Out of Thin Air: ICBMs and the Cold War

During the Potsdam Conference in July of 1945, the "Big Three" -- Truman, Churchill, and Stalin -- met to discuss the future of the world. Each of the Big Three were backed by their military counsels and diplomatic aides, who met separately and passed the big issues back up to the leaders for final decisions. Stalin seemed to be in charge even though Truman was selected as Chairman. Then, during the conference, word came to Truman of the successful detonation of the atom bomb: the Trinity test. At this point the fate of the Japanese -- still at war with the United States -- was sealed. But this powerful new weapon also changed Truman's relationship with both Churchill and Stalin. Playing the field like the Missouri businessman that he was, he extracted the greatest gain from the situation, playing his cards carefully. Truman set the stage for the Cold War. Seventeen years later, the Cold War reached critical mass during the Kennedy administration, when medium range ballistic missiles were placed in Cuba by the Russians and pointed at the United States. The Eisenhower years saw the first push into space by both America and the Soviet Union, and our growing understanding of the Earth's atmosphere brought the surprising realization that the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile would not be able to trace a parabolic arc through space as it was designed to do. Rather than admit that weapons of destruction would always be constrained to the lower atmosphere, thus precluding further development of the long-range ICBM, both sides lied to each other and to their respective citizens and the Cold War escalated. Midway through his Presidential term Kennedy began to have second thoughts about the nuclear deterrent and pushed for a Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The Limited Test Ban Treaty was signed by the British, Russians, and Americans, and subsequently ratified by Congress. The Joint Chiefs hadn't given up on the development of the ICBM, however, and now that further testing in the atmosphere was prohibited, more than a few feathers were ruffled.

The Origins of the Cold War
On June 19, 1945, after the surrender of Germany, Edwin Pauley, U.S. diplomat to Russia, cabled to Washington on the subject of war reparations: "We must claim all we can accept. The U.S. might well demand more reparations except that we are limited as to the kind and type of thing we can take. We cannot use plants, machinery, and labor. But we can take and should assert to the fullest extent our demand for gold currencies, foreign assets, patents, processes, and technical know-how of every type."

In fact, the OSS and Navy Intelligence were already preparing to bring German scientists to America as part of Operation Overcast and Paperclip. In addition, a mission to collect German nuclear secrets was being planned called Operation Sunrise.

On July 24, 1945, eight days into the Potsdam conference, at the end of that day's plenary session, Truman got up from the big table and sauntered casually around to Stalin. He had nothing important to say -- the fact that he had left his interpreter Bohlen behind proved that. Churchill recalled: "I was perhaps five yards away and I watched with the closest attention the momentous talk. I knew what the President was going to do. What was vital to measure was its effect on Stalin. I can see it all as if it were yesterday."

"I casually mentioned to Stalin," Truman wrote in his memoirs, "that we had a new weapon of unusual destructive force. The Russian premier showed no special interest. All he said was that he was glad to hear it and hoped we would make 'good use of it against the Japanese.' "

Churchill recalled: "I was sure that [Stalin] had no idea of the significance of what he was being told. ...If he had had the slightest idea of the revolution in world affairs which was in progress his reactions would have been obvious. Nothing would have been easier than for him to say, 'Thank you so much for telling me about your new bomb. I of course have no technical knowledge. May I send my expert in these nuclear sciences to see your expert tomorrow morning?' But his face remained gay and genial and the talk between these two potentates soon came to an end. As we were waiting for our cars I found myself near Truman. 'How did it go?' I asked. 'He never asked a question,' he replied."

Truman could now claim that he had been an honest and trustworthy ally; he had informed Stalin about the atomic bomb. At the same time, he believed that he had successfully deceived Stalin. According to Russian General Shtemenko, the deception did indeed work: after the plenary session of July 24, the Russian Army "general staff received no special instructions."

Whether Stalin knew exactly what Truman was talking about that evening or whether he only came to realize it later on, after the first bomb had been dropped on Japan, here is one turning point in history that can be dated with extraordinary precision: the twentieth century's nuclear arms race began at the Cecilienhof Palace at 7:30 P.M. on July 24, 1945.

The President approved the bombing order for Japan on July 25, before the final warning had been sent to the Japanese, because he needed "to set the military wheels in motion."

The Potsdam Reaction (Update December 2017)
New data pertaining to Stalin's strange reaction to Truman's disclosure has come to light. In short, Stalin knew about the atomic bomb at least six months before the Potsdam conference. In December of 1944 the KGB New York office sent a coded message to the KGB Center in Moscow that contained a list of names of the leading scientists working on the Manhattan Project. Though this and other coded messages had been intercepted by the US Army Signal Intelligence Service, they weren't decoded until December of 1946 -- more than a year after Potsdam. (See the web page Global Climate 1947 in the UFO Therapy section for details.) This is why Truman knew nothing about the breach in national security. Stalin was well-informed about the Manhattan Project but of course he couldn't let Truman know, because it would have compromised the Soviet espionage network inside of the United States. By July of 1947, the backlog of Soviet intelligence message traffic was being fully decoded by Army Intelligence, and the extent of the damage to national security was finally realized. As a result, the Cold War took on a new urgency under the Truman administration.

In July of 1945, the detonation of the A-bomb wasn't a foregone conclusion. Truman had his critics. The bomb-as-weapon was generally believed to be unnecessary -- as Truman had by then been told by military adviser Admiral William D. Leahy, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Fleet Admiral E. J. King, General H. H. "Hap" Arnold, and Army Air Corps General Curtis LeMay. General Douglas MacArthur, then Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Pacific, was not asked for his opinion on whether the bomb was of any military use against Japan. After the war, he volunteered that he thought it was not.

Curtis LeMay, who became head of the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command in 1948, would later say that the dropping of the bomb shortened the war by two weeks. Churchill was to say, "It would be a mistake to suppose that the fate of Japan was settled by the atomic bomb. Her defeat was certain before the first bomb fell...." The United States Strategic Bombing Survey said after the war, "Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war [against Japan], and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated."

To force a Japanese surrender, then, it was not necessary to drop the bomb either as a weapon or as a fear-promoter. However, even though Stalin knew about the weapon in theory, its reality had yet to be made manifest. The Truman administration believed that if the weapon wasn't dropped on Japan it would have no psychological effect on Russia. The bomb was therefore dropped on Japan to show Russia the destructive power the United States now wielded. The psychological effect on Stalin was twofold: the Americans had not only used a doomsday machine; they had used it when, as Stalin knew, it was not militarily necessary. It was this last chilling fact that doubtless made the greatest impression on the Russians.

From the beginning of the ninth century, and even today, the prime driving force of Russian politics has been the fear of being hemmed in on all sides by other countries. Fear, rather than ambition, is the principal reason for the organization and expansion of the Russian state. The Russians have experienced ten centuries of constant, mortal fear. With no natural frontiers for protection, Russia has been overrun by invaders generation after generation. During WWII, the Germans reminded the Russians in an especially harsh way about their open frontiers and dreadful vulnerability.

George F. Kennan, State Department officer in Moscow, wrote in February of 1946: "Soviet power, unlike that of Hitlerite Germany, is neither schematic nor adventuristic.... It does not take unnecessary risks.... It is highly sensitive to logic or force. For this reason it can easily withdraw -- and usually does -- when strong resistance is encountered at any point. Thus, if the adversary has sufficient force and makes clear his readiness to use it, he rarely has to do so. If situations are properly handled there need be no prestige-engaging showdowns."

In the spring of 1946, Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace suggested that much of the difficulty America was having with the Russians could be explained by Russia's "dire economic needs and by their disturbed sense of security." He recommended "a new approach along economic and trade lines." The President ignored Wallace's suggestion. Wallace was clearly ignorant of the growing Russian threat to the United States and his "Roses and Rainbows" approach to global politics didn't sit well with the Commander in Chief.

Shortly thereafter, Henry Wallace made a speech at Madison Square Garden in New York. It was possible to cooperate with Russia, said Wallace, once the United States had made it clear that Americans were interested in "neither saving the British Empire nor purchasing oil in the Near East with the lives of American soldiers." Wallace suggested that the Americans and Russians simply recognize one another's spheres of interest. Let them strike a bargain: America would stay out of eastern Europe if Russia would stay out of western Europe and the Americas. Four days after Wallace delivered his speech, Truman requested his resignation.

After the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Admiral Leahy concluded that the Americans "had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages." Looking back on the bomb, Oppenheimer stated: "In some crude sense, which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, we physicists have known sin."

But on March 2, 1947, New York Times reporter Hanson Baldwin put a different spin on things: "America, far more than any single factor, is the key to the destiny of tomorrow; we alone may be able to avert the decline of Western civilization, and a reversion to nihilism and the Dark Ages."

A few who had earlier reached this same conclusion were singled out and promoted by Truman. In January of 1947 Truman appointed John Foster Dulles to the United States delegation to the United Nations. James V. Forrestal, though ignored at first, became the first Secretary of Defense under Truman that same year. Forrestal had a profound fear of making "concessions" to Russia. Forrestal's nightmare was that capitalism itself was under siege all over the world. During the war his personal files filled up with the names of journals and organizations and individuals who were "under Communist influence." Forrestal was an anti-Communist ideologue and a champion for the economy of capitalism.

The Race Begins
By the end of the 1940s, aircraft reconnaissance was used by the AEC to keep tabs on Soviet atomic development. The earliest efforts were made through high-altitude air sampling by the Air Force's Long Range Detection program. This program was created in 1947 at the urging of AEC chairman Lewis Strauss, who pointed out in appeals to Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, Secretary of the Army Kenneth Royal, and finally to General Eisenhower, that the United States had no way of monitoring the Soviet nuclear program. The appeal was successful: the Air Force was given the go-ahead to create a monitoring system.

This was done by fitting B-29's with air-sampling boxes containing filters that would collect radioactive residue from the air as the plane flew its course. The filters were removed every hour and the location of their exposure was catalogued.

On September 3, 1949, a WB-29 weather recon plane on routine patrol from Japan to Alaska flying at 18,000 feet pulled in a record amount of radioactive particulate matter. Other weather recon planes registered even higher readings. The filters were analyzed at Los Alamos and the Naval Research Laboratory, and were found to contain traces of the same sort of radioactive debris that was produced by U.S. atomic tests. J. Robert Oppenheimer and other top U.S. scientists concluded that the Soviet Union had detonated its first nuclear bomb. The Soviet Union's first atomic bomb had been detonated on August 29 at the Semipalatinsk test facility.

ICBMs and the People Involved
In 1954, the Air Force contracted with the newly formed Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation to handle systems engineering and technical direction of the ballistic missile program. The intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was conceived as early as 1946. By 1956 the specification called for a missile that could be launched in the U.S. which would travel at ballistic speeds -- up to 15,000 or 20,000 miles per hour at altitudes of up to 800 miles -- and hit a target 5000 miles or more away. Starting in 1946, work on the ICBM progressed with intermittent spells of urgency and relaxation.

The main design concerns were as follows. Because of the speeds at which the unmanned ICBM would travel, it would come very close to becoming an artificial moon. The principal task in this respect, therefore, was to regulate the speed well enough so that it would reach a target 5000 miles away rather than end up as an Earth satellite.

In fact, missiles had probably gone up as early as 1954. In March of that year Army Ordnance officials at White Sands issued a press release stating that the military was searching for "small moonlets" in orbit around the Earth's equator. Dr. G.M. Clemence of the Naval Observatory stated that "these objects might have been meteorites if they hadn't been captured by our planet's magnetic field." In May, 1955, an object was reported traveling 16,000 mph some 800 miles out, where the inner Van Allen belt begins. Popular Mechanics speculated that "a rocket expected to return to Earth inside a certain impact area kept on going at an angle and speed that put it into orbit around the Earth." Other sources in 1955 listed artificial satellites orbiting at 400 and 600 miles out, at 18,000 miles per hour.

Another major problem was that of cooling the surface of the missile so that it would not disintegrate when re-entering the atmosphere. Without some method of cooling, the missile would disintegrate like a meteorite upon re-entry. Another problem was fuel. It was estimated that about 500 tons of rocket fuel would be required for the ICBM to reach its intercontinental target.

The decision to deal with Ramo-Wooldridge (Simon Ramo, at left) was the alternative to depending on a single prime contractor, a Government-supported university laboratory, or establishing in-house technical know-how. Ramo-Wooldridge was a for-profit organization. It performed well and grew rapidly through broad government contracts and loans from Thompson Products Company. In an effort to avoid conflicts of interest the Air Force imposed a restriction on Ramo-Wooldridge which prohibited that firm from obtaining any hardware contracts developing on the fringe of its missile work.

The hardware exclusion clause stated: "The contractor agrees that due to its unique position in the administration and supervision of the program contemplated hereunder, the Ramo-Wooldridge Corp. will not engage in the physical development or production of any components for use in the ICBM contemplated herein except with the express approval of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force or his authorized representative."

This hardware ban was intended to cover components for any big missile that came out of the program, but was not to restrict the right of Ramo-Wooldridge to fabricate and sell products unrelated to the missiles.

The 1956 Symington subcommittee on air power speculated that the Russians had started earlier in the development of ballistic missiles and were "believed to have made substantial progress in this field, to the extent of having exceeded the United States at least in some aspects of the ICBM and IRBM."

However, General Bernard Schriever, who headed the ICBM project, testified that President Eisenhower had given the ICBM program the highest national priority in September 1955, and that the program was going ahead about as fast as it could possibly go.

While there was much testimony about guided and ballistic missiles increasing in importance, the subcommittee witnesses did not consider missiles as a replacement for manned bombers in the foreseeable future. They did agree that missiles were and would be an essential addition to total air power.

When Ramo-Wooldridge and Thompson Products merged in 1958, the hardware ban was continued for the new corporation, Thompson Ramo Wooldridge (TRW), and for its wholly owned subsidiary Space Technology Laboratories (STL). The hardware ban was modified so that TRW could compete for any Air Force prime or sub-contracts not originating in STL projects.

While the necessity of relying on outside corporations touched the Defense Department, the Navy, and the Army, it was the big missile programs of the Air Force that most clearly showed conflict-of-interest problems. The Pentagon adopted an "associate contractor" policy by which the Pentagon did not select one business firm as a systems manager but placed contracts for various subsystems with different individual companies who were merely joined together in association. In the case of the Atlas program, Major General Thomas P. Gerrity, Commander of Ballistic Systems Division, Air Force Systems Command, said it was decided that no one company had the competence to do the entire job.

"So therefore we gathered together a group of scientists and engineers under the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation, now identified as Space Technology Laboratories, to do the detailed systems engineering and technical direction of such a large management effort," General Gerrity explained.

"We portioned out to individual companies in industry specific subsystem tasks to be performed. For example, we contracted with General Dynamics to do the missile frame effort. We contracted with Rocketdyne to develop and manufacture rocket engines. ...We contracted with General Electric and others to do the tough guidance job."

General Dynamics/Astronautics, as associate contractor for the missile frame, also had the contract for the launch-control system. With the approval of the Air Force, General Dynamics subcontracted the launch-control system work to RCA. Then RCA engaged three electrical contractors to manufacture cables and install them at the bases.

As the ballistic missile program grew, the Air Force became concerned about protecting its resources. An investigative report by the Subcommittee on Military Operations of the House Committee on Government Operations recommended that the technical direction functions of a wholly-owned subsidiary such as STL be assigned to a non-profit corporation exclusively devoted to governmental concerns. Officials of STL stated that they wished to continue in the profit-making role, and the Air Force was forced to create a new non-profit organization, Aerospace Corporation.

The RAND Corporation is the best-recognized early example of a not-for-profit organization used for defense analysis. RAND, organized in 1945 as a subsidiary division of Douglas Aircraft Corporation, was severed from Douglas in 1948 because it was recognized that analytical defense studies conducted under the Douglas wing by RAND would always be suspected of being used for the competitive advantage of Douglas Aircraft.

The establishment of RAND as an independent nonprofit organization set a pattern for other non-profit organizations such as the Institute for Defense Analysis, which performed weapons-system evaluation and other technical studies for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which was put in charge of the Vela nuclear detection and satellite surveillance programs.

In February 1960, General Bernard A. Schriever, Commander, Air Force Systems Command, brought together an organizing committee to establish the non-profit Aerospace Corporation. Aerospace was incorporated on June 3, 1960 as a government-only contractor of the Air Force Systems Command in El Segundo, California. Aerospace was to be responsible for "advanced systems analysis and planning, research, experimentation, initial systems engineering, initial technical direction, and general technical supervision in the complete field of Air Force ballistic missiles and space systems." Aerospace served as a think tank for military space projects, including reconnaissance and surveillance.

Aerospace spent a total of some $22 million to purchase land and construct facilities at El Segundo and San Bernardino, California. Aerospace also purchased land at Cocoa Beach, Florida, to build a facility to support its satellite operations at Patrick Air Force Base, near the Cape Canaveral launch complex. The Air Force continued to look to STL for systems engineering and technical direction. However, STL was to undertake no new programs and was to be phased out. Six months after the creation of Aerospace, that company had acquired 250 technical staff members of STL.

The Air Force took no chances on the ballistic missile project. They prepared an extensive policy statement "on relations with Air Force-sponsored non-profit corporations," which at that time included Aerospace, Analytical Services, MITRE, RAND, and Systems Development Corporation. "We look to these non-profit corporations to focus the Nation's finest scientific and technical talents on selected and highly sophisticated tasks," the policy statement read. "They must not become convenient catchalls for projects which could be performed by private industry; the elite nature of their technical staffs must be preserved. Any dilution of the select quality of these organizations can only have an adverse effect on their ability to carry out their vital Air Force work."

The intelligence community also decided to reorganize at this time. In July of 1960 a Joint Study Group convened. During the summer and fall of 1960 they interviewed 320 individuals from 51 intelligence organizations. In a report submitted on December 15, the JSG concluded that military intelligence played too dominant a role in the overall intelligence process and that a central organization be instituted to coordinate intelligence estimates among the military branches. Several of the JSG's recommendations were adopted as National Security Council directives -- approved only days before Eisenhower left the White House.

Kennedy Administration Takes Over
Robert S. McNamara, the incoming Secretary of Defense, was so impressed with the JSG report that he acted on the finding that military intelligence needed coordination, and created of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in early 1961. The DIA is still in operation and acts to mesh the intelligence requirements of the three armed services.

McNamara seems not to have been informed about the reality of the ballistic missile program, however. He insisted on making cuts in the manned-bomber program. General Curtis LeMay was the leading opponent of McNamara's plans. A bomber could perform many missions a guided missile could never perform, LeMay argued.

General LeMay (at right) and other top Air Force generals accepted the fact that ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads would eventually replace the manned bomber as the major deterrent to Communist aggression. But as of 1961, the Air Force Chief of Staff and his supporters in the Pentagon were not willing to accept the view that the missiles could be accepted as the ultimate weapons system, or that it was safe to phase out the manned bombers.

The House Armed Services Committee reported: "Our recent history in the field of weapons development has placed heavy stress upon the intercontinental ballistic missile. The committee considers it reasonable to believe that the principal offensive capability of this country, and of the enemy, will in the future rest with ICBMs. During the committee's extended hearings ... there slowly developed among the members of the committee a perceptible hesitancy in placing sole reliance and dependence in the ICBM for now or the near future.

"Like all new weapons systems, and like all new things in very many fields, indeed, there tends to be sudden upsurge, and perhaps unthinking reliance, placed upon the latest entrant upon the scene. What in reality is a variation and extension of what has existed before tends to become, by its very newness, an ultimate."

While the committee stated that it did not in any way intend "to minimize the importance of the intercontinental ballistic missile," it posed the question to itself and to Congress: "Are we proceeding too rapidly in the area of what is essentially an unknown weapon at the cost of weapons whose capabilities are tried and known?"

The committee stressed the flexibility of the bomber: "The intercontinental ballistic missile has two modes: Go and not go. The bomber aircraft has an almost infinite variety of modes. It can go, it cannot go, it can go part way and wait, it can go part way and turn around; it can proceed or not proceed in any fashion whatsoever since it is at all times under the intelligent control of a human being."

The House committee also questioned: "Who knows whether an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead will actually work? Each of the constituent elements has been tested, it is true. Each of them, however, has not been tested under circumstances which would be attendant upon the firing of such a missile in anger.... The scientists may say that all of these things are determinable by extrapolation. Perhaps this is so. To the committee, however, it seems that our only knowledge of the actual workability of an ICBM fired in anger is in textbooks and in laboratories. The committee is unwilling to place the safety of this country in a purely academic attitude, and for this reason has added to the bill authorization for bombers."

The Congress went along with LeMay in 1961 and approved new funds for B-52 and B-58 bombers. In 1962 the House Armed Services Committee argued for the RS-70 bomber: "It would fill a serious void by adding vision, strength, flexibility, and human judgment which is so essential to our strategic posture."

Defense Secretary McNamara had been studying the RS-70 from the time he had taken office, and his only conclusion had been that the whole program should be cut back and probably killed. Although Congress earmarked $363 million for the RS-70 program, McNamara continued to downgrade the project, and in the face of stubborn opposition from U-2 pioneer General Curtis LeMay, managed to kill it off. [Footnote 1]

Plans for New Tests
On June 14, 1957, the Soviets proposed a two- or three-year moratorium on nuclear tests. AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss brought prominent nuclear scientists to the White House, including Edward Teller and Ernest Lawrence of Livermore Labs. The scientists stated that with continued testing, U.S. laboratories could develop "clean" fallout-free weapons within seven years. They warned that the Soviets could negate any test moratorium by undetectable, clandestine tests.

When asked during an interview in 1963 if the U.S. had been able to improve its nuclear weapons during the period of the moratorium, AEC Chairman Glenn Seaborg replied: "Yes, we have. We've spent the period digesting data from the HARDTACK 1958 test series, and the computers have been busy, of course, and the physicists and theoreticians have been busy with computations, so we certainly have been improving our weapons during the moratorium."

At a White House meeting on February 27, 1962, a strong difference of opinion became apparent between the civilian heads of the Defense Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the issue of a test ban. CIA Director McCone said there were inconclusive indications from the north of Russia and the Sary Shagon missile range that the Soviets might be making new preparations for testing.

McNamara favored undertaking the test series and signing the test ban treaty afterwards. However, the Joint Chiefs of Staff did not agree that the U.S. should sign the April 1961 treaty because it would not be to the military advantage.

Seaborg spoke for the AEC and advocated a series of some twenty-four tests. At this point the president spoke out very vigorously against the tests in Nevada. He thought the political cost of another mushroom cloud visible in the United States would be prohibitive. Vice President Johnson said he thought the United States should proceed to test without delay. He concluded on the basis of statements made by others that there was military necessity not counterbalanced by political considerations.

The president asked McNamara how important it was to resume testing. McNamara said that testing was particularly important in three areas: (1) to increase the yield-to-weight ratio of a number of nuclear warheads; (2) to study the effect of the enemy's defensive weapons on nuclear warheads; (3) to develop the neutron bomb.

Seaborg then considered the location for resuming atmospheric testing. One possibility was Johnston Island in the Pacific, a dot of land owned by the U.S. about five hundred miles southwest of Hawaii. This island had been used for two high-altitude shots during the AEC's 1958 series. Johnston had good facilities for tests requiring missile launches.

Operation DOMINIC
As early as 1961, the Russians were testing various new types of nuclear weapons on a daily basis. On September 1 the Russians detonated a 150 kiloton device in the atmosphere. Krushchev then announced plans to detonate a 50 megaton device on October 31.

Seaborg stated in a television interview that it was not necessary to detonate such a bomb in order to develop it. Tests of smaller yields would suffice to develop such a high-yield device.

On October 30, the weapon was exploded. Subsequent analysis by the AEC showed that the bomb's true yield was 57 megatons. During this series Russia also tested the effect of these giant explosions on missiles in flight. Only after this major breakthrough did Russia start seriously negotiating a Limited Test Ban Treaty with the United States.

The U.S. responded with an atmospheric test series designated Operation DOMINIC. This operation began April 25, 1962, with an air-drop in the intermediate-yield range (20 kilotons to 1 megaton) off Christmas Island, a British holding 1000 miles south of Hawaii. It was the first announced U.S. atmospheric test since 1958. In all, the series comprised forty tests. It included five detonations of nuclear devices carried to high altitudes by missiles launched from Johnston Island in the Pacific. At the peak of activity, over 19,000 men were involved.

If one side could prevent penetration by the other side's missiles it would have achieved an enormous and tempting advantage. Concern that the Soviets might be on the way to such an advantage was a prime motivation for resuming atmospheric testing. This concern led to the inclusion of several high-altitude shots in the U.S. test series.

The purpose of these tests was twofold: (1) to determine whether they might black out military radar and communications systems, and (2) to determine whether their blast, heat, and radioactivity were capable of destroying incoming missiles, neutralizing missile warheads, and diverting missiles by interfering with their guidance systems. Five previous high-altitude tests carried out by the U.S. in 1958 had given some indication that such effects were obtainable.

Three of the four high-altitude tests were to be launched from Johnston Island: BLUEGILL at 50 kilometers; STARFISH at 400 km; and URRACA at 1300 km; the fourth shot, SMALLBOY, was to take place in Nevada.

Plans for the Pacific high-altitude tests were announced on April 29 by Harold Brown. The announcement brought immediate protests from prominent scientists. The general tenor of the objection was voiced by Sir Bernard Lovell (at right), director of Great Britain's Jodrell Bank Radio Observatory, who expressed his dismay that nuclear tests were to be conducted in "a region of space which is at present the subject of detailed study."

In 1959 the Jodrell Bank Observatory measured an increase in radio-frequency radiation in the high atmosphere. Multiple "events" were recorded in January as well as a single event in March. The normal galactic signal levels were amplified by 150 percent, and the events were precursors to a period of intense solar activity with associated terrestrial activity such as magnetic storms and aurorae. The investigation failed to reveal any unusual solar or terrestrial effects which could have been responsible for triggering the events.

What Sir Bernard and the other scientists were concerned about was the Van Allen radiation belt. This is an immense cluster of high-intensity charged particles -- protons and electrons -- which are held in space by the Earth's magnetic field. The scientists feared that the tests, particularly URRACA, the highest, might add further radiation to the belt, to the detriment of radio communications and space travel; might destroy the inner part of the belt, with unpredictable consequences; or might otherwise cause some permanent modification in the Earth's environment.

Professor James Van Allen, the physicist who first observed the belts, quickly came to the defense of the tests, characterizing them in congressional testimony on May 2 as "magnificent experiments that would add to man's knowledge of the universe." Glenn Seaborg subsequently told Kennedy that "although some scientists were worried about the Van Allen belt, a larger number felt that the effect would be temporary..." Following the discussion, the president decided to create a committee, including Van Allen, to study the matter. At a press conference, Kennedy stated "I know there's been disturbance about the Van Allen belt, but Van Allen says it's not going to affect the belt, and it's his! [Laughter]" The president then went on to indicate that the proposed test was being subjected to "very careful scientific deliberation."

On May 28 an AEC technical release stated that the two lower-altitude tests, BLUEGILL and STARFISH, were expected to have "no appreciable effects of significant duration on the Van Allen belt region." URRACA might result in radio noise that would interfere with measurements by radio astronomers within twenty degrees of the magnetic equator, but this noise was expected to disappear after a few days or weeks.

After the scientific community of the world had thus been alerted, the AEC learned "with acute embarrassment" that the BLUEGILL shot had to be destroyed after launching on June 5 due to a failure of radar tracking. Then on June 20 STARFISH suffered an abort on its Johnston Island launching pad. These two failures presented the AEC with the problem of what to try next at Johnston Island. General Alfred D. Starbird, the Task Force commander, had already informed Seaborg that the fastest he could schedule one missile shot behind another at Johnston Island was fifteen days; that much time was required for pad repair and for installation and checkout of the next missile.

The situation was made more uncertain when word came that the president was not inclined to approve URRACA. On July 3, bearing in mind the two previous aborts, Seaborg sent word to Starbird not to rush preparations for STARFISH. The shot was postponed on July 4, again on July 5, and again on July 7. Finally, on July 9, STARFISH went successfully (1.4 megatons, 400 kilometers high) at 11:09 pm local time. It lit the sky all the way to Hawaii and Australia. (Photo, at left, taken from Hawaii, 780 miles from the explosion.)

To the great surprise and dismay of all, it developed that STARFISH added significantly to the electrons in the Van Allen belts. In all the pretest controversy it was URRACA alone which had been the subject of concern. Seaborg later noted: "On more than one occasion when I have met [Secretary of State] Dean Rusk in subsequent years he has chided me about the erroneous predictions made by scientists in this case. On such occasions I have been glad to acknowledge that scientists, like diplomats, make errors."

To compound the problems, the second attempt to launch BLUEGILL proved disastrous. The Thor rocket burst into flames before lift-off on July 25 and had to be blown up by the range safety officer. The result, as the AEC announced in a press release, was such substantial plutonium contamination and other damage to the launch facility that weeks would be required to make it operable again.

The mishaps on Johnston Island raised concerns in the USSR. On August 11 the AEC received word that the Soviet Union was anxious about the safety of its astronaut, Nikolayev, whose orbit around the Earth was expected to last for several more days. The Soviets sent diplomatic appeals not to conduct any tests that might endanger the astronaut's life. Secretary of State Rusk responded with a public statement: "We wish Major Nikolayev a safe flight and a happy landing. The United States of course contemplates no activities that would interfere with him in any way."

On August 20 the AEC issued a preliminary assessment of the addition to the radiation belts caused by STARFISH. The assessment indicated that the effects had been "generally anticipated," not acknowledging that the effects anticipated were for the URACCA test. A more definitive release came on September 1. It stated that additional data obtained from the TELSTAR satellite had permitted a more detailed determination of the distribution and intensity of the new radiation belt caused by STARFISH. It lay above the path of manned space flights, and additional radio noise such as might interfere with radio astronomy would soon disappear. But the intensity of the radiation at higher altitudes was greater than anticipated and might persist for years.

The release also stated that electron damage inflicted on the solar cells of three satellites had destroyed their communications capability: TRANSIT IV (a Navy navigation satellite), TRAAC (a Department of Defense satellite), and ARIEL (a British scientific satellite launched by the U.S.). The damage to ARIEL was particularly embarrassing since it had been British scientists who raised the first and loudest objections to conducting high-altitude tests in the first place.

From the national security standpoint the AEC and Kennedy administration saw little choice but to persist in the high-altitude series that were so important with regard to anti-missile capability. Kennedy authorized an extension of DOMINIC beyond its original closing date, and eleven additional tests were added to the series, three being high-altitude shots. The president stated at a press conference: "We have taken some steps to prevent a repetition of the incident which caused an increase in the number of electrons in the atmosphere by lowering the altitude and the yield so that lunar flights will not be further endangered."

At a White House meeting on September 5, the president directed that the AEC schedule the tests so as not to interfere with Astronaut Wally Schirra's September 23 flight. The president suggested dropping URACCA from the series. At a later meeting dominated by McNamara it was definitely decided to drop URACCA from the series. Seaborg states that SMALLBOY, the high-altitude test planned for Nevada, also did not take place, but other sources state that not only did it take place, but that it created radioactive fallout and contaminated milk supplies in the Nevada-Utah area.

CHECKMATE (20 kilotons, 150 kilometers high) took place on October 20; BLUEGILL (one to several megatons, 50 kilometers high) finally went on October 26; KINGFISH (one to several megatons, tens of kilometers high) took place on November 1; and the series concluded with TIGHTROPE (20 kilotons, 100 kilometers high).

In a summary letter to the president, AEC Chairman Seaborg wrote: "The current tests have produced many important successes. They have also yielded some surprises and some failures which confirm that we are indeed experimenting at the frontier of weapons technology. The test successes vindicate, in a large measure, the elaborate computational and certification procedures which were developed during the moratorium [1958 - 61]. The surprises and failures serve to remind us that our theories and procedures are, at best, only approximate."

The Van Allen Belts
A report from the University of Minnesota from May 1959 described the origin of particles in the inner Van Allen belt as arising from 1) streams of solar gas; 2) neutron albedo from cosmic rays; 3) debris from high-altitude atomic explosions. The authors characterized the radiation of the inner belt as "low-energy" compared to the outer belt. This refers to the raw counter rate of 16,700 for the inner belt, versus a high of 25,600 for the outer belt. These counts were taken at the hypothetical centers of the respective belts.

The inner radiation belt extends from 1000 to 3000 miles above the Earth's surface. The outer belt occupies the region from 8000 to 12000 miles. On March 11, 1960, Pioneer V recorded the existence of a third ring of low-energy charged particles 30,000 to 50,000 miles above the earth's surface. Also, the inner belt was found to actually be two distinct belts divided by a radiation-free region.

From 1958 to 1960, the air density at 120 miles altitude decreased by 20 percent. Some scientists attributed this loss of air density to the increased activity of the sunspot cycle during those years. Others weren't so sure: when high-altitude explosions take place, energy and particles are injected radially around the Earth, in a ring. The electron radiation dissipates into the Earth's atmosphere and lowers the air density.

The Limited Test Ban Treaty and Ballistic Research
Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay said in Senate testimony concerning the treaty: "I think we were caught a little bit by surprise at the seriousness of the administration trying to get a treaty signed at the point when Mr. Harriman was going over there. Up until that time we hadn't recognized the seriousness of the approach to this particular treaty."

At a White House meeting on June 14, 1963, as the Limited Test Ban Treaty was being prepared for impending negotiations in Moscow, Defense Secretary McNamara said that a long series of discussions would be required before the technical issues disturbing the Joint Chiefs could be resolved, and that he did not want the draft treaty approved prematurely. At the same time he supported the draft treaty because he felt that the United States was ahead and that a test ban would freeze its superiority.

AEC laboratory directors, however, had made statements concerning technical facts before the Joint Committee, and the Joint Chiefs relied heavily on the laboratory directors. McNamara referred to statements by R. W. Henderson, a scientist at Sandia Laboratories, and John Foster, director of the Livermore Laboratory, to the effect that U.S. warheads could not penetrate to Soviet targets unless further tests were undertaken to correct defects. Until such statements could be refuted on the record, it was difficult for the Joint Chiefs to take a different position.

On June 29 Kennedy arrived by helicopter at Birch Grove, the summer house of Prime Minister Macmillan, thirty-six miles southeast of London. Here there was an important U.S. - U.K. discussion of some outstanding problems, principally the test ban negotiations and the proposed mix-manned NATO nuclear naval force.

On the test ban, there was important ground to cover. The British were concerned that there might be some weakening in the American desire for a treaty, perhaps based on what they had heard about objections by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the AEC laboratories. Very little has been reported about this meeting at Birch Grove. Macmillan noted in his autobiography: "All the serious discussions took place between him [Kennedy] and me alone."

The NATO nuclear naval force was a proposal for internationally owned and "mixed-manned" naval vessels, including submarines to which the U.S. would commit Polaris nuclear missiles. After much discussion, the multilateral nuclear force foundered because of lack of enthusiasm in most NATO countries and outright rejection by France.

On July 9, two days before Harriman's departure for the USSR, a White House meeting was called. General Maxwell D. Taylor, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that he thought the administration should study again whether an atmospheric test ban was to the advantage of the U.S.. The president said that the standing position of the U.S. was in the affirmative. Taylor said that perhaps Foster should investigate the pros and cons of an atmospheric test ban both with and without a quota of underground tests. McNamara said he thought a formal government discussion of this problem at this time was not desirable. The president agreed. Rusk felt that the time for a review of the desirability of a limited test ban had passed. The decision had already been made.

Congressional Hearings on the Test Ban Treaty
After the treaty had been signed in Moscow, General Taylor of the Joint Chiefs testified before the Foreign Relations Committee in August of 1963, as part of the treaty ratification process of Congress. Taylor had the following four safeguards added to the Congressional record:

(a) The conduct of comprehensive, aggressive, and continuing underground nuclear test programs designed to add to our knowledge and improve our weapons in all areas of significance to our military posture for the future.

(b) The maintenance of modern nuclear laboratory facilities and programs in theoretical and exploratory nuclear technology which will attract, retain, and insure the continued application of our human scientific resources to these programs on which continued progress in nuclear technology depends.

(c) The maintenance of facilities and resources necessary to institute promptly nuclear tests in the atmosphere should they be deemed essential to our national security or should the treaty or any of its terms be abrogated by the Soviet Union.

(d) The improvement of our capability, within feasible and practical limits, to monitor the terms of the treaty, to detect violations, and to maintain our knowledge of Sino-Soviet nuclear activities, capabilities, and achievements.

The Joint Chiefs were mainly concerned with preserving the nation's scientific and defense infrastructure.

General LeMay stated: "We have a broader duty, I think, to the country than just considering military questions.... We must consider political factors in the solution of our military problems, because they ... do have a bearing on our solutions." In fact, Kennedy had met with each Chief individually in the weeks before, asking each to weigh political considerations in their evaluation of the treaty. Kennedy felt very strongly about signing the international treaty into law.

While the Foreign Relations Committee was conducting its hearings, the Stennis Committee was continuing its own test ban hearings, which had been underway since May 7. General Thomas Power, commander of the Strategic Air Command (which was previously LeMay's command), expressed strong opposition. He argued that the security of the United States depended on having overwhelming superiority over the Soviets and that atmospheric testing was needed to achieve such superiority.

General Power proceeded to startle the Senate Committee by saying that "the only way you can prove a weapons system is to take it out of the stockpile in a random pattern and let the tactical unit take it out and detonate it." When asked if this had been done, he replied: "We have not tested any of the operational warheads in our inventory. ...We have never detonated a nuclear weapon in an Atlas, Titan, or Minuteman missile."

The commander of the SAC made it clear that the Air Force was opposed to ratification of the treaty and expressed the opinion that the American people should know why. He said that high-yield nuclear explosions such as those the Russians had the ability to produce might set off electromagnetic pulse phenomena which could cripple our electronic systems thousands of miles away. This might stop our missiles from even being launched from their silos.

The Stennis Committee stated in its final report that "Soviet secrecy and duplicity require that this Nation possess a substantial margin of superiority in both the quality and the quantity of its implements of defense." The committee found that the treaty posed "serious -- perhaps even formidable -- military and technical disadvantages to the U.S." by obstructing the attainment of "the highest quality of weapons of which our science and technology are capable."

The Stennis Committee's report was signed by six of its seven members. Senator Saltonstall dissented, stating that the report was "overly pessimistic."

High-Sky Verification
In an official statement the Peoples' Republic of China characterized the treaty as "a big fraud." This statement probably referred to the difficulties of atmospheric verification. Technical Working Group I of the Geneva Conference was convened on June 22, 1959, to consider the problem of detecting explosions at high altitudes. After some difficult technical arguments, the scientists reached agreement and on July 10 published their recommendations for a detection system. It involved placing six large satellites in earth orbit at an altitude of over 18,000 miles to detect radiation from nuclear explosions in space. The satellites would be supplemented by special equipment placed in the 170 manned control posts of the Geneva System.

Both delegations (Soviet and American) of the Working Group agreed that even if a high-altitude explosion were detected, its originator might not be identifiable. The U.S. delegates pointed out in addition that if radiation shielding were incorporated in a high-altitude explosive device, that device would probably escape detection by the system. As one commentator noted, the conference had shown that "effective policing of an outer-space ban would be out of reach for many years."

[1] In July of 1954 James R. Killian, an MIT chemist, formed the Technological Capabilities Panel with the approval of president Eisenhower. This panel included scientists from Bell Labs, Los Alamos, Brookhaven National Labs, RAND, and the California Institute of Technology. Three teams were formed to study offense, defense, and intelligence. The intelligence team was chaired by Edwin H. Land of Polaroid; this team came up with the initial concept of the high-flying U-2 spy-plane. Eisenhower approved the concept in November of 1954, and gave the go-ahead to Allen Dulles of the CIA to head the project.

Meanwhile, the Strategic Air Command headed by Curtis LeMay wanted bombing data that could become part of a bombing operation -- data that included detailed photomapping. The SAC's targeteers became staunch advocates of strategic reconnaissance. LeMay wanted the SAC to control aerial reconnaissance so that it might better serve the needs of the SAC.

Throughout the late spring and summer of 1955, LeMay exerted pressure to bring the U-2 program under SAC's wing, even as a joint working relationship between the CIA and Air Force was being negotiated in Washington. The first plane was shipped to Groom Lake for testing in July of 1955. LeMay finally and begrudgingly conceded the plane to the CIA, but not before insisting that the SAC play a major role in training U-2 pilots. Richard M. Bissell of the CIA agreed to this. The SAC finally did receive its own U-2's in 1957. [Return to Text]

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