The SAC mentality: the origins of organizational culture in Strategic Air Command, 1946-1962 Public Deposited

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  • March 21, 2019
  • Deaile, Melvin G.
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of History
  • This dissertation explores the origins of Strategic Air Command’s organizational culture. Organizational culture—the assumptions, values, and rituals of an organization— has an ideological and a material component. Formed in 1946, SAC inherited part of its organizational culture from the assumptions of Air Force leaders who believed that strategic air power should be organized under one independent commander. This provided the initial values and organizational doctrine for the command. The shared historical experiences of those who fought in World War II provided the formulation for the tactics and cultural rituals that became part of SAC culture. Constructing a ‘force-in-being’ meant preparing SAC to execute its war plan on a moment’s notice. Curtis LeMay put SAC on alert; war was not months or weeks but hours away. As SAC organized, trained, and, in the minds of its leaders and members fought the Cold War, other organizational routines, rituals, and symbols evolved. Many of SAC’s first cultural forms—standardized procedures, lead crews, and the survival school—grew out of the leaders’ shared experiences. Other cultural elements— security, competition, and architectural designs—developed out of the command’s involvement in the Cold War. Security and competition oriented people towards an enemy and to vigilance. Although SAC tried to build a family friendly command, its atmosphere of competition ran counter to the cooperation needed at home to maintain a healthy family life. In 1957, the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik I changed the circumstances of the Cold War and added new elements to SAC culture. Alert—the ability to launch bombers and ICBMs within fifteen minutes—became a cultural routine that lasted in SAC until the Cold War ended. The responsiveness required of the alert force meant mistakes, especially with nuclear weapons, were not tolerated. SAC culture dictated perfection as the standard. Missiles, however, stood in stark contrast to the values and assumptions of the organization. These new weapons were ‘pilotless.’ Therefore, SAC took measures to make sure this new SAC subculture espoused the same values and beliefs as the larger organization. SAC’s culture emphasized standardization, perfection, and the physical presentation of power because this was the type of war the organization fought.
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  • In Copyright
  • Kohn, Richard H.
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  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Open access

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