Brent D. Ziarnick

Apr 27, 2021

To Rule the Skies

General Thomas S. Power and the Rise of Strategic Air Command in the Cold War

US Naval Institute Press 2021

A sadist. A madman. A sociopath seduced by the terrible allure of nuclear weapons. These are but a few of the pejoratives commonly used to describe United States Air Force General Thomas S. Power, Commander-in-Chief of Strategic Air Command (SAC) from 1957 to 1964. Power’s remit as CinCSAC was twofold: deter the Soviet Union from launching a nuclear first strike on the United States and plan to unleash Armageddon if they did. Neither was easily achieved. Effective deterrence hinged upon the actual possession of qualitatively superior weapons systems combined with the perception that the United States was willing to use them. Loosing the nuclear dogs of war, in turn, depended on the exacting coordination of those weapons systems under combat conditions. Further complicating matters was the incredible compression of time and space brought on by the advent of new delivery systems like the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). SAC's mission was truly a Gordian Knot—one Power was determined to cut. Power approached the problem with an alacrity that transformed SAC into a formidable nuclear instrument, but which simultaneously earned him a less than flattering reputation. Within the Kennedy administration and among many members of the media, Power was seen as fatally unhinged, obsessed with nuclear weapons, violently anti-communist, and liable to start a nuclear war with the Soviets of his own volition. Whether accurate or not, this view dominated popular and historiographical appraisals of Power for the better part of seven decades.

In To Rule the Skies: General Thomas S. Power and the Rise of Strategic Air Command in the Cold War (US Naval Institute Press, 2021), historian Brent Ziarnick takes aim at this mainstream historiographic narrative. Telling in detail for the first time the story of Power’s personal and professional life, Ziarnick refocuses our attention away from the hyperbole and onto Power’s substantive contributions to the development of America’s strategic air and aerospace capability.

Power first rose to prominence as a B-29 wing commander in the Second World War, planning and leading firebombing raids against Japan for General Curtis LeMay. This experience, Ziarnick points out, familiarized Power with the exigencies of strategic air warfare—knowledge he would put to good use shaping the technology, organization, and mission of Strategic Air Command in the 1950s and early 1960s. Power is rightly understood, Ziarnick argues, as a sober observer of the realities of nuclear war. He incorporated the nuclear weapon, the heavy bomber, and the intercontinental ballistic missile into a Single Integrated Operational Plan not to facilitate nuclear war, but to secure peace. Significantly, Ziarnick contends, Power's advocacy for deterrence through strength was proven correct during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when SAC's nuclear might prevented the outbreak of full-scale nuclear warfare. Moreover, in Power, Ziarnick finds a visionary of America's military presence in space. Through the support of emerging technologies like the nuclear pulse rocket and an insistence on the creation of a truly aerospace force, Power, Ziarnick argues, was the first American military leader to think deeply about space and its potential as a fourth domain of war. To Rule the Skies adds a refreshing nuance to our understanding of Power as both military leader and aerospace theorist; it is a significant contribution to the history of the Cold War, addressing a hitherto unexamined gap in the literature with incredible insight and finesse.

Brent D. Ziarnick is an assistant professor at the Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. He has been published in Wired, Politico, and The Hill. He is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.

Scott Lipkowitz holds a MA in History, with a concentration in military history, and a MLIS, with a concentration in information technology, from Queens College, City University of New York.

Listen to more episodes on:

Your Host

Scott Lipkowitz

Scott Lipkowitz holds a MA in History, with a concentration in military history, and a MLIS, with a concentration in information technology, from Queens College, City University of New York

Learn More

Also Hosted By Scott Lipkowitz