparent failure of America’s “limited war” strategy during the Korean War, and the proclamation by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles of a new strategic posture of “massive retaliation,” backed up by LeMay’s armada of eight-engine, nuclear-armed B-36′s, as the best means of deterring future threats from Communist aggression.
A brilliant propagandist, LeMay seized every chance to preach the SAC-strategic Air Power gospel, which dovetailed nicely with the Cold War jitters, as well as with SAC’s ever-mushrooming appropriations requests. “Nuclear war,” LeMay publicly predicted, “is inevitable the moment we become weak.” “We” meant SAC. Privately, LeMay, whose political views, especially on the Soviet menace, were located somewhere to the right of Joseph McCarthy, advocated a pre-emptive strike against the Russian Bear.
Hollywood, in the throes of its own Red Scare, enthusiastically joined in the drum beating for more air power. In 1955, Jimmy Stewart, a colonel in the Air Force reserve, did his part by making a successful commercial film Strategic Air Command, extolling the mighty men and mammoth machines of SAC, including a cigar-wielding LeMay stand-in (played by Frank Lovejoy), and dozens of glistening B-36′s and B-47′s adorned with purple contrails flying into the Technicolor sunset. “That’s our new B-47 on a training mission,” the LeMay surrogate barks out at the film’s end, as he, Colonel Stewart, and devoted SAC wife June Allyson rush to the window to gawk. “We’ll have four new wings by next year!”
SAC got those four wings of B-47s, of course.
SAC also began receiving the B-52, the jet-powered heavy bomber LeMay had longed for, as well as the B-58 Hustler, a fast medium bomber. The former pilot-navigator happily took the controls of both planes in highly publicized mock nuclear bomb runs. SAC was riding high. And so was the “Iron Eagle.” “The world’s toughest air soldier,” Reader’s Digest called LeMay in one of many laudatory articles that appeared at the time. By the time LeMay was promoted to Air Force vice-chief of staff in 1957, after eight years at the helm of SAC, he was America’s most prominent peacetime general — except the one in the White House, of course.
And LeMay intended to keep SAC strong.
In order to insure that, LeMay had already set the gears in motion for a supersonic follow-on bomber to the sturdy subsonic B-52. LeMay’s dream, based on the assumption (later proven false) that the best bomber is the one that flew as high and as fast as possible, was to wed the strategic bomber concept to the Mach III technology then being perfected by experimental jet pilots such as Check Yeager and Scott Crossfield in their X-planes. The Air Force, largely at LeMay’s instigation, announced a competition to see who could make LeMay’s dream work. A bomber had been born.
To LeMay’s great annoyance, a threat to the bomber’s future had appeared in the form of the steadily-improving intercontinental ballistic missile, a competing, unmanned weapons system that promised to do the same job as SAC’s bombers at far less cost. The successful launching by the Soviets of their Sputnik missile satellite in 1957 seemed to augur the end of the bomber era and the beginning of the missile age. Meanwhile, too, Soviet missile defenses were also rapidly improving, as would soon be dramatically demonstrated by the shooting down of both a high altitude U-2 reconnaissance plane carrying the ill-fated Gary Powers and an RB-47 reconnaissance bomber over or near Soviet territory by surface-to-air missiles.
Never mind. Curtis LeMay still believed in the bomber, and he was prepared to fight for its perpetuation as the nation’s premiere weapons system in any way he knew how.
No one doubted LeMay’s patriotism — only his objectivity. As Defense Secretary Charles Wilson put it, in referring to LeMay’s air power antics, “A dedicated specialist can get pretty sold on his part of the job.” You could take the man out of the bomber, but you couldn’t take the bomber out of the man.
Eighty years before, the wooden battleship admirals of the Navy and their backers had fought tooth and nail for the perpetuation of their aging weapons system and against the conversion to steam. Now, on the brink of the missile age, Curtis LeMay and his numerous and powerful allies in the Air Force, the Congress, the media, and the aircraft industry prepared to do battle for the weapons system which they had come to believe in, and depend on: the long-range strategic manned bomber.
Enter the XB-70 — and Ike.
In November, 1957, shortly after LeMay arrived in Washington to take up his new duties as Air Force vice chief, the Air Force announced, with great fanfare, that North American Aviation Company of Palmdale, California had won the competition to develop and build the supersonic bomber of LeMay’s dreams.
On paper, at least, it looked swell. Employing the little-known aerodynamic concept of “compression lift,” whereby six huge engines encased in a box structure beneath the fuselage would force compressed air away from the plane’s wings, and utilizing a special honeycombed titanium material to deal with attendant heat problems, the new craft would be able to fly at 2200 miles per hour — more than three times the speed of sound — and attain a maximum cruising altitude of over 80,000 feet, along with a range of 4,000 miles, making it the fastest and highest flying bomber ever built. Designated the XB-70 “Valkyrie” after the maidens of Norse myth who conducted heroic souls to Valhalla, with its long, thin fuselage, and wide, triangular wings, it promised to be one of the most awesome aircraft ever built. Here was the successor to the B-52 that Curtis LeMay and the bomber men of the Strategic Air Command had been waiting for. Here was the fourth generation of Air Power.
At LeMay’s urging, Air Force Chief of Staff Thomas White immediately placed a crash order with North American Aviation to build the first wing of Valkyries, with the first plane to be air-ready no later than 1962, and the entire wing of 45 to be ready for deployment by 1966. “Uncle Carl” and the rest of the sizable air power contingent on Capital Hill, including the very vocal Senator and reserve air force major general Barry Goldwater — who extolled the B-70 as “a triple-sonic missile with a brain” — gladly assented, allotting several million dollars for development and production of the projected Valkyrie fleet. “The Valkyrie,” they chorused in articles and speeches, “must fly.”
One of those who wasn’t so take with the Valkyrie, or the rhetoric of its backers, was President Dwight Eisenhower. By the late 1950s, Ike had grown increasingly uncomfortable with the rigidity and provocativeness of the country’s SAC-heavy, massive-retaliatory strategic posture as well as the subsequent atrophying of the country’s limited war capabilities; indeed, his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, who had originally expounded the massive retaliation doctrine, had essentially disavowed it by 1959. In addition, and more to the point, Eisenhower and his advisers — including Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson — were convinced that by the time the B-70 would be ready for roll-out, it would be obsolete, a judgment endorsed by Wilson’s two successors, Neil McElroy and Thomas Gates. Eisenhower and his defense advisers were further confirmed in this view by the rapid improvements in American missilery.
As a result, beginning in 1958, Ike decided to downgrade the B-70 project to an aerodynamic research project, limiting production to two prototypes. The following year, 1959, the president went further, scaling back the program to one airframe. At the same time, Eisenhower refused to spend an additional billion dollars, which Congress, under the advice of Vinson and other air power advocates, had tacked onto his defense budgets for more B-52s and B-58s. This cycle of allocation, impoundment, reallocation, reimpoundment, occurred three years in a row–1958, 1959, and 1960. After every impoundment there was a progressively greater hue and cry from the Air Force-Congress bomber combine, followed by an intense propaganda campaign to get the Eisenhower Administration to release the coveted monies.
While ranking Air Force officials, like Chief of Staff Thomas White, hit the high notes, emphasizing the superplane’s aerodynamic feature–”It’s not just an airplane, but a national aeronautical development, a breakthrough into a new era of flying!” White exclaimed in 1959–aging air power swamis like General Carl Spaatz, former head of the Army Air Force in World War II fame, were brought in to sound the low, ominous ones. “The decision to delay indefinitely the development of the B-70 bomber represents, I believe, the most serious mistake in weapons evaluation the United States could make at this juncture in the global armaments contest,” Spaatz declared in January 1960. “Equipped with this weapon,” Spaatz predicted, “we could face the next decade confident of our military security. Without it,” he warned, the U.S. faced “relegation to a second-class position in air power.”
The air power media also had something to say about the matter, including comic-strip jet fighter Steve Canyon, who warned readers “of the damage to the U.S. security resulting from this move.”
Most outspoken of all was LeMay’s successor at SAC, General Thomas Power, who was assiduously planting the idea of a “missile gap” between us and the Soviets. The Soviets were so far ahead of us in missiles, Power told the Economic Club in New York in mid-January, 1960, that they would soon have the capacity to wipe out all our defenses in thirty minutes of nuclear bombardment. There was only one way to save ourselves, Power said, in a speech which made headlines across the country. A large percentage of SAC’s heavy bombers had to be kept constantly airborne, necessitating the purchase of a new B-53 wing. And, of course, the Valkyrie, the heir-designate to the B-52, also had to be built in quantity. America’s security depended on it. And so did the future of air power.
Phooey, said Ike. No slouch on military matters himself, the former supreme Allied commander resented the aspersions which the B-70 lobby had cast on his direction of the national defense. A dedicated anti-militarist, Eisenhower had a constitutional aversion to the kind of saber-rattling indulged by White, Spaatz, Power, LeMay and company. “there are too many of these generals who have all sorts of ideas,” Ike declared shortly after Power’s missile-gap speech. At the same time, he restated his confidence in his own abilities to “put need above pressure-group inducement, before local argument, before every kind of pressure except for what America needs.”
It was concerns such as these which moved the retiring president and commander-in-chief to dedicate his farewell address in January, 1961, to warning the nation about the dangerous consequences of having such a large, self-perpetuating peacetime military establishment. Ike was particularly concerned about what he called the “military-industrial complex” making policy for itself, although he avoided naming names–who or what did he mean? His successor, John F. Kennedy, found out what he meant during a renewed and even more aggressive fight for the B-70.
John F. Kennedy had heard his predecessor’s warning. “Neither our strategy nor our psychology as a nation,” the new commander-in-chief told Congress shortly after taking office, “and certainly not our economy–must become dependant upon the military establishment.”
Perhaps the strongest indication that Kennedy meant what he said was by the nature of the man–and the manager–who he brought in to be his defense secretary.
Robert Strange McNamara was certainly a different breed of bureaucrat than the military–and the Congress–were used to dealing with. Tough, cool, very smart, and very opinionated, the former Harvard Business School professor and Ford Motor Company executive was a far cry from the hail-fellows-well-met who had preceded him in office. He brought with him a new, active, highly rational philosophy of management which called for making decisions quickly, on the basis of the most complete and most objective data available, and letting the chips fall where they may. Kennedy’s charge to him was simple–”to determine what forces were required and to procure and support them as economically as possible,” as he put it.
And McNamara intended to get the job done, even if it meant angering the individual services and their constituencies. “Basically, he was the first guy who came in there–meaning the Pentagon–and said “I’m going to run this thing,” says Carl Kayson, deputy national security advisor during the Kennedy years, and now a professor and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And so McNamara and his aides–the so-called “whiz kids”–did, with immediately controversial results.
Several weapons systems in R&D aroused McNamara’s attention. One of them was the atomic airplane, after an expenditure of one billion dollars, was little closer to fruition than it had been five years before; he immediately cancelled it.
And McNamara was just as underwhelmed by the B-70.
The bomber’s backers, especially the cadre of bomber generals over at Air Force, had hoped that the secretary would see his way through to upgrading the Valkyrie project at long last. Instead, McNamara decided to let the miracle bomber stay in its bottle, asking Congress only for enough money–$220 million–to continue testing. He also indicated that he was willing to take the first steps toward phasing out the B-52 and the B-58, asking for less monies for those planes than the Air Force had wanted, too. It wasn’t that McNamara had anything against bombers–or the Air Force. He had once been an Air Force captain himself. It was just that missiles could get more bang for the buck.
At any rate, once again, the by-now familiar battle for the survival of the manned bomber–or the survival of the American way of life, as the Air Force saw it–was on. Once again, in 1961 the Air Force brass complained to the armed services committees of the House and Senate; once again Congress lent a sympathetic ear an authorized more monies for both the current SAC standbys and their supersonic heirs-designate than Defense had asked for–$515 million more for the B-52 and B-58, and $780 million more for the XB-70, with a view towards making the latter a full weapons system.
“The current plans of the Department of Defense are headed toward the ultimate elimination of the bomber aircraft,” the report of Vinson’s Armed Services Committee, said, echoing the fervently held view of White and LeMay. “The bomber is a vehicle of known capability for the carrying of weapons of many kinds. In one way or another, every weapon in the inventory of the world today has been carried, has been used, and has worked when carried by bomber aircraft–who knows whether an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead will actually work?…The committee is unwilling to place the safety of this country in a purely academic attitude, and for this reason has added to the bill authorization for bombers.” Unimpressed, McNamara, with the support of the president, impounded the additional monies. Vinson was infuriated: he was getting tired of these continued rebuffs of his judgment on weapons systems. It was one thing when Ike and his boys pocketed the bomber allowance he kept giving them to spend. It was another thing for John Kennedy and Robert McNamara to do it. What did they know about managing the military? He’d been running the Pentagon for years! It appeared likely that there would be a showdown between the House Armed Services Committee and McNamara when the B-70 program was brought before Congress the following year during the maneuverings over the administration’s first proposed budget.
Several developments over the following year seemed to make such a showdown inevitable. One of them was the deteriorating relations between the McNamara team and the Air Force–especially White and LeMay. The Air Force chief of staff made little attempt to conceal his contempt for his civilian superiors and his advisors. “In common with other military men,” White told Congress, referring to McNamara and his “whiz kids,” “I have profound apprehensions of the [sic] pipe smoking, so-called ‘defense intellectuals’ who have been brought into this capital.”
The Bay of Pigs debacle, which rightly or wrongly, Kennedy and McNamara blamed on the holdover chiefs of staff, briefly strengthened McNamara’s hand in dealing with his increasingly restive military subordinates, giving him a chance to clear house with Congressional approval. The first chief to go was the cantankerous Tom White. This, in turn, paved the way for the ascension of Curtis LeMay to the top Air Force post.
McNamara and Kennedy, well aware of LeMay’s anti-administration views, probably would have preferred to appoint someone else to the top Air Force slot. However, as McNamara’s former deputy, Roswell Gilpatric points out, “We would have had a major revolt in the ranks and on the hill if we hadn’t promoted LeMay.”
LeMay made it clear that he was going to use his captaincy of the Air Force to continue this rearguard action on behalf of the manned bomber at his Senate nomination hearings in the spring of 1961. “The bulk of the combat potential is in the manned system, rather than the missile system,” he boomed. Significantly, McNamara was absent at LeMay’s swearing in at the White House in July, 1961.
All the elements were now in place for the intense climax of the long B-70 fight. All that was needed now was a good Cold War crisis to inflame things.
The Berlin crisis, which began in July after the breakdown of talks between President Kennedy and Chairman Khrushchev at Vienna, fit the bill nicely, accelerating the nation’s paranoia about the Soviets to the point where Le Monde described America’s mood as one of “war psychosis.” Kennedy himself contributed to the general dementia when, upon returning from the failed summit, he made one of the most frightening speeches of his presidency, in which he announced that he was mobilizing the National Guard and encouraged Americans to start building atomic shelters.
It was against this disturbing national and international backdrop that Kennedy and his advisors began discussions of the defense budget they would submit to the Congress in 1962. During these discussions the decision was made to build 1,000 intercontinental ballistic missiles–a costly and, in retrospect, ill-advised decision that triggered a new missile race with the Soviets.
And it was during these discussions that the wiser decision to phase out the yet more expensive and potentially destabilizing B-70 was made. Kennedy, siding with McNamara, didn’t want to spend any more money on a plane which, more and more, looked like the lumbering vehicle of an outmoded age. In addition, Kennedy had a deep aversion to weapons which could only be used in a first strike against the Soviets. Clearly, the B-70 was such a first-strike weapon. Kennedy, shifting to a “counterforce” posture, preferred to put money into weapons systems which could survive an initial nuclear attack and then retaliate. The B-70, because it presented a soft target (as opposed to hardened missile silos), was useless in a second-strike configuration.
It was up to McNamara to give Curtis LeMay the bad news. LeMay didn’t take it well. Rebounding from the shock, the Air Force chief of staff had his associates give the B-70 a new name and a new supposed second-strike mission; the endangered aircraft was now to be called the RS-70; the RD stood for reconnaissance-strike. The RS-70 could be a “trans-attack” vehicle, providing radar-detecting and missile-launching capabilities in a second-strike scenario. The president didn’t buy it. Neither did McNamara.
By this point, relations between McNamara and LeMay had become acrimonious. In the past, the jowly former SAC general had been used to having his way with defense secretaries. Not so with McNamara.
LeMay’s biographer, Thomas Coffey, has written: “LeMay’s own personality seemed so unmovable that, without necessarily trying to do so, he had for many years been able to intimidate or at least prevail over other men, even at the highest levels. In McNamara, he was dealing with a man as stubborn, strong, opinionated, and positive as himself. Furthermore, this man was his boss and he didn’t intend to let him forget it.”
LeMay felt that McNamara was overstepping his bounds by using civilian judgment on what were essentially military matters. The imperious McNamara, of course, felt the opposite–and he didn’t care for what he considered LeMay’s insubordinate attitude. It was not a healthy mixture. “There was blood on the floor,” McNamara says today of his confrontations with LeMay over the B-70 nee RS-70.
Unable to make any headway with McNamara, LeMay tried to co-opt at least one new assistant secretary. “I don’t know how you feel about SAC,” LeMay told the new civilian manager after the quizzical whiz kid was summoned to LeMay’s bomber-bedecked office. “But to me, it’s a wonderful and complex and beautifu