General George Kenney. Photo: US Air Force
On October 12, 1957, Mike Wallace opened his Interview television broadcast with the following dramatic words:
“Tonight we had planned to interview one of the great fighters of our time, Sugar Ray Robinson. But because of the alarming turn in world events this week, Sugar Ray has consented to a postponement of his interview so that tonight we can go after the story of the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union for control of outer space.”
Instead of a champion of the boxing ring, Mike hosted a champion of World War II’s war on Japan: retired Air Force General George Kenney, Commander of Allied Air Forces under General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific. MacArthur said about Kenney: “General Kenney has no superior as an air commander. His creative imagination and his brilliant leadership mark him as one of the unique figures in aviation.” Wallace also credited Kenney with “a reputation as a fearless military analyst”.
The alarming world event Wallace was referring to was the recent successful launch of the USSR satellite, Sputnik 1. Mike lost no time in getting right to the point with Kenney: How serious was the threat posed by Sputnik, and how should the United States – and the world – respond?
Kenney, his words and manner confirming him to be a principled man of demonstrated ability, succinctly and persuasively made the following points:
- The successful launch of Sputnik 1 proves that the USSR has developed the rocket technology necessary to propel an ICBM into United States air space, posing a serious threat to the security of our nation.
- America has been too complacent and apathetic about the Soviet ability to develop weapons and produce them in quantity.
- The day the Soviet political and military staff decide they can win a nuclear war, they’ll pull the trigger. They follow the teaching of Marx and Lenin, which confirm this world mission. Khrushchev reiterates this point in every speech he makes.
- A preventive first strike (Wallace repeatedly proposed this option) is not the answer. Like the sheriff of our western heritage, don’t shoot the bandit on first sight. Warn him he has so much time to get out of town, and if he doesn’t leave and reaches for his gun instead, beat him to the draw.
- We are behind the Soviet Union in nuclear weapons development because the American public has not taken the threat seriously enough.
Kenney, while not eager to lay blame anywhere for the United States’ having fallen behind in the Cold War arms race, stressed that US leaders mostly followed the desires of the electorate, based on the average voter’s priorities. “If the people of this country really want defense they can have it,” he asserted. “All they’ve got to do it demand it. The feeling in Washington is that they wanted the budget balanced, want taxes reduced, they want bigger Social Security benefits, more pensions, better roads, and all kinds of things.”
Kenney went on to make insightful and cogent remarks on a variety of issues related to American military defense, the performance of key government and military officials, and recent scientific research. He shared his views on the stance the United Nations should take with member nations headed by dictatorships and explained why, in his opinion, the Russian government newspaper Isvestia had labeled him a “high ranking lunatic”.
General Kenney concluded the interview with a glimpse of his personal integrity. He explained why he chose not to work for defense contractors after his retirement from the Air Force – “they would expect me to be down in Washington to help them sell their stuff and I couldn’t do that if one of the competitors of the company that I was working for had a better missile or a better engine or a better airplane”. Kenney, instead, chose to spend part of his retirement contributing his time and talents to a cause he felt passionate about – the Arthritis Foundation.