This tweet by Crimes of the US‏ attributes the following quote to General Curtis LeMay:

"We burned down every town in North Korea... we killed off twenty percent of the population" - US General Curtis LeMay

I just wonder if this is accurate.

  • Please not difference between: whether he Lemay said the quote - whether the content of the quote is accurate. – George Chalhoub Aug 8 '17 at 13:10

Yes, he literally said those words, although the quote is severely edited and is taken out of context.

The quote comes from Strategic Air Warfare: An Interview with Generals (1988). The full quote is provided here, but in the link, it is on page 100 in the PDF File (bold are parts of the full statement that were lifted for the quote).

Right at the start of the war, unofficially I slipped a message in “under the carpet” in the Pentagon that we ought to turn SAC loose with incendiaries on some North Korean towns. The answer came back, under the carpet again, that there would be too many civilian casualties; we couldn't do anything like that. So we went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea anyway, some way or another, and some in South Korea, too. We even burned down Pusan-an accident, but we burned it down anyway. The Marines started a battle down there with no enemy in sight. Over a period of three years or so, we killed off-what-twenty percent of the population of Korea as direct casualties of war, or from starvation and exposure? Over a period of three years, this seemed to be acceptable to everybody, but to kill a few people at the start right away, no, we can’t seem to stomach that.

Note that his estimate of 20% was actually inaccurate according to the source and it was actually closer to 13.5%. Taken from the footnote at the bottom of the page

North Korea had 9,600,000 people in 1950; it had approximately 1,300,000 civilian and military casualties.


General Lemay was not rejoicing over the death and destruction in North Korea during the war, as the tweet would have you believe. The quote is regarding objectively verifiable (and later proven to be exaggerated) facts about casualties during the war itself. General Lemay was describing that he had proposed a different plan of action at the start of the war, that was rejected because it would result in too many civilian casualties, and then lamenting on the irony of the war eventually killing a large number of civilians in a more drawn out conflict. While we can not know for certain, it is possible that Lemay's plan would have reduced the number of civilian casualties by bringing the war to a swift end.

  • I've edited the question, but you should have addressed the OP's description of "rejoice". Anyway, plus 1. – fredsbend May 20 '17 at 1:34
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    I thought about addressing that, but I felt that trying to delve into Gen. Lemay's thoughts would have been too much speculation for the answer. I chose to instead link to the answer and quote a much larger segment of the passage in order to hopefully provide some context. It could probably be argued that Lemay thought that the use of strategic (read: atomic) weaponry would bring the war to a swift and (relatively) bloodless end considering what the prevailing knowledge at the time was, but I felt that it would be too broad and involve too much speculation to be considered valid. – DenisS May 20 '17 at 5:15
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    @Dennis He's clearly criticizing war decisions that result in more death. Anyone spinning this as rejoicing is intentionally misleading others or is stupid. But, it's not in the question anymore, so this doesn't really matter. I just have a personal problem with misleading information intended to disparage another's character. Thanks for the good answer. – fredsbend May 20 '17 at 16:03

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