1953 -- The Emergence of the Strategic Air Command


With the end of the fighting in Korea, President Eisenhower, who had taken office in January 1953, called for a "New Look" at national defense. The result of this reexamination was a greater reliance on nuclear weapons and air power to deter war. Instead of maintaining the large Army and Navy that had fought the Korean War, the Eisenhower administration chose to invest in air power, especially in the Strategic Air Command (SAC). Key elements of the New Look--a reliance of America's lead in nuclear weapons; an emphasis on air power, especially on strategic forces; support of NATO; and a strong nuclear deterrent--were already a part of the national strategy. The Eisenhower administration's particular contribution lay in the doctrine of "massive retaliation," the threat that the United States might not limit its response to future aggression as it had in Korea. This was a matter of making the underlying deterrent threat more explicit to potential adversaries.

In choosing this New Look, deterrence-oriented military policy, Eisenhower challenged the Air Force to make it work, and the Air Force stood ready. Since taking over SAC in 1948, General Curtis E. LeMay had converted it from a training organization to a combat force immediately ready to retaliate against an aggressor. By the end of 1953 SAC had achieved an unprecedented level of striking power. Of the seventeen wings in the atomic force, eleven were equipped. The B-47 force had grown during the year from 62 to 329 planes, the B-36 force reached 185, and the reconnaissance RB-36 component numbered 137. Supporting the bomber force were more than 500 tankers and 200 fighters. A ring of overseas air bases from Greenland to North Africa projected American nuclear might to within striking distance of the Soviet heartland. Personnel strength stood at nearly 160,000, based at twenty-nine bases in the states and ten overseas. Of course, the figures did not tell the whole story. Indeed the numbers that indicated the precise ability of the command to deliver a decisive blow were often preserved in the strictest secrecy, but LeMay's achievement in building a combat-ready force with a high state of discipline was open knowledge. The nation's reliance on SAC bombers to prevent war through the threat of nuclear devastation served to justify the organization's motto: Peace Is Our Profession. The prestige of the Strategic Air Command bespoke assurance that whatever the numbers of personnel and aircraft, if determination and training could deliver the atomic blow, the threat of atomic retaliation was real. The deterrent force was in this sense beyond question.

See the AFHSO publication by Walton S. Moody:
Building a Strategic Air Force, 1945-1953.