By 1956 the air force bomber fleet had almost doubled in size, and the Strategic Air Command kept a third of its 1,200 B-47 long-range bombers on the runway at all times, fueled and loaded with their nuclear cargo. Curtis LeMay, the cigar-chomping SAC commander, seemed to be on a personal mission to instill fear in Russian hearts. In January 1956, LeMay scrambled almost all his bombers in a simulated nuclear attack. In another exercise, Operation Powerhouse, his planes flew nearly one thousand simultaneous sorties from more than thirty bases around the world to intimidate Moscow. In a few weeks, he would launch yet another exercise called Operation Home Run–reconnaissance versions of his B-47 Stratojets would fly from Thule, Greenland, over the North Pole, and into Siberia to probe for gaps in Soviet radar defenses. The mission would culminate with a squadron of the metallic silver RB-47s, their undersides painted white to reflect the flash of a nuclear blast, flying in attack formation in broad daylight several hundred miles into Soviet territory. The Soviets would have no way of knowing that the bombers were not armed, or that an attack was not imminent. And that would be the point of the exercise: to expose the USSR’s defenselessness against a polar attack and to drive home the message that the United States could strike Russia at will. “With a bit of luck, we could have started World War III,” LeMay would later reminisce ruefully.
At times LeMay’s antics even scared the CIA. “Soviet leaders may have become convinced that the US actually has intentions of military aggression in the near future,” warned an ad hoc committee of CIA, State Department, and military intelligence agency representatives.
Posted, but not written by, Louis Sheehan”Recent events may have somewhat strengthened Soviet conviction in this respect.”