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15 Minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation Hardcover – February 1, 2011

4.1 out of 5 stars 112 customer reviews

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From Publishers Weekly

America™s cold war defensive strategy relied on possessing a striking force so powerful that, even after absorbing a devastating Soviet attack, it could deliver a nation-killing blow. This deterrence matured under the aegis of Gen. Curtis LeMay (1906–1990), the brilliant WWII bomber commander. Military historian Keeney (Gun Camera Pacific) reports that when LeMay took over the Strategic Air Command in 1948, he found several understaffed B-29 groups left over from WWII, a few dozen primitive atomic bombs, and no coherent strategy. With access to newly declassified documents, Keeney delivers a jolting year-by-year history of SAC™s transformation into a massive worldwide force primed to launch bombers within 15 minutes of the order. He also reveals alarming numbers of lost nuclear bombs, disastrous atmospheric tests, and nuclear war near-misses. Bitterly opposed to SAC™s diversion to conventional bombing in Vietnam, LeMay retired in 1965, and Keeney™s detailed, often squirm-inducing account ends in an anticlimax in 1968 with SAC dwindling to a minor adjunct to America™s swelling ballistic missile arsenal. 16 pages of b&w photos. (Feb.)
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From Booklist

In the 1950s, before land- and submarine-based missiles formed the backbone of American nuclear deterrence, the U.S. relied primarily upon the Strategic Air Command (SAC). When an alert was issued, it was assumed that the crews of our long-range bombers had only 15 minutes to scramble to the runways and takeoff to guarantee the credibility of a retaliatory strike against the Soviet Union. Keeney, a military historian and co-founder of cable television’s Military Channel, has utilized great amounts of recently declassified documents to tell a fascinating, often chilling story of the policies, technologies, and men responsible for maintaining our nuclear defense posture in that period. At the center of the narrative is General Curtis LeMay, a brilliant, cigar-chomping innovator who was haunted by the specter of Pearl Harbor and determined that we wouldn’t be caught unprepared again. Keeney avoids excessive technical jargon and recounts in straightforward fashion the successes and sometimes dangerous and devasting failures and miscalculations of men operating on the razor’s edge while coping with the terror of unprecedented consequences for misjudgments. --Jay Freeman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press; 1st Printing edition (February 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312611560
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312611569
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (112 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #276,807 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Keeney's book was a bit perplexing at first but the point he makes well is that there was more chaos during the Cold War than anyone could imagine. So he jumps from wave heights to thermonuclear discoveries to SAC penetration tatics in a way that makes you feel the confusion and chaos, as if you were there. Well, I was there. Like Keeney says we all had Emergency War Plans -- and as a Cold War fighter pilot and tanker pilot I saw many sides of the situation, I can say that we were ready to go. Reading this well and exhaustively researched, well written book I can say that Keeney introduces declassified documents in a way that brings the reality of our Cold War to life in a way I could never before share with my family. I'm buying copies for my in-laws! Hooray!
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At first, I found the organization of "15 minutes" to be a little off putting--especially in the early going, the author describes a series of seemingly unrelated events in short, jarring paragraphs, many of which end in a somewhat melodramatic one-word teaser. Keeney does this to set up several different stories at once, which is why you'll wonder why the second paragraph in the chapter on "1945" is about the development of offshore oil and gas drilling in Louisiana in 1907 (it makes sense eventually).

I suspect the book's style owes a lot to Keeney's experience with television documentary (he's a co-founder of The Military Channel), and it actually works fairly well as the book builds momentum. If the book's thesis is that things had to happen at a faster and faster pace to preserve a credible strategic deterrent, the book's short, punchy paragraphs do an efective job of conveying the sense of urgency that must have pervaded SAC for nearly forty years.
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I served in the Strategic Air Command from 1970-1972 being stationed in Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota. Our base had a wing of B-52s bombers and KC-135 tankers plus Minuteman III missles. The dedication of SAC men/women, officers, and their families was outstanding, the work grueling but indispensible to national defense and detering an expansion minded Soviet Union. General Curtis LeMay of the USAF, and the subject of this 372 page book, is one of this country's most important and influential military figures dating from his ending WWII with bombing of Japan, through breaking the blockaid of Berlin and keeping the peace with the Soviet Union by 'mutual assured destructrion". General LeMay's 2613 bombers and tankers and 27,387 nuclear warheads (vs Soviet Union's 3,300) are the principle reason that the Russians withdrew their missles from Cuba in the 1962 crisis.

This is a good book and deserves a wide audience. This book was reviewed by the Wall Street Journal February 12, 2011 by Arthur Herman and was highly recommended. Americans, past, present and future, owe much to this short, blunt talking, cigar smoking General. This is a fitting book that chronicles the service of Curtis LeMay, an American military giant.
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I can't say enough good things about this book.

My dad was in SAC, so I spent the first seventeen years of my life living on SAC bases. Accordingly, I was already familiar with most of the terms in the book, such as Chrome Dome, ORI's, cocked planes, and so forth, as well as having lived on a number of the bases listed in the book's action, such as Offut, Eglin, Ramey, Beale, and several others in between.

Thus, this book to me was like Old Homecoming Week. I literally relived much of my childhood through this book.

And General Curtis LeMay was an eminently beloved commander. I used to hear his name often. In fact, one anecdote which did not appear in the book, but which was told to me by my father and also repeated by other SAC personnel, is quite in character with LeMay. Here it is -

One day after giving a speech on SAC to a group of military personnel, a Colonel approached LeMay and said, "General LeMay, SAC really sounds most impressive. How can I go about getting a transfer into SAC?"

To which General LeMay replied, "Colonel, if you were worth a damn you'd already be in SAC."

I mentioned that one of the bases we lived on was Ramey AFB, Puerto Rico. We were there smack in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Our school gymnasium was converted into a medevac, marines were coming ashore to practice amphibious assaults, the entire wing was either within running distance to their planes or in the air with enough payload to make the island of Cuba totally disappear, and my mother and my sister and myself stocked canned goods and clothes in the trunk of the car, ready to high-tail it at a moment's notice.
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