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Chapter One: "Racing Toward Catastrophe"
Hal Austin had always assumed that the first time he flew an American warplane into Russian airspace, Moscow and Leningrad would be burning, incinerated by an American nuclear attack. This was no Strangelovian fantasy. It was his job description.
As a reconnaissance pilot in the Strategic Air Command (SAC), he had standing orders in the early 1950s to join the initial wave of American bombers over Moscow if the cold war turned hot. He would activate high-powered cameras to record the damage below. Every week, no matter where he was based, Austin would carefully review his role under the Emergency War Order, the top-secret plan for SAC operations in the opening hours of World War III. Though his day-to-day work was training other pilots in flight techniques, Austin knew his ultimate responsibility, however unthinkable it might seem, was to guide his aircraft through the nuclear firestorm to determine what was left of the targets around the Soviet capital that the bombers were supposed to destroy.
His assumptions were overturned on May 8, 1954. As first light faintly illuminated the rolling English countryside west of London that Saturday morning, Austin and his two-member crew were summoned to an unscheduled meeting at Fairford Royal Air Force Base, where they were temporarily stationed. The three men, dressed in their flight suits and anticipating another uneventful day of flying, were separated from the other American crews by their wing commander, Col. Joe Preston, and directed to a small, simply furnished conference room. There, two SAC colonels whom they had never seen before one an operations officer, the other an intelligence officer invited them to be seated, then gave them startling news.
That day, the airmen were told, they were to fly over the Soviet Union to photograph military airfields on Russia's northern frontier. They would be hundreds of miles from friendly airspace, under orders to maintain radio silence. If they were shot down, the U.S. government would disavow their mission and make no effort to rescue them.
Any doubt that they were about to venture along the most hazardous front lines of the cold war was eliminated when one of the colonels unfurled a long, narrow map and placed it on the table. It showed a corridor starting over the Barents Sea and running southeast from the Soviet port of Murmansk across the Kola Peninsula and White Sea to Arkhangel'sk. The remote Arctic area was studded with Soviet air and naval bases and air defense forces.
The three men, part of the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, stood up to get a closer look at the map. Nine airfields were marked along the flight plan. The two colonels did not explain why these bases had been selected for photographing, but Austin surmised that the war planners at SAC wanted fresh targeting information. As Vance Heavilin, the navigator for the flight, examined the thin strip of paper, he learned there was a reason for its diminutive dimensions. If the plane was forced down in Soviet territory, his duty was to crumple the map into a small ball and swallow it before the Americans were captured.
In the chilling, cold war calculus that prevailed at the time, the mission was a necessary intelligence-gathering task. The United States had to update its war plans frequently, and monitoring the picket line of airfields along the northwest Soviet border would show whether the Russians were gathering their forces for a surprise attack. Knowing what aircraft were in the area would also help SAC figure out how to suppress Soviet air defense units so American bombers could reach their assigned targets over the Russian heartland. Austin's high-flying RB-47E, a six-engine jet that could cruise above 40,000 feet at better than 600 mph, would be well above the range of the Soviet MiG-15 fighters that were thought to be based in the region. The crew was told that the most advanced Soviet fighter, the MiG-17, was still being tested and none of the new planes would likely be stationed along their route. The new fighter was designed to fly higher and faster than the MiG-15, and might be able to intercept the American plane.
In truth the flight plan was a high-risk gamble, a cold war roll of the dice that might well end up killing Austin and his crew or depositing them in a Siberian prison camp. Once the American plane crossed into Soviet airspace, there was no guarantee it would ever get out. There was even a chance that the flight could ignite a wider conflict with the Soviet Union.
Under international law and the rules of war, the planned violation of Soviet airspace would be an act of aggression, potentially reason enough for the Kremlin to retaliate by attacking the United States. President Dwight Eisenhower well understood the danger, and kept a tight rein on flights over Soviet territory, insisting that most missions be cleared in advance by him. Later in his presidency, he would tell the Pentagon's top civilian and military leaders that nothing would send him more quickly to Congress to request authority to declare war than the violation of American airspace by Soviet aircraft.
Harold R. Austin, a native of Sweetwater, Oklahoma, was twenty-nine years old, a quintessential SAC warrior immersed in the unforgiving business of preparing to wage nuclear war. Flying was his life and passion, and he was skilled at it. His commanders had placed him among the elite group of pilots selected to make sure other airmen met the SAC standards for handling of the RB-47E jets that had recently been acquired for reconnaissance work.
As Austin surveyed his aircraft on the morning of May 8, 1954, it seemed well suited to his daring mission. The streamlined plane with swept-back wings was equipped with six General Electric J47 engines, each capable of producing 7,200 pounds of thrust. With a maximum speed of 610 mph, a range of 3,500 miles, and a cruising ceiling above 40,000 feet, it was ideal for high-altitude, long-distance reconnaissance flights.
The reconnaissance model was built to carry cameras, not bombs. The bomb bay, which would normally hold one nuclear bomb, was instead configured to house cameras for photographing ground installations. Other cameras on board would make a record of the plane's radarscope during the flight. The combination would allow SAC not only to study the Soviet bases and combat aircraft in the Arctic region, but would also provide a sequence of radar images that could later help to guide pilots to the same targets at night or in bad weather.
Like most 1950s bombers, Austin's RB-47E was only lightly armed. Two M-24 20mm cannons were located in the tail. They could only be operated by remote control by the co-pilot if he swiveled around to face the rear. Bomber crews knew the guns were unreliable and would offer only a feeble defense against far more agile and heavily armed fighters.
Austin entered the hatch at the belly of the plane and climbed a short ladder to the cockpit, where he took his accustomed place in the front seat. Carl Holt, the co-pilot, was from Pittsburgh. He settled in behind Austin, divided by the co-pilot's instrument panel. A bubble canopy would cover them in flight. Heavilin, an Ohio native, descended a step to the navigator's quarters, a windowless space in the nose that was crammed with navigational instruments, a radar screen, and other equipment. There was just enough room in a cramped aisle alongside the pilots for the crew members to move about during the flight.
Austin powered up the engines, and with a deafening rumble, the plane rolled down the taxiway to await takeoff clearance from the control tower. The English countryside was a lush green from the spring rains. As the plane climbed into the sky shortly after 7 a.m., the tidy little village of Lechlade was visible below. The plane crossed over the meandering Thames River, which stretched east toward Oxford and on to London.
As agreed in advance with the other two crews that were flying with Austin that day, he took the lead as the three aircraft headed out over the North Sea. The flight plan called for the planes to refuel off the Norwegian coast, then proceed around the northern tip of Norway to a point 100 miles north of Murmansk, where the other two crews believed all three planes would turn back.
The tankers, also from the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, were waiting when Austin reached the preset rendezvous point off Stavanger, a port city on the southwest coast of Norway. In a delicate piece of aerial choreography that he had practiced dozens of times, Austin guided his plane under and slightly behind the tanker and slowed his speed. The long refueling boom was lowered from the plane toward Austin and into the RB-47E's receptacle. Once the connections were secure, thousands of gallons of jet fuel streamed into fuselage tanks.
From Stavanger, Austin proceeded northeast along the Norwegian coast for more than an hour, passing by Bergen and Trondheim. He soon crossed the Arctic circle. The northernmost region of Europe was now visible, a desolate, windblown landscape at the top of the world. At the far tip, Norway, Finland, and the Soviet Union coexisted uneasily by the Barents Sea. Murmansk was less than 150 miles down the coast from the Norwegian-Soviet border.
The moment to part company with the two other SAC aircraft had come. Heavilin checked the map and the aircraft heading, plotting a course toward Murmansk. He relayed the information to Austin, who then banked the plane to the right on a southeast flight path. As the plane slowly wheeled toward the Russian mainland, Austin could see the pilot and co-pilot of one of the other planes twist around and look at him in disbelief. Jimmy Valentine, the other pilot, was a good friend, and Austin waited tensely to see if he would break the radio blackout. He didn't, though he was mystified and alarmed by Austin's unexpected maneuver.
Within minutes, the Soviet coastline loomed in the distance, and, with it, the invisible dividing line between international and Soviet airspace. Austin was right on course. But after flying through the morning without generating contrails, the plane entered a new air mass, and its progress across the cloudless sky was clearly marked by a white ribbon stretching back to the horizon. The Russians didn't need a radar system to see that an unidentified intruder was coming their way.
They were waiting, on high alert. Unbeknownst to Austin, ten days earlier three British crews, using American RB-45C airplanes temporarily based at Sculthorpe Royal Air Force Base on England's east coast, had made a nighttime flight over the western Soviet Union. Soviet air defense forces around Kiev had unsuccessfully tried to shoot down one of the planes with antiaircraft fire. The two other aircraft were pursued by Soviet fighters, but escaped untouched. Commanders in Moscow were furious at the ineffectual performance, and the entire air defense system had been placed on heightened alert.
Heavilin switched on the cameras and Austin leveled the plane as it coasted in over Murmansk, a gritty seaport that served as the Soviet Union's main fishing and naval hub in the Arctic region. Directly below were the shipyards and concrete-block buildings that the Russians had erected in the inhospitable terrain to take advantage of the ice-free waters, warmed by the remnants of the Gulf Stream. One of Russia's most sensitive military installations, the submarine base at Severomorsk, was located not far up a narrow inlet that leads to the open sea.
As instructed, Austin had climbed to 40,000 as he neared the Soviet coast, even though the plane was carrying the fresh load of fuel it had picked up off Stavanger. The combination of weight and altitude reduced the plane's speed to about 510 mph. Austin had questioned the assigned altitude at the morning briefing, concerned that he would lose airspeed just as he penetrated Soviet airspace. There was no sign of Russian resistance as the RB-47 passed over its first targets, two airfields outside Murmansk. But as the crew completed the photographing of the second base, Holt spotted three fighters rising toward the American aircraft. The planes approached but made no effort to attack. They had apparently been scrambled into the air to get a better look at the intruder.
Austin, Holt, and Heavilin were determined to complete their mission, believing that their altitude and airspeed provided protection against any attack. The first group of Soviet planes dropped back toward their base. A second and then a third set appeared, but remained out of attack range below the Americans. Austin continued over the White Sea to Arkhangel'sk, where the crew photographed several other airfields. At that point, six new fighters roared into view, climbing rapidly toward the reconnaissance plane. As they got closer, Austin concluded that they were MiG-17s.
Austin ordered Holt to unbuckle himself from his seat so he could swivel around to see what the Russian planes were doing and get the guns ready for firing. Holt was just turning when Austin saw tracer rounds streaking above and below. Any illusions about invulnerability vanished instantly. "We had been identified as foe, and they were going to shoot us down if they could," he said.
He told Holt to return fire with the cannons, warning that the next attack run would come right up their tailpipes. The co-pilot got off two or three shots before the guns jammed. But the brief burst forced the pursuing jets to pull away from the prime firing position behind the American plane. Firing from 30 to 40 degrees to the side, the Russian pilots would not have as good a shot at disabling or destroying the plane.
Austin hollered, "The hell with this 40,000-foot bit. I'm gonna let down." Since the altitude wasn't proving any defense against the high-performance Russian planes, he wanted to descend to 37,000 feet, where he would pick up speed. "I pushed the nose over," he recalled. In an effort to outrun the Russians, he rammed forward the six throttles that controlled the plane's engines.
The plane accelerated to 550 mph as it descended, and Austin momentarily thought he might have eluded the pursuing jets. He turned toward the next airfield. As he was making the 45-degree turn to the left, the plane shuddered as a shell smashed into the top of the port wing, about 8 feet from the fuselage. It exploded on impact, knocking a jagged hole in the top of the wing and piercing the fuselage in a dozen spots in the area of the forward main wheel well and the number one main fuel tank. The largest hole was big enough for a football to fit through. Austin and Holt, seated forward of the wing, couldn't see the damage, but they knew the plane had been hit when the intercom system suddenly went dead. The Russian planes, possibly short on fuel and struggling to keep pace with the RB-47 as it picked up speed, broke off pursuit. Heavilin quickly calculated that the final airfield on their list was located along their escape route toward Finland, so Austin headed southwest toward that target. They got the photographs they wanted, then raced for the border.
Flying time to Finland would be about twenty minutes, the last part of it over Karelia, a land of lakes, pine forests, and wooden churches that had been contested for centuries by Finland and Russia. The Russians had time for another attack before the Americans crossed into Finnish airspace. It came just as the plane neared the border. Three fighters swooped into view. The leader came up alongside, on the right wing, close enough that Austin could clearly make out the head of the pilot. For several minutes to Austin it seemed like an eternity the planes flew in formation, side by side, the American and Russian pilots periodically gazing at one another. The Soviet pilot chased him well into Finnish airspace before dropping down and out of sight.
After hooking up with a tanker off England just as his plane was about to run out of fuel, Austin made it back to Fairford. As he brought his battered plane to a stop and killed the engines, he saw all the men in the detachment had assembled to welcome them back. He was more than ninety minutes behind schedule. One of the ground crewmen, spotting the large hole in the wing, said, "My God, you must have hit a big bird."
The next day, the Swedish Defense Ministry complained about the unauthorized appearance of several planes in its airspace the preceding day. The ministry reported that the aircraft had crossed into Sweden at high altitude, flying west out of Finland. The planes had not been identified. On May 15, a Helsinki newspaper reported there had been an air battle over northern Finland on May 8, possibly involving Russian and American planes.
The U.S. Air Force firmly denied that there had been any such incident. It insisted that no American planes had been in the area. Jimmy Valentine, the pilot who had watched in astonishment as Austin guided his plane toward the Soviet coastline, knew better, but could only guess what had actually happened to Austin and his crew. He was still shaken by the incident when he and Austin met for a drink at a Fairford pub not long after the flight. "What the hell happened to you guys?" he asked Austin. Then, as the men sipped their drinks, he said, "Don't ever do that to me again."
Valentine didn't know it, but he might as well have been speaking for Dwight Eisenhower as well. It was getting too dangerous to send conventional airplanes over the Soviet Union to gather information on Russian military forces. There had to be a safer way.
Back in Washington, Trevor Gardner didn't need the example of Hal Austin's flight to know that the United States had to move quickly to invent new techniques for collecting intelligence about the Soviet military. In 1954, Gardner was a thirty-nine-year-old special assistant to Secretary of the Air Force Harold E. Talbott. No one in Washington was more abrupt and abrasive than Gardner, and no one worried more about the possibility that the United States might fall dangerously behind the Soviet Union in devising new military technologies like intercontinental ballistic missiles and ever smaller yet more powerful nuclear weapons. Gardner was a tireless, sometimes punishing proponent of the need to accelerate American efforts to produce its own advanced weapons and spy systems. By the time of Austin's narrow escape, Gardner was doing his best to kick the Eisenhower administration into increased action.
Born in the seaside city of Cardiff, Wales, on August 24, 1915, Gardner emigrated to the United States when he was twelve and grew up in Southern California. He studied engineering at the University of Southern California, where he was an Olympic-class water polo player. He picked up a business degree at USC, and after working briefly for several industrial companies, signed on in 1942 as a research administrator at the California Institute of Technology. At the elite Pasadena school he became involved in rocket designing, and in World War II worked on the Manhattan Project, the secret American program to produce an atomic bomb. After the war he was hired by General Tire and Rubber Company as a senior executive. He quit three years later, in 1948, to found Hycon Manufacturing Company, an electronics and optical firm located in South Pasadena not far from the Rose Bowl.
Gardner's energy and profanity were legendary, and by the time he joined the Eisenhower administration in 1953, he had a well-earned reputation as a cold, headstrong engineer, business executive, and evangelical champion of new technologies. Not intimidated by the Air Force high command or the Pentagon bureaucracy, Gardner started pushing almost immediately to upgrade missile-development programs, which were poorly organized, insufficiently funded, and generally neglected by generals who were fixated on airplanes and saw no need for the Air Force to get into space. The young, pugnacious Gardner, who dressed in impeccably tailored suits and always sported a neatly folded handkerchief in his breast pocket, thought nothing of lecturing three-star generals about their benighted views and using his influence in Secretary Talbott's office to overcome their resistance. It wasn't long before the sight of Gardner in Pentagon corridors elicited whispers about that "bastard" and "son-of-a-bitch."
Gardner was troubled by Washington's inability to reliably track Soviet progress in designing and building new weapons, including missiles and jet-powered, long-range bombers. Like a growing number of other officials, he believed Moscow might be developing the means to launch a surprise nuclear attack against the United States. For those in the Eisenhower administration who studied the evidence that suggested such an assault might soon be possible, and knew American defenses were hopelessly inadequate, the threat became a consuming fear.
Gardner's concerns had crystallized a few months after he moved to Washington, when he received a highly secret report from RAND, the Air Force research center, on the vulnerability of SAC bases in the United States. The Air Force had commissioned the study to determine how damaging a Soviet nuclear air attack would be to America's primary offensive strike force. Based on the best estimates of growing Soviet power, RAND experts looked at the likely consequences of a Soviet sneak attack in 1956. They examined high- and low-altitude attack paths, reviewed American radar operations, and calculated the warning time the Pentagon might get once Soviet aircraft were detected and what kind of defensive actions might be initiated against the Soviet bombers.
The report, published on April 15, 1953, stunned Gardner and other officials in Washington. The lightly defended SAC bases, with their concentration of airplanes, hangars, fuel depots, and crew housing, were ideal targets for atomic attack. If Russian bombers swept through America's porous air defenses before dawn on a summer Sunday morning, a time of maximum exposure, they could conceivably deliver a knockout blow. "The enemy will have the capability of destroying a major part of the SAC potential in a surprise attack at relatively low cost in bombs and aircraft," the report said. With just fifty atomic bombs, RAND estimated, the Soviet Union could wipe out two thirds or more of SACs bombers and reconnaissance aircraft.
The import was clear and breathtaking: For the first time in its history, the United States was vulnerable to a crippling attack from overseas, and would find it difficult, if not impossible, to retaliate after being struck. Even in the bleakest days of World War II, with Europe slipping under Nazi control and Japan ascendant in the Pacific, the continental United States seemed safe from foreign invasion or a disabling military strike. The advent of nuclear weapons and long-range bombers had erased that reassuring margin of safety. A surprise attack of unimaginably destructive force was possible. If it came, it would make Pearl Harbor seem like a pinprick.
Gardner was so alarmed, he flew out to SAC headquarters in Omaha to talk with Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, the top commander. From there he traveled to Pasadena for an unconventional homecoming at Caltech. Gardner wanted to see Lee DuBridge, the school's president and head of a White House Scientific Advisory Committee. The panel, composed of scientists and engineers, had been formed during the Truman administration to advise the government on technology issues. But it had done little to push the Truman or Eisenhower administrations into new technological ventures. Though DuBridge was an eminent figure in American science, Gardner did not mute his message. Vincent Ford, an aide to Gardner, later recalled his boss's words to DuBridge: "You're abnegating your responsibility to science and the country, sitting on your dead asses in fancy offices in Washington, wasting your time and the taxpayers' money going through a lot of goddamn motions on a lot of low-level, shitty exercises all in the name of science." Gardner urged DuBridge to study the threat of surprise attack and the nation's ability to meet it. He wanted an honest report, "the true story, not that shit Washington is feeding the American people."
Gardner's language may have been intemperate, but his analysis was correct. The Soviet Union appeared to be gaining on the United States, and Washington was misleading the American people with confident assurances about the nation's military and scientific superiority. Americans were only dimly aware that traditional concepts of war and defense were rapidly being overtaken by new technologies. Bombers powered by jet engines were compressing time and distance between the Soviet Union and the United States. Scientists in both countries, taking advantage of the explosive power of the hydrogen bomb, were starting to design smaller nuclear weapons that would be easier to transport between continents. American and Soviet refinements of rocket technology promised before long to produce missiles that could deliver nuclear warheads to distant targets in a matter of minutes.
By 1954, the combination of cold war hostility, advances in military technology, and huge gaps in intelligence had reached a critical state. The Soviet Union possessed atomic weapons and the United States had no safe, reliable way to spy on its enemy or to gauge its military strength. This was a breeding ground for fear and instability. The uncertainty could lead Washington into unnecessary and excessive defense spending, draining resources needed for domestic programs and creating a garrison state, a possibility that weighed heavily on Eisenhower after he moved into the White House in January 1953. Even worse, it could make the tripwire for war so taut that a small miscalculation or misunderstanding would trigger a nuclear exchange. Sensing the rising danger, Eisenhower wrote in his diary at the end of 1953, "As of now the world is racing toward catastrophe."
The makings of a cataclysm dated back to World War II and the inauguration of the nuclear age on July 16, 1945, when J. Robert Oppenheimer and his fellow scientists in the Manhattan Project detonated the first atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert. In an instant, the nature of warfare was transformed. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a few weeks later demonstrated the annihilating power of atomic weapons. John Hersey's harrowing account of the Hiroshima attack and its aftermath, printed by the New Yorker on August 31, 1946, and published as a book later that year, made clear to readers around the world that mankind had set loose elemental forces that, if wantonly used, could not just win wars but erase entire civilizations.
Americans might be proud of the technological achievement of creating the bomb or ashamed of the devastation they inflicted in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they might be thankful for the American lives saved by the quick surrender of Japan or appalled at the loss of Japanese lives, but there was no escaping the implications of the atomic era. Once the Soviet Union ended America's nuclear monopoly and built bombers capable of carrying atomic weapons over great distances, the oceans that had effectively protected the United States from foreign enemies would no longer shield it from a disabling attack. All it would take was a small arsenal of Soviet atomic weapons and a few dozen bombers capable of reaching Washington, New York, Boston, Chicago, and a handful of other population centers.
The collapse of the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union was swift and jarring to a nation weary of conflict and eager to see a realization of the Wilsonian ideals embodied in the establishment of the United Nations. Though it seems clear today that maintaining America's wartime partnership with the Soviet Union in the postwar era was implausible, given the two countries' opposing ideologies and economic systems, the idea did not seem so outlandish in the optimistic days immediately after the end of World War II.
Eisenhower himself was infected by the euphoria that followed the German surrender in April 1945 and the capitulation of Japan four months later. In his role as supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe, he flew to Moscow in August as the guest of Marshal Georgi Zhukov, the top Soviet general, to celebrate the victory. Eisenhower was received warmly, met with Joseph Stalin, and stood atop Lenin's Tomb in Red Square alongside Stalin as thousands of Russians paraded across the cobblestone plaza, passing below the towering walls of the Kremlin and the ornate onion domes of St. Basil's Cathedral. Spirits were high, the personal chemistry between Eisenhower and Zhukov was good, and the future looked promising. As he prepared to depart, Eisenhower declared, "I see nothing in the future that would prevent Russia and the United States from being the closest of friends."
Looking back in 1953 at those days of promise, Eisenhower would say in sorrow, "This common purpose lasted an instant and perished."
Debate over the origins of the cold war persists today, often colored by political convictions. It is tempting to look for miscalculation and ill-will both in Washington and Moscow, and certainly both countries contributed to the demise of the friendship that Eisenhower described. But efforts to apportion blame equally misrepresent history. The Soviet Union, driven by an expansionist ideology, long-standing grievances against the West, and the decisions of a demented dictator, was incapable of sustaining the wartime partnership with the United States and Britain.
The power vacuum in Europe after the defeat of Nazi Germany was an invitation to trouble. Stalin was not content to rely on benign forces like trade, geographic proximity, and cultural affinity to extend Russia's influence in Eastern Europe. As John Lewis Gaddis notes in his wise 1997 reassessment of cold war history, We Now Know, Stalin's approach was based on "equating security with territory."
This was inimical to the notions of collective security imbedded in the U.N. charter, signed on June 26, 1945, and the postwar expectations of American leaders. Washington was determined to defend its political and economic interests by supporting democracy and free markets in Europe and preventing renewed military aggression on the continent. That attitude was bound to collide with Soviet aspirations to extend Moscow's influence, but an intense rivalry rather than a volatile cold war might have evolved if Stalin had not moved so ruthlessly to impose Soviet control in Eastern Europe.
The most charitable explanation is that history, geography, and ideology compelled him to defend the Soviet Union's interests by installing the Communist regimes. Invasions from the west led by Napoleon and Hitler had reached the outskirts of Moscow, and Russia had suffered horrific losses in two world wars during Stalin's lifetime. Leninism taught that imperialism was a natural and inevitable dynamic of capitalism. But these justifications, however much Stalin may have subscribed to them, cannot excuse what was essentially a brazen move to establish a Soviet empire in Eastern Europe.
By early 1946, less than a year after the defeat of Germany, idealism was in retreat. On February 9, Stalin delivered his first broad policy statement since the end of the war. It was a grim analysis that talked of the incompatibility of Communism and capitalism and the inevitability of war between the two systems. Even allowing for some rhetorical excess in addressing Communist Party leaders in Moscow, the speech was alarming. On February 22, George Kennan, the American ambassador in Moscow, sent an extended cable, later known as "The Long Telegram," to Secretary of State James Byrnes, bluntly describing the Soviet Union's inherent hostility toward the United States.
"We have here," Kennan said, "a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with the United States there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure."
Kennan's proposed response, recapitulated by him in an anonymous article in Foreign Affairs in 1947, was to help shape American foreign policy for the next four decades. Kennan called for Washington to resist Soviet expansion by maintaining a global balance of economic and political power that would discourage Moscow from trying to extend its influence in Western Europe and Asia. Over time, Washington transformed the Kennan strategy into a doctrine that emphasized the role of American and Western European military power in checking the Soviet Union. This approach came to be known as the policy of containment.
A few weeks after Kennan's telegram arrived in Washington, Winston Churchill, Britain's redoubtable wartime leader, distilled the unfolding conflict into an iconic phrase. On March 5, speaking at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, Churchill declared, "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent."
A year later, faced with the possibility of Communist gains in Greece and Turkey, President Truman formally committed the United States to help free peoples around the world resist Soviet-inspired efforts to impose totalitarian regimes in their countries. The enunciation of the Truman Doctrine on March 12, 1947, was followed three months later by the unveiling of the Marshall Plan, the inspired American program to strengthen the development of democracy in Europe by providing money for economic reconstruction. Czechoslovakia, the only Eastern European country that still had a freely elected government, was eager to participate in the plan, but Stalin blocked Czech involvement. A Communist coup in February 1948 erased the last vestiges of democracy in Prague.
At this stage, the Communist threat in Europe was primarily political rather than military, and the United States still seemed secure from attack. The Soviet Union had emerged from the war with its economy badly weakened and its western cities in ruins. Nearly 27 million Soviet men and women had been lost in the war, a staggering blow to a nation already shaken by Stalin's terror and bloody purges. Moscow's military forces were victorious but battered. With a standing army of 4.5 million men after postwar demobilization, the Soviet Union remained the preeminent land power in Europe. But it was not an air or naval power, and lacked the long-range bombers needed to threaten the continental United States. Though its scientists were working frantically to build an atomic bomb, the Soviet Union had not yet tested one.
The next few years changed all that. First came the Berlin blockade in June 1948, the initial military crisis of the cold war. By closing down road, rail, and river access to Western sectors in the divided city of Berlin, the old German capital that was now locked inside Soviet-controlled territory, Moscow hoped to dissuade the United States, Britain, and France from establishing a separate West German state. A Western airlift supplied the city with food and fuel for nearly a year, and the crisis only accelerated Washington's efforts to consolidate its position in Europe. Unprepared for war, Stalin backed down by lifting the blockade in May 1949. By then, the United States and its allies had created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a military alliance that would guarantee American defense of Western Europe and put a quarter of a million American troops on the continent for the next forty years.
On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union ended the American atomic monopoly. The first Russian atomic bomb was tested at Semipalatinsk, a remote site in the Kazakhstan steppe on the southern rim of the Soviet Union. The blast leveled buildings in a 4-mile radius. In a preview of the intelligence problems that were to haunt Washington in the years ahead, the United States did not learn of the test until September 19, when an Air Force reconnaissance plane detected unusually high levels of radiation in the atmosphere as it flew from Japan to Alaska. Other planes confirmed the finding, and on the evening of September 19, David Lilienthal, the head of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, returned to his vacation home on Martha's Vineyard to find Gen. James McCormack, a commission official, waiting for him in the fog. In a room illuminated by a kerosene lamp, McCormack informed Lilienthal of the Soviet test. The next morning Lilienthal flew to Washington to tell President Truman.
The danger of a Soviet surprise attack on the United States was beginning to gather. Two weeks after Washington's belated discovery of the Russian atomic test, the Chinese Communists completed their revolution and proclaimed the establishment of the People's Republic of China. The potential for cold war combat was realized on June 25, 1950, when Communist North Korea used its armored divisions to invade South Korea, easily overcoming the South's weak defenses. Truman had just settled down for the evening at his home in Independence, Missouri, when Secretary of State Dean Acheson called from Washington to give him the news. Truman feared the invasion was the beginning of World War III.
Three days later, the South Korean capital of Seoul was occupied. A shaken but determined Truman ordered American air and naval forces to come to the defense of South Korea. The United Nations voted the same day to authorize the use of armed force to oppose the North Koreans. Braced by a bleak assessment from Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the American commander in Asia, Truman approved the use of American ground troops on June 30. The North Korean onslaught was halted far to the south, outside the port of Pusan, which became the staging area and resupply center for American forces on the peninsula. In mid-September, 70,000 men of the Tenth Corps made an amphibious landing at Inchon on the North Korean coast, carrying out MacArthur's audacious plan to attack behind enemy lines. The landing was successful and within days more than half the North Korean army was encircled and Seoul was liberated. The war seemed to be won, but MacArthur pressed his luck by pushing deep into North Korea. The day after Thanksgiving, China unexpectedly entered the conflict with an initial force of 260,000 men.
The Americans were driven back across the 38th parallel, the prewar dividing line between North and South Korea, but neither side could gain a decisive advantage in battle and the war soon settled into a costly, demoralizing stalemate. Though Stalin had pressed the Chinese to enter the war, he refrained from committing Soviet ground troops. An armistice was finally signed on July 27, 1953, six months after Dwight Eisenhower became president and four months after Stalin's death.
The Korean War ended any illusions Americans may have had about the new world order. The cold war was going to be protracted and brutish. There might be other armed clashes in Asia and Europe. Most ominously, the Soviet Union in 1953 was building a fleet of new high-speed, long-range bombers that could reach targets in the United States and had demonstrated that it had matched the United States in the design of advanced nuclear weaponry.
On July 30, a military attaché at the American embassy in Moscow spotted a new Russian bomber on the tarmac at Ramenskoye airfield, south of the capital. The airfield was attached to the Myacheslav Aviation Design Bureau, an incubator of new Soviet warplanes. The large aircraft was notable for several reasons: It was Moscow's first jet-powered heavy bomber, and its swept-back wings and other aerodynamic features demonstrated more advanced Soviet design skills than American experts had anticipated. After years of building military aircraft based on the designs of American and British planes that had been left behind in the Soviet Union during and after the war, Moscow now had its first homegrown jet-powered bomber, and it appeared to be on a par with the latest American bomber.
The new aircraft was far different from anything previously seen in the Soviet bomber fleet. Moscow had accelerated its production of turboprop bombers in the early 1950s. The Tupolev-16, designated the Badger by NATO, was built for medium-range missions over Europe and could not reach the United States. The Tupolev-95, or Bear, had better range 7,800 nautical miles, more than enough to reach Boston, New York, and Washington but like all turboprop planes, it was slow; its flying time to American targets would be better than fifteen hours.
The new plane, the Myacheslav-4, or Bison, was roughly the equivalent of the American B-52, which was just going into production at the big Boeing Aircraft plant in Seattle. Equipped with four jet engines, the Bison had a top airspeed of 560 mph, could carry a bomb load of 10,000 pounds, and cruise over 7,000 nautical miles without refueling. This was more than enough distance and heft to deliver two atomic bombs to any site on the American east coast.
0 On August 12, 1953, the Soviet threat grew exponentially. Moscow tested its first hydrogen, or thermonuclear, bomb. Barely nine months had passed since the initial American test of a similar weapon at Eniwetok Atoll in the South Pacific. The speed of Soviet progress astonished American officials, who had not expected to see the first Soviet H-bomb test for at least three or four more years.
Andrei Sakharov, one of the architects of the Soviet H-bomb, described the menacing blast at the Kazakh test site. "We saw a flash, and then a swiftly expanding white ball lit up the whole horizon. I tore off my goggles, and though I was partially blinded by the glare, I could see a stupendous cloud trailing streamers of purple dust. The cloud turned gray, quickly separated from the ground and swirled upward, shimmering with gleams of orange. The customary mushroom cloud gradually formed, but the stem connecting it to the ground was much thicker than those shown in photographs of fission explosions. More and more dust was sucked up at the base of the stem, spreading out swiftly. The shock wave blasted my ears and struck a sharp blow to my entire body; then there was a prolonged, ominous rumble that slowly died away after thirty seconds or so. Within minutes, the cloud, which now filled half the sky, turned a sinister blue-black color."
The development of fusion weapons by Washington and Moscow sharply escalated the potential devastation of a nuclear war. In creating explosive energy, fusing two atoms together was three to four times more efficient than splitting the atoms apart, the technique used in atomic or fission bombs. The design and engineering of hydrogen weapons also theoretically made it possible to generate the greater explosive power from bombs that were much smaller and lighter than their atomic cousins.
The practical result was astounding. The explosion that Sakharov witnessed, and the earlier American tests, represented a revolution in weapons since the final conventional air raids of World War II that was almost beyond comprehension. In less than a decade, the explosive power of a 10,000-pound bomb had gone from 5,000 pounds of TNT to more than 10 billion pounds of TNT. Yet the actual weight of the bomb was no different.
Even more powerful yet smaller weapons were thought to be possible. Initial estimates that the minimum weight of a hydrogen bomb would be a backbreaking 9,000 pounds were quickly erased. By the end of 1953, the Strategic Missile Evaluation Committee, a panel of scientists and engineers appointed by Trevor Gardner to review the state of American missile technology, reported that nuclear warheads weighing no more than 1,500 pounds could someday be built, small enough to be carried between continents by a missile.
The notion of placing a compact but powerful nuclear weapon atop a missile that could streak through space, crossing the North Pole in thirty minutes, was stunning. Any nation that mastered that technology would have a tremendous military advantage. Though the prospect of coupling nuclear warheads with intercontinental ballistic missiles still seemed remote in 1953, there were already signs that the Russians were breaking ahead of the United States in rocket technology.
As the Red Army advanced westward in the spring of 1944, the Russians had captured the Nazi V-2 rocket center at Peenemünde, located on an island just off the Baltic Sea coast of eastern Germany. In October 1946, more than five thousand German technicians and twenty thousand family members were brought to Moscow to jump-start Soviet rocket projects. The Russians, led by several gifted scientists, including Sergei Korolyov, had done pioneering work in rocket science in the 1930s and had founded the Rocket Research Development Center in Moscow in 1932. The Kremlin launched its first rocket in August 1933. Indeed, some of the earliest thinking about rockets had come from a Russian, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a schoolteacher born in 1857 who had been inspired by reading Jules Verne. In a 1903 article that was not translated and published outside Russia, Tsiolkovsky described how a rocket could be built using liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen as fuel nearly two decades before Robert H. Goddard, an American, came up with the same idea. But Moscow's efforts to produce reliable rockets, and use them in warfare, were disabled temporarily by the arrest and imprisonment of Korolyov in 1937 on charges that he was involved in anti-Soviet activities.
The Soviet program was reassembled after the war with the release of Korolyov and the arrival of the Germans. In 1947, a missile test site was opened at Kapustin Yar, in the Soviet republic of the Ukraine. Not long after it opened, Washington learned about the missile base from Britain's intelligence services. More detailed information arrived in the early 1950s when some of the German engineers who had been moved to Moscow were repatriated to East Germany and fled to the West. Though the Russians had carefully excluded the Germans from the most advanced aspects of the missile program, the Germans knew about Kapustin Yar and filled in British and American intelligence officials in September 1952. A month later, the Air Force brought some of the German engineers to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio to be debriefed.
An incomplete but disturbing picture of the Soviet program was pieced together by the British and Americans and presented to policymakers in July 1953 as a joint intelligence report. The Russians, building on the V-2 technology acquired from the Germans, were trying to produce a medium-range missile that could reach any site in Europe. By 1956, the report said, Moscow was likely to have a missile with a range of 2,275 nautical miles enough to hit London. It was clear that it would only be a matter of a few more years before the Soviet Union came up with a missile that could strike Washington.
To get a closer look at the Soviet test site, the British modified an RAF B-2 Canberra bomber for a spy flight over Kapustin Yar. The plane could not be refueled, but with extra gas tanks installed in the bomb bay, it had the range to fly from West Germany across Eastern Europe and the Ukraine. In late August 1953, the airplane, outfitted with reconnaissance cameras, took off from Giebelstadt in West Germany in daylight, which was necessary for photographing the missile base but left the plane vulnerable to Soviet air defenses. The Canberra was hit by gunfire as it dodged Soviet fighters, but managed to get pictures of the missile complex and then fly on to Iran, where it landed. The mission, however, was a failure. Vibrations produced by the damage to the plane made the pictures so blurred they were all but useless.
The muddy photographs were a perfect metaphor for the intelligence problems Washington faced as Eisenhower and his aides tried to assess and respond to the rising Soviet threat, especially the danger of surprise attack. No one in Washington could be certain how much progress the Russians were making, but it was apparent from everything that was known that Moscow was working feverishly to build an offensive nuclear strike force.
Looking back at this period years later, Lawrence Houston, the general counsel of the CIA in the 1950s, said the lack of reliable intelligence information "was just appalling."
"We just didn't have it any real information," he explained. "We just didn't know what was going on."
Richard Helms, then a rising young CIA intelligence officer, remembered how little he and his colleagues knew about the Soviet military. "There was an extraordinary absence of knowledge," he recalled in an interview in 1999. "It was totally frustrating trying to learn anything, no matter how hard we tried or how imaginative we were. Eisenhower was sorely pressed to know what his enemy was about."
The intelligence vacuum was intolerable. Gardner knew it when he went to see Lee DuBridge at Caltech. The May 1954 flight of Hal Austin and his crew was just another measure of the desperate need for better intelligence about Soviet armaments. The American government was essentially unable to pry open the "Iron Curtain" to learn more about the state of Soviet military forces. Airmen like Austin were risking their lives to fly near or over the Soviet Union, and others, less fortunate than Austin, had been killed when their planes were shot down during flights along the Soviet border. Aside from modified bombers like the RB-47E, Washington's most exotic overhead reconnaissance system at the time was a fleet of camera-carrying helium balloons that the Air Force launched into the jet stream, hoping they would drift over the Soviet Union, take pictures of military installations, and be recovered when they reached the western Pacific. Most were shot down or fell to earth in Siberia.
Espionage operations on the ground were no better. The suffocating security apparatus of the Soviet police state made it exceedingly difficult to recruit spies in Russia or to plant agents in the Soviet military and intelligence services. The Central Intelligence Agency, which had been established by President Truman in 1947, learned what little it could about Russian military forces by interviewing thousands of Soviet citizens who had emigrated to the West after World War II. Their accounts were spotty and unreliable. Nazi photographs of Soviet factories and military bases, shipped to Washington after the German surrender, were useful but dated. The Agency's best information about the Soviet rocket and missile programs came from the German rocket engineers, and was already badly outdated.
After taking office in January 1953, Eisenhower had complained often and sometimes angrily about the lack of hard intelligence information about the Soviet Union, whether the issue was Kremlin politics or Russian military power. The European battles of World War II had taught him about the risks of operating without information about enemy forces. Gen. Andrew J. Goodpaster, Eisenhower's staff secretary during most of his years in the White House, said, "Eisenhower's experience at the Battle of the Bulge, where the Germans secretly amassed a major force unbeknownst to Allied intelligence, deeply impressed upon him the value as well as the limitations of intelligence, together with the dangers of being caught off guard."
When he convened his cabinet on March 6, 1953, the day after Stalin's death, Eisenhower was in a testy mood. "Ever since 1946," he said, "I know that all the so-called experts have been yapping about what would happen when Stalin dies and what we, as a nation, should do about it. Well, he's dead. And you can turn the files of our government inside out in vain looking for any plans laid. We have no plan. We are not even sure what difference his death makes."
At the end of April, Eisenhower told his cabinet, "There can be no accurate prediction as to when, if ever, the enemy will attack."
The absence of reliable intelligence about Soviet military forces was maddening and unsettling. Divining the intentions of foreign leaders was nearly impossible, and always had been among the hardest objectives of any intelligence service. But counting the number of bombers at an airfield, or warships at a naval base, and determining the state of the Soviet missile program seemed more reasonable goals. Yet in 1954 they were largely unattainable through conventional espionage methods.
The CIA ground out reports about the strength of Soviet forces, but these top-secret papers, known as National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs), often sounded much more authoritative than they actually were. In truth, the numbers in them were soft, not much better than educated guesses about how many nuclear bombs or long-range bombers Moscow possessed or was expected to have on hand in the years ahead. The analysts who prepared the reports were working with almost no hard facts.
Not surprisingly, the absence of reliable information led to a wide variety of predictions about Soviet military strength, with the CIA usually on the conservative side and the Air Force at the high end, warning that Moscow was overtaking Washington in airpower and might soon achieve clear superiority. General LeMay had been sounding the alarm for several years, and other concerned Air Force officials, mindful of supporting their requests for budget increases, were providing congressional leaders with frightening estimates about the size and reach of a growing Soviet air force.
The implications were unnerving. Eisenhower did not know whether the Soviet Union was preparing to attack the United States. He expected to get little, if any, warning if an assault were imminent, and he had no solid information about how many nuclear weapons and delivery systems Moscow could direct at American targets. The dismaying conclusion of a high-level 1951 study of American defenses remained true: "The problem of defense of the United States against air attack is characterized above all by lack of knowledge of what we have to defend against. The enemy has the initiative. Our intelligence tells us essentially nothing about his plans; informs us only partially about his present capabilities; and, as to his future capabilities, leaves us essentially dependent on assumptions that he can, if he chooses, do about as well in any aspect as we expect to do ourselves."
In the nuclear age, such ignorance was untenable. Americans had discovered the cost of intelligence failure at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Eisenhower knew that a surprise nuclear attack by the Soviet Union would be far more damaging to the nation and its military forces than the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In March 1954, Eisenhower told aides he was "haunted" by the threat of surprise attack. A year later, addressing a summit of world leaders in Geneva, he said, "Surprise attack has a capacity for destruction far beyond anything which man has yet known."
The level of expected destruction was unfathomable. A nuclear attack would obliterate cities, kill millions of Americans, destroy a large portion of the nation's industrial base, poison its food and water supplies, and cripple its financial institutions. More than half the population was likely to require medical care. Economic collapse and government decapitation were likely. The detonation of a single 10-megaton bomb over Washington would kill or injure more than a million people and reduce the capital to rubble, requiring the states to form a new federal government.
Even if an attack never came, the fear of one, fueled by the absence of intelligence, was potentially debilitating to the United States. Faced with such a severe threat, the White House had no choice but to do everything possible to defend the country. Yet in the absence of reliable information about the precise nature of Soviet forces, both offensive and defensive, there was a high risk that the country would build defenses and weapons that did not match the threat, or invest in military programs that were unnecessary. The drain could be great not only on the federal treasury but on the entire economy and health of American democracy.
Eisenhower anguished over this possibility. He had articulated his concerns on April 16, 1953, a month after Stalin's death, in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
"The worst to be feared and the best to be expected can be simply stated," he told the news executives, who had gathered at the Statler Hotel.
"The worst is atomic war.
"The best would be this: a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealth and the labor of all peoples; a wasting of strength that defies the American or the Soviet system or any system to achieve true abundance and happiness for the peoples of this earth.
"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed."
"The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.
"It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.
"It is two finely equipped hospitals.
"It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.
"We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat.
"We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.
"This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.
"This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."
Better intelligence was the key to easing these pressures. Edwin Land, the prolific inventor and creator of instant photography who came to play a pivotal role in the development of new spy technologies, later summed up the equation nicely. "We simply cannot afford to defend against all possible threats," Land said. "We must know accurately where the threat is coming from and concentrate our resources in that direction. Only by doing so can we survive the cold war."
Thanks in part to Trevor Gardner, the gateway to a new era in intelligence gathering was being pushed open by the White House as word of Hal Austin's narrow escape was flashed back to Washington on May 8, 1954. After the harsh lecture from Gardner, Lee DuBridge invited him to address the next meeting of the Science Advisory Committee. Gardner impressed the panel members and DuBridge soon spoke with Arthur Flemming, the head of the Office of Defense Mobilization, a White House office that supervised the work of the committee. Flemming, in turn, suggested that the advisory panel meet with Eisenhower.
The meeting was held at 9:30 on Saturday morning, March 27, 1954, in the Cabinet Room of the White House. DuBridge was accompanied by thirteen other members of the committee, among them some of the leading scientists and science administrators in the country, including Detlev W. Bronk, the president of the National Academy of Sciences; Oliver E. Buckley, the head of Bell Laboratories; and I. I. Rabi, a physicist at Columbia University. In addition to Eisenhower, Donald A. Quarles, the assistant secretary of defense for research and development and a champion of new military technologies, attended from the administration.
Eisenhower told the committee about the discovery the previous year of the new Soviet intercontinental bomber, the jet-powered Bison. He warned that the new aircraft might eventually be used to attack America. James R. Killian Jr., the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of the science committee, later recalled the conversation: "Eisenhower directed the discussion to the danger of a surprise attack on the United States and stressed the high priority he gave to reducing the probability of military surprise. Modern weapons, he warned, had made it easier for a hostile nation with a closed society to plan an attack in secrecy and thus gain an advantage denied to the nation with an open society."
Eisenhower told the group, "To anyone bearing the responsibility for the security of the United States, the situation was highly unsatisfactory." He asked the committee to advise him on how to deal with the threat of surprise attack.
A fresh look at the problem and ways to ameliorate it seemed advisable. DuBridge asked Killian to meet as soon as possible in Cambridge with committee members who lived in the Northeast. On Thursday, April 15, a small group of men including Oliver Buckley and Edwin Land assembled in Killian's Cambridge office. They agreed a special task force should be appointed to conduct an intensive review of America's vulnerability to surprise attack, and to recommend steps to lessen the danger. The recommendation, which Eisenhower would soon approve, was awaiting presidential action on the day Hal Austin flew over Murmansk.
The day before, Vietminh forces had overrun the French garrison in Dien Bien Phu after a fifty-five-day siege, ending France's colonial role in Vietnam. Few Americans could have imagined that the victory of Ho Chi Minh's forces would open a long, tortured path to an American war in Indochina, but the French defeat did increase fears in Washington of a Communist advance in Southeast Asia. Before going to the Burning Tree Club in suburban Maryland to play golf, Eisenhower had summoned his top national security aides to the Cabinet Room to review the developments in Vietnam.
Closer to home, the capital and nation were riveted by Senator Joseph McCarthy's reckless assault on the loyalty of the leadership of the U.S. Army, the latest front in his demagogic hunt for Communists in the government. Eisenhower was belatedly but forcefully challenging the Wisconsin senator; even some of McCarthy's allies in Congress, including Senator John McClellan of Louisiana, were questioning his tactics.
Most Americans were only beginning to awake to the danger of surprise attack in the spring of 1954. On Saturday, May 1, a week before Austin's mission, the Bison bomber had made its public debut by flying over Red Square during the annual May Day parade. Though only one bomber joined the air show over Moscow, its appearance was startling, since word of the plane's initial sighting in 1953 had not circulated widely outside the government. The appearance of the giant bomber was page-one news in the United States the next day. A few days later, the New York Times for the first time printed a photograph of the plane as it passed over Red Square. An accompanying news story, based on photographs that had been published on Sunday by Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, noted that "The new craft is believed to be an intercontinental bomber similar to the United States B-52 and capable of delivering nuclear weapons to distant targets."
The American people were hardly oblivious to the dangers of the cold war. Fifty-five thousand had died fighting in Korea. The threat of nuclear war produced a constant sense of anxiety that was like a low-grade fever that the nation could not shake. It was reflected in growing efforts to promote the construction of fallout shelters and other civil defense projects. On December 18, 1950, Life magazine had published a long article entitled "How U.S. Cities Can Prepare for Atomic War."
Yet for all the uncertainty about the future, American life in 1954 was good and getting better. Prosperity was spreading, the middle class was growing, suburbs were springing up around the cities, and the dislocation and sacrifices of World War II were starting to fade into memory. The nation's population was 162 million, an increase of nearly 20 percent since 1940. The unemployment rate was 5.5 percent. More than half of American households had a television set, three times as many as in 1946, and two-thirds of American families owned a car, compared to just over half in 1948.
Just a month before Austin's flight, Newsweek captured the ambivalent mood of the nation with a cover photograph of two attractive young women driving a convertible covered with stickers of vacation destinations. The shot called attention to the issue's special report on "Spring-Summer Travel." But printed across the top of the cover was a reference to another special section in the same issue: "The Bomb: What Odds for Survival Now?"
Trevor Gardner and Jim Killian knew the odds of preventing a nuclear war would improve if the United States knew more about the Soviet Union's military strengths and weaknesses and could manage relations with Moscow accordingly. But as the Eisenhower administration gathered itself in the spring and summer of 1954 to face the threat of surprise attack, the obstacles to gaining that knowledge were immense.
The idea of developing less vulnerable, more effective ways of photographing Soviet military installations had been kicking around Washington for years. In fact, the first scheme for placing a satellite in space was dreamed up for the Pentagon in 1946 by the engineering division of the Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica. This research shop, later detached from Douglas and rechristened the RAND Corporation, became a vital source of ideas for the Air Force. By the time of Hal Austin's narrow escape, detailed work was under way to design a spacecraft that could take pictures of the Soviet Union and relay them electronically back to earth. The Air Force was also trying to produce a reconnaissance airplane that could fly high enough to elude Soviet interceptors and missiles. But none of these efforts had the support of the White House or the financial backing needed to overcome the technological barriers that confronted scientists and engineers.
The challenges seemed nearly insurmountable. No one had yet come close to firing a rocket into space, much less a sophisticated surveillance system. Even if a powerful enough rocket could be built, it was unclear whether a camera system could survive the jolting ride into space and function in the hostile conditions there, including temperatures of 455 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. If useful pictures could be taken from space, relaying the images back to earth would require either a new means of transmission or the development of a film-return capsule that would not burn up during the scorching reentry through the atmosphere. As for new spy planes, the upper reaches of the atmosphere remained an unknown zone filled with potentially lethal dangers for any man or machine that ventured to such heights. Jet engines would flame out for lack of oxygen above 70,000 feet, and fluids in the human body would vaporize at that altitude.
Fortunately, the first concrete steps were being taken to develop the revolutionary new technologies that were required. Kelly Johnson, the top aircraft designer at Lockheed, was pitching the Air Force on his latest proposal for a new spy plane that could cruise over the Soviet Union at 70,000 feet. Lockheed was also working with the Air Force on plans for a photoreconnaissance satellite. Though much of the Air Force high command had little interest in either idea, a young general named Bernard Schriever recognized the potential importance of both and was using his influence to press for their development.
Two other talented men would soon be drawn into pivotal leadership roles in the effort to upgrade America's intelligence operations. One of them was Edwin Land. The weekend Hal Austin was penetrating Soviet airspace, Land was indulging one of his periodic impulses to break with the conventions of business and science. He was in Hollywood, where he had taken up temporary residence to work with Alfred Hitchcock on making 3-D movies. The other person was Richard M. Bissell Jr., a brilliant, eccentric economist who had recently started work at the Central Intelligence Agency as a special assistant to its director, Allen W. Dulles.
Thanks to these men and others who believed that the preservation of democracy and freedom required the creation of radically new technical systems for collecting intelligence, the leap was made. Before the year was out, the Eisenhower administration set in motion a series of secret studies and projects that over the short span of the next six years would revolutionize the intelligence business and profoundly alter the course of the cold war.
In this period of explosive innovation, the nation would produce the U-2 spy plane, which could cruise at 75,000 feet, and started work on a successor aircraft so advanced that it would be considered a startling engineering feat if proposed today. In the late summer of 1960, the United States placed the first successful reconnaissance satellite in orbit. Along the way, the scientists, engineers, businessmen, and government officials who worked on these highly classified programs rewrote the book on airplane design and performance and led the nation into space. They transformed the world of espionage by building machines that in a day could collect more information about a foreign enemy than an army of spies could assemble in a decade, and opened the way to a sea change in warfare made possible by the development of space-based reconnaissance, mapping, communications, and targeting systems. Altogether, it was a triumph of American ingenuity and technology, the cold war equivalent of the Manhattan Project.
Like the invention of the bomb, and the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles that also raced ahead in the late 1950s, the creation of new spy systems reshaped the political, bureaucratic, and budgetary landscape in Washington in both constructive and destructive ways that continue to be felt half a century later. Huge new government organizations were created to manage and exploit the new technologies, billions of dollars were diverted to fund them, and bitter debates were joined over how to manage the systems and how much to rely on them. The struggle for control provoked a boiling conflict between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon that has yet to be resolved.
But the immediate payoff from the reconnaissance advances was a stream of new, reliable information about Soviet military forces. The photographs provided by the U-2 and, later, the first satellites gave Washington its first real look at Moscow's military machine, including air and naval bases, bombers, missile test sites, submarines, and radar systems. As Albert D. "Bud" Wheelon, one of the men who developed the new generation of spy systems, later said, "It was as if an enormous floodlight had been turned on in a darkened warehouse."
Copyright © 2003 by Philip Taubman