General Curtis LeMay, “Bomb the North Vietnamese Back to the Stone Age” Quote or No Quote?

Many of you Buzzkillers have asked us to do shows about the Vietnam War, especially with the Ken Burns multi-part documentary that’s finishing its run on PBS. And the quote we’re going to examine today is one of the most well-known phrases supposedly to come out of that war. But there’s another reason why we wanted to schedule it right after the Muhammad Ali “quote” about the Viet Cong. And that’s because this is another example of a quote or phrase or saying becoming well-known in the culture of the time, but later being attributed to a famous person. In this case, it’s General Curtis LeMay.

After serving in the United States Army Air Corps in World War II, Curtis LeMay became one of the most important leaders of the newly-formed US Air Force. He moved up through the ranks during the Cold War and became a four-star general during that period. One of the most famous or well-known things about LeMay is that he reportedly said, in the mid-60s, that, in order to win the Vietnam war (which was dragging endlessly on during that period) the US military should, “bomb the North Vietnamese back into the Stone Age.”

Did LeMay say it? Or, more accurately, was he the first person to say it? And was he the first to present it as the distillation of a wartime policy idea? Well, no to all three. And before I go any further I have to stop and thank Professor Nick Cullather at Indiana University who set me straight on what is potentially a very confusing story.

You’ll sometimes see “bomb them back to the Stone Age,” cited as appearing in LeMay’s 1965 autobiography, Mission with LeMay. Other times the attribution is to his 1968 book, “America is in Danger.” And by 1968, the phrase was well-known enough among the political and military chattering classes that LeMay actually denied having said it, or denied having believed in sending an entire group of people back to pre-history. In October 1968, he told the Washington Post, “I never said we should bomb them back to the Stone Age. I said we had the capability to do it. I want to save lives on both sides.” LeMay then elaborated on this, saying that he thought the best strategy would be to annihilate North Vietnamese infrastructure, but not to do the same with the North Vietnamese population. And he blamed his ghost writer for misunderstanding the subtleties of what he was saying, and putting the emphasis on bombing the North Vietnamese people.

But “bomb them back to the Stone Age,” or variations or parts of that phrase, does not appear in either of LeMay’s books. So, where did it come from?

Art Buchwald. Older Buzzkillers will remember Art Buchwald, the columnist who lampooned politics and politicians from the 60s through the 90s, with diminishing effect in the last ten years of his career. But in the 1960s he was a fresh voice of quick but, frankly, shallow humor directed at American leaders, and using the gossip of the political and military chattering classes I mentioned a minute ago to fuel his newspaper column. Buchwald’s syndicated column of June 1, 1967 provides the first evidence of the use of the use, “bomb them back to the Stone Age.” Buchwald was making fun of the more militant wing of the Republican party, members of which were thinking about ways to defeat the Democrats in the 1968 election. Those militants thought Johnson’s approach to Vietnam was far too soft, and that a more, shall we say, “complete” strategy was needed.

So, the phrase was out there in mid-1967. By the time General LeMay’s book, “America is in Danger,” was reviewed by the Chicago Tribune in 1968, the reviewer attributed “bomb the North Vietnamese back to the Stone Age” to LeMay. And then the quote was off to the races, appearing in many media outlets from then on. It became not only a cliche, as Professor Cullather points out, but a cliched LeMay-ism. And once it got stuck to General LeMay, the quote developed its own rolling thunder. It has been used in some history books, when trying to illuminate the LeMay attitude towards the Vietnam War. Every year since 1968, it’s appeared in at least one newspaper editorial every year, again, to describe the militant view of whatever war the United States happened to be in at the time. And it’s not at all dissimilar to President Trump’s “fire and fury like the world has never seen” that we analyzed in an earlier show.

This Art Buchwald satirical jab has even been inflated into a sort of policy chant by the most militant in our culture. These people may not know the original meaning behind the quote (or its context) but, I’m sure it wouldn’t make any difference if they did know. It’s so much easier to repeat quotes rather than to try to apply original thought to a problem,  

You know what we say about quotes here at the Institute, Buzzkillers. Replacing actual thought and analysis with policy-by-quotation is Stone Age behavior.


Buzzkill Bookshelf:

Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (2006).

Clodfelter explains how U. S. Air Force doctrine evolved through the American experience in these conventional wars only to be thwarted in the context of a limited guerrilla struggle in Vietnam. Based on findings from previously classified documents in presidential libraries and air force archives as well as on interviews with civilian and military decision makers, The Limits of Air Power argues that reliance on air campaigns as a primary instrument of warfare could not have produced lasting victory in Vietnam.

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