At the end of World War II, the United States decided to make strategic air power a vital element of its military forces. The bombing of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was believed to have played an important role in the Allied victory, and the advent of the air-deliverable atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki made the bomber "the greatest offensive weapon of all times." For these reasons the United States made a special effort to maintain its long-range bomber forces in the midst of demobilization, and the Strategic Air Command (SAC) was created on 21 March 1946. According to its mission statement, SAC must be able to conduct long-range operations in any part of the world at any time, an ability that was tested early in the Cold War.
Many air-power advocates have maintained that the United States should rely on its air forces to enforce the postwar Pax Americana and close the gap between American commitments and the country's military capabilities. When tensions with the Soviet Union escalated after World War II, SAC rapidly expanded its forces under the leadership of General Curtis LeMay. During the Berlin blockade of 1948, two B-29 groups were sent to England and two other groups were sent to Germany while other SAC forces were placed on alert. SAC forces also participated in the Korean War, dropping some 167,000 tons of conventional bombs from 1950 to 1953. This bombardment, along with naval firepower, proved to be of great assistance in helping UN forces repel numerically superior North Korean and Chinese forces.
With the explosion of the first Soviet hydrogen bomb in 1953 and John Foster Dulles's announcement of the new policy of massive retaliation in 1954, SAC nuclear forces acquired added importance and funding. As the United States and Soviet Union entered the nuclear arms race, it became clear that the number of nuclear warheads deployed and their means of delivery would be key determinants in nuclear power and deterrence. In the mid 1950s SAC began to deploy the B-52 bomber and KC-135 tanker, and the United States enjoyed a clear advantage over the Soviet Union in numbers of nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the test of the first Soviet ICBM which followed led to the much heralded "missile gap" of the late 1950s. In 1959 the United States replied by deploying its first ICBM, the Atlas D, with a SAC unit, and since that time SAC has remained in charge of both strategic bombers and ICBMs. Under SAC, American missile forces were expanded dramatically in the 1960s as Titan and Minuteman ICBMs became operational. Beginning in 1967 these forces were modernized and the United States deployed the Minuteman III, the first ICBM to be a multiple independently targeted reentry vehicle (MIRV).
In 1962 SAC long-range reconnaissance aircraft played an integral role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. A SAC U-2 plane photographed the deployment of Soviet intermediate-range ballistic missiles on Cuba, and soon President John F. Kennedy was determined to demonstrate U.S. resolve and have the Soviets remove the missiles. He thus placed SAC on full-alert status, and B-52s were ordered to maintain a constant airborne alert to protect against Soviet attack and send a strong signal to Moscow. Beginning in 1965 conventionally armed SAC B-52s began bombing targets in Vietnam. The "Rolling Thunder" bombing campaign conducted under the Johnson administration and the "Linebacker" campaigns ordered by President Nixon were used for both military and political purposes. Militarily, the bombing campaigns were used to help stop North Vietnamese forces from moving south, and, politically, they were employed to bring the North to the negotiating table and accept American terms for peace. Linebacker II, otherwise known as the "Christmas bombings," was successful in helping to force the negotiations that secured U.S. withdrawal from the war.
During the 1970s and 1980s, SAC continued to modernize its forces, albeit at a somewhat slower pace when compared to the first decades of the Cold War. The Short Range Attack Missile (SRAM), which was deployed on strategic bombers, was introduced in the early 1970s. In the 1980s the air force deployed the Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), which allowed bombers to launch their weapons in a "stand-off mode"--the ability to fire weapons at targets from distant launch areas. SAC also began to deploy the first units of the B-1B bomber and KC-10 tanker aircraft, along with the highly MIRVed and very accurate Peacekeeper missile.