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Review: Satellites, Rockets, and Eisenhower

Secret Empire: Eisenhower, the CIA, and the Hidden Story of America’s Space Espionage
By Philip Taubman
Simon & Schuster, 2003
Hardcover, 454 pages
ISBN 0-68485699-9

Until something more scholarly and definitive comes out, Secret Empire is the best and most readable work yet on America’s first spy satellites. The title is a bit misleading. Given everything that has already been published, the story can hardly be called “hidden.”

The tale of how President Eisenhower brought imagery intelligence into the heart of US defense policy making is an excellent case study on how a President should deal with a lack of critical information. How and why the early Corona spy satellites were designed and built should stand with the Ultra code-breaking story as one of the most important Western espionage achievements of the last century.

Philip Taubman is the Deputy Editorial Page Editor of the New York Times. One, therefore, expects bits of their dogma to be included in this work. For example, he claims that the “Reagan administration have pushed the CIA and its fellow spy agencies to bend intelligence reports to conform with policy.” This statement is based on the refusal of the Reagan administration to take the academic liberal “product” that came out of the CIA’s analysis branch seriously. The author includes enough of these asides to reassure his peers that his doctrinal orthodoxy is unquestionable.

Without access to closed government files, both in the US and in the former USSR, this book is the most complete record we are going to get.

Yet, there is plenty of heresy here, if one reads between the lines. First of all, there is the assumption that the Cold War was a serious contest between America (the Good Guys) and the Communists (the Bad Guys). There is also the undisguised admiration for Dwight Eisenhower. Ike is the only GOP president whom liberals find it safe to admire, mostly on the basis of his warning against the power of the military industrial complex.

Taubman’s sources are almost all impeccable. Obviously, he has drawn on the works of Bill Burroughs, Jeffery Richelson, John Logsdon, Dwayne Day, as well as on the indispensable memoirs of former MIT president James Killian, Sputnik, Scientists and Eisenhower. He also interviews most of the surviving major players, including General Andrew Goodpaster, the greatest living source for information on Eisenhower’s Cold War policies. Without access to closed government files, both in the US and in the former USSR, this book is the most complete record we are going to get.

This happy result is largely because Taubman is closer in spirit to one of the Cardinals of the High Renaissance: a Medici who enjoyed the good life, rather than a grim leader of the Counterreformation. This shows, for example, in his willingness to look at Richard Bissel, of the CIA, as a full, yet flawed, human being, instead of the monster who plotted the Bay of Pigs. Bissel came from a wealthy Connecticut family. Trained as an economist, he was typical of the upper-class idealists who were drawn into the leadership of the CIA’s predecessor, the OSS, and then into the Agency itself. Essentially, he was a project manager for technical programs. He was a good one, but as far as we know, the covert operations he managed were all failures. However, Bissel cannot be regarded as the “father” of the U-2 and of spy satellites.

That distinction probably belongs to Eisenhower himself. It has long been a clichˇ among historians that Ike understood the strengths and weaknesses of secret intelligence better than any President in American history, with the possible exception of George Washington. As Supreme Commander in Europe, he’d seen the results of intelligence failures, notably at Arnhem and the Ardennes, and he knew the debt the Allies owed to their codebreakers.

As NATO Commander and then as President, he understood just how weak our intelligence sources inside the Soviet Empire really were. This weakness led to exaggerated estimates of Soviet strength. These not only were used to justify large budgets for various US military services, notably the Air Force and its Strategic Air Command (SAC), but they also had the effect of demoralizing America’s allies. Some felt that, in the face of vastly superior Soviet military strength, they might as well make as good a deal as possible, since there was no way the Americans could stand up to the USSR without blowing everyone and everything to bits with nuclear weapons.

In 1954, Ike created the Technological Capabilities Panel (TCP) under James Killian’s chairmanship. Also called the Surprise Attack Panel, this group’s goal was to see how the weaknesses in the US military and intelligence systems could be repaired. The shock of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor was only 12 years old. A nuclear December 7th was a nightmare shared by almost everyone in Washington.

According to most intelligence historians, US and UK code breaking operations against the USSR were mostly failures. Human intelligence was even worse. Only a few dangerous overflight missions by modified bombers gave the US and its allies any sort of imagery on which to base estimates of Soviet strength.
How and why the early Corona spy satellites were designed and built should stand with the Ultra code-breaking story as one of the most important Western espionage achievements of the last century.

Technologically, the gap between the US and the USSR was far smaller than in the seventies and eighties. This was the pre-microchip age. The broad US lead in technology was real, but fairly shallow. In World War Two, US and British aid to the USSR had included many of the most sophisticated weapons and other items. This, combined with the technological loot from Nazi Germany and things such as the jet engines they had bought from Great Britain, gave Soviet military technology the ability to keep pace with the US and its allies. The fighting quality of the MiG 15 over Korea had been a nasty surprise. On the available evidence, there was no reason for Eisenhower to be complacent.

Long experience, however, had sharpened the President’s strategic judgment. He knew how devastated Russia had been by the Nazi invasion. He doubted that socialist magic had allowed them to rapidly recover. Having led the fight against Hitler, he also had well-founded doubts about the ability of a dictatorship build a powerful and prosperous modern state. His instincts told him that the USSR was not, at that moment, the overwhelmingly powerful adversary that it appeared to be.

Ike needed facts to confirm what his instinct told him. He knew that none of the intelligence operations underway could give him those facts. He faced a tough strategic choice, similar in some ways to the one George W. Bush faced before 9/11. Could he cut back on procurement money for the current generation of weapons and other military technology and spend more on research and development, or should he throw everything into a build-up based on weapons already in production?

Killian and his partner, Edwin Land, CEO of Polaroid, found that a design for a powered glider that had been rejected by the Air Force would work if it were combined with a special camera that Land had invented. Flying at 70,000 feet, this aircraft, later called the U-2, would be out of range of Soviet fighters and of the primitive surface-to-air missiles then available. It was believed that, flying at such altitude, the aircraft would be undetectable.

The story of how the U-2 was built and flown within 18 months is now firmly part of American aerospace industrial mythology. Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson, who already had established himself as one of the greatest aircraft designers of the 20th century, and his “Skunk Works” team accomplished a series of miracles, including the first, truly effective, high altitude pressure suits—the ancestors of the space suits used by today’s astronauts.

On July 4th 1956, the first U-2 took off from Germany and flew directly over the Western USSR. In the week that followed, a series of other missions covered most of Russia west of the Urals. However, the Soviets were perfectly capable of tracking the U-2 and had tried hard to shoot it down. After a diplomatic protest from Moscow, Eisenhower lost his enthusiasm for the operation. The delicate world situation, and his feeling that, if the Soviets did something similar, America would react with far less restraint that the Soviets had so far shown, led him to put serious restrictions on the program. Taubman points out there were only 24 flights over the Soviet Union before the aircraft, flown by Francis Gary Powers, was shot down on May 1, 1960.

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