Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Strategic Air Command (SAC) was established on March 21, 1946, to deter threats from communist nations, prevent nuclear warfare, and wage the cold war. SAC served to project a global military presence as the bomber leg of the United States nuclear triad that included submarine-launched missiles and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. Not solely devoted to deploying nuclear weapons, SAC made significant contributions to conventional warfare in Vietnam and Iraq during the Gulf War.

SAC languished from inadequate funding and unclear direction during its first years under commander Gen. George C. Kenney. As a result of the Berlin blockade and airlift of 1948, however, the mission of SAC crystallized. The Berlin crisis had exposed serious structural and logistical problems that threatened the ability of the United States to enforce its policy of containment against the Soviet Union. In response, Gen. Curtis E. LeMay assumed command of SAC and set about building a credible airborne fighting force. After moving its headquarters from Andrews Field, Maryland, to Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska, LeMay instituted fundamental changes in training, housing, food services, and recreation. A pragmatic leader, LeMay prepared SAC for a war that could begin at any time and for air combat and bombing missions that would have to be deployed immediately. By 1949, when the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb, SAC had mobilized its resources and crew competence to levels sufficient to meet this new challenge.

In the wake of the Soviet nuclear detonation, the beginning of the Korean War, and new initiatives detailed under NSC-68, the National Security Council's blueprint for waging the cold war, the role of SAC in the worldwide defense of American interests grew. By 1950 SAC had 225 atomic bomb-carrying aircraft (including B-29s, B-50s, and thirty-four B-36s). As cold war relations deteriorated and both the United States and the Soviet Union developed thermonuclear weapons, SAC expanded its role in providing strategic defensive and offensive capabilities. In June 1955 SAC accepted delivery of the first B-52, the jet bomber that became its trademark symbol. In January 1957 SAC headquarters moved to a new control center. From a two-tiered building, comprised of a threestory aboveground administrative structure and a three-story belowground war command center, SAC coordinated its global presence, controlling both bomber and missile systems.

In late 1957, under its new commander, Gen. Thomas S. Powers, SAC assumed its wellknown motto, "Peace Is Our Profession." Also during 1957, with cold war tensions increasing, the American military establishment put its nuclear forces on alert status. This condition continued until September 28, 1991, when President George H. W. Bush issued a stand-down order, ending a thirty-five-year period when American nuclear weapons were on launch-ready status and a certain percentage of the American nuclear bomber force continuously remained airborne. SAC ceased to exist on June 1, 1992, when the U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), also headquartered at Offutt Air Force Base, took over control of the nation's strategic forces for the post-cold war era.

Strategic Air Command website.

Scott D. Hughes Albuquerque, New Mexico

Hopkins, J. C., and Sheldon A. Goldberg. The Development of SAC, 1946-1986: The Fortieth Anniversary History. Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska: Office of the Historian, 1988.

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