When asked later about his role in the air raids, LeMay said:
“There are no innocent civilians. It is their government and you are fighting a people, you are not trying to fight an armed force anymore. So it doesn’t bother me so much to be killing the so-called innocent bystanders.”
But many of his contemporaries, including LeMay’s frequent adversary, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, would come to see their actions differently. Six years before his death, McNamara took part in the documentary “The Fog of War.” When asked about U.S. actions in Japan during World War II, McNamara responded,“LeMay said if we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals. And I think he’s right. . . . LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose, and not immoral if you win?”
After World War II, LeMay served as head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, and was responsible for many of the early air raids using napalm and firebombs that claimed many civilian casualties. “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off — what — 20 percent of the population,” LeMay said in a 1984 interview. While little known in the United States, in North Korea, the bombings are a deep memory, with factual information of the real atrocities and distorted information mixed together to fuel anti-American propaganda, according to a report by The Washington Post.
LeMay was appointed Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force in 1961. During the Cuban missile crisis, LeMay was critical of Kennedy’s blockade, advocating instead for an invasion. As the United States was escalating involvement in Vietnam, LeMay once again advocated a strategy of scorched earth. In his 1965 memoir “Mission with LeMay: My Story,” LeMay recalls saying of North Vietnam, “They’ve got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression, or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.” While he would later argue that his words were misunderstood – he claimed in 1968 that he was discussing the US could do, not what it should do – the “Stone Age” quote would haunt LeMay for the rest of his career.
Known for frequently clashing with President Johnson and Sec. McNamara, LeMay retired from military service in 1965. He briefly pursued electoral politics, and in 1968 was tapped by George Wallace as a running mate for Wallace’s presidential campaign. Despite running on a third party ticket, Wallace and LeMay were able to pick up 46 electoral votes over five states.
For the rest of his life LeMay staunchly defended his decisions and continued to advocate for military dominance. “So many people don’t realize that we are at war with communism, whether we like it or not.” When asked about his views on diplomacy, LeMay said, “I have absolutely no confidence in arms control agreements.” LeMay died in October of 1990, less than a year before the fall of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. But as long as there are American politicians threatening other countries with “fire and fury,” LeMay’s influence lives on, for better or worse.