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Politics, Paranoia and Groupthink

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In September 1957, the organization charged with building ICBMs, the Air Force BMD, opened a small, one-man office in the back of its Inglewood, California, headquarters. It was there that Colonel Edward N. Hall was put in charge of designing the nation’s first instantaneous missile. Hall, by all accounts a rather irreverent but brilliant engineer, worked alone, without a secretary or assistant. Rumor had it he once tried to quit, but his resignation was not accepted. Hall named his project Weapon System Q, not for something, but simply because Q was a letter that had not been taken by another project and also had a nice “air of mystery about it.”


The solitary work of an Air Force engineer hardly seemed the propitious beginnings of what, in 1960, Roy Neal would describe as the nation’s salvation. And it was not. In fact the difference between the humble origins of the Minuteman program and its unveiling just three years later demonstrates just how much politics, paranoia, and groupthink could influence strategic decisions.


As Hall began work on Q, there was no certainty that such a new missile would be built. Throughout 1957, the pace and size of the nation’s strategic missile programs remained a matter of debate. Most strategic planners accepted the necessity of building missiles but disagreed about the resources that should be expended on them. The president was a case in point. Dwight D. Eisenhower tended to take a long view of the nation’s defense, preferring measured programs with clear results. He was certain of the importance of missiles but also understood that technology would take time and that there was no point in rushing headlong into something simply because of psychological ramifications. Eisenhower was more perturbed with the “competitive publicity” of the armed services. Well before warning the nation of the military-industrial complex, Eisenhower excoriated the Pentagon for turning weapons spending into a public pissing match. Such public rhetoric would inflame passions without fact; it would escalate the arms race without regard to means, needs, or repercussions. Even if the Soviets developed the first missiles, Eisenhower reasoned, they would be so crude as to be ineffective. The strategic balance would hold.


In the fall of 1957 Eisenhower was quite confident in the nation’s missile programs. The Pentagon had more than thirty different missile systems under development, including two ICBMs, Atlas and Titan, both of which were to be deployed by the end of the decade. So certain was Eisenhower, in fact, that the Department of Defense enacted budgetary restrictions that summer, including caps on overtime spending, slowing the deployment schedule for existing missiles like Titan and Atlas, and ordering the review—and probable cancellation—of redundant missiles. The intent was to avoid knee-jerk developments. Eisenhower hoped that the country would need at most 150 “well-targeted” ICBMs to deter a Soviet first strike.


The men of the Air Force BMD were less sanguine, which is precisely why Hall was put to work on Q. They believed that strategic superiority required nuance; it was no longer about how much megatonnage you could hurl at the other side. Rather it was about how well disguised and protected that megatonnage was; how instantaneous you could make your weapons; how well you could fool the other side. In this context the ICBMs already being readied, the Titan and Atlas, were obsolete. Both were huge and lumbering and relied on liquid propellants that had to be manually loaded before launch, a process that could take hours and leave a significant window of vulnerability for preemptive attack. For the men of the BMD, national security depended on developing a next-generation rocket, regardless of the resources required.


In creating ever-more sophisticated weapons, the BMD had important allies. As Hall tinkered away in Inglewood, more prominent missile advocates—a group Time magazine called the “missilemen”— turned rocketry into a public spectacle. “With every tick of the clock,” missile advocate Trevor Gardner warned in 1956, “the Soviet Union is moving closer… to knocking this country out. Intercontinental air power and missiles are the new double-edged sword of destruction, hanging by a hair over us all.” Gardner assured the public that the Soviets were ahead of the United States in ICBM development. Here were the makings of the missile gap. Weapon System Q would be ideally positioned to plug the perceived hole.


But there was another side to Weapon System Q, one that belied the appearance of prudence. As Eisenhower warned, the armed services were in constant competition for resources and prestige. Q was a pawn in this game. The Air Force was preoccupied with maintaining its position as the nation’s premier nuclear deterrent force, but challenges seemed to come from everywhere. The biggest threat was the Navy’s Polaris program, a small, solid-fuel rocket to be deployed on submarines. Polaris was actually ahead of Q in development, and Pentagon officials suggested, on numerous occasions, that the Navy’s technology be employed for the land-based missile. There were few things that could have displeased the Air Force more. For the BMD, Q was thus a means not only of plugging a strategic hole, but also of solidifying the Air Force as the nation’s preeminent power.


In the fall of 1957, Edward Hall was not unaware of these issues, but he approached the problem of a new missile as he did most problems, as an engineer. Like most of the early missilemen, Hall came into rocketry by happenstance. Born Edward Nathaniel Holtzberg in New York in 1914, he received his bachelor’s and graduate degrees in engineering from the City College of New York—degrees that Time magazine would later term the “essential emblem of the missileman.” During the Great Depression Hall had trouble finding work, partly, he suspected, because of anti-Semitism. He changed his name to Hall, without measurable impact on his career prospects. To make a living he worked a variety of odd jobs as an electrician, mechanic, and steam fitter. By the late 1930s he was looking for new opportunities and found the U.S. military. In 1939 he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and in 1941 was shipped to England as an officer. There he applied his varied experiences and capabilities and was both praised as a problem solver and castigated for cocky impudence.


It was at the end of the war that Hall’s career intersected with missiles. In the spring of 1945 the young officer was sent to Germany to investigate and gather materials from the Nazi rocket program. During the last year of the war the V-2s had rained terror on London. From that program everyone realized that truly long-distance rockets—those of intercontinental capability—were possible, and it would simply be a race to see who could come up with them. The Americans desperately wanted to know how the German V-2 was built and to acquire as much of the research, equipment, and personnel as possible. Under Project Paperclip, hundreds of Nazi scientists, such as Wernher von Braun and Arthur Rudolph, were brought to the United States, where they played leading roles in the American space program. Hall did not chase scientists but instead was charged with going to Germany to examine the Nazis’ rocket assembly line. Hall himself later insisted that he brought what he had found back to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and got to work figuring out what it all meant.


From there Hall became part of a small cadre of men devoted to bringing American weaponry into the space age. He worked on the Air Force’s Navaho and Atlas programs before moving to Los Angeles and the BMD. Hall knew rockets, he knew chemicals, and he was brazen. “I am not going to study [the new missile],” he informed one of his superiors. “You can sit down and study until hell freezes over.” Instead, he argued, “we can design a weapon system,” which is precisely what he went on to do. Moreover Hall was adept at managing the bureaucracy of the Air Force and the Pentagon. He himself reported that in the early 1950s he faked an intelligence report on Soviet rocket engines so that the Air Force would continue to fund his own similar project. Neil Sheehan has written of Hall: “when his goals were endangered, scruples that might have deterred others aroused no hesitation in Hall.”


In September 1957, Hall’s instructions were simple: draft a development plan for a “solid-propellant inter-continental missile” available sometime in the “foreseeable future.” He took to his new task with messianic fervor. He often worked all night, talking to himself and furiously scratching formulas away on the chalkboard. Nodding to Eisenhower’s fiscal restraint, Hall envisioned an inexpensive underground missile deployed in the thousands—as many as 10,000. Producing this new missile in great amounts would make it cheaper—per unit—and less vulnerable to Soviet attack than the Titan and Atlas. “All elements of the missile,” Hall repeatedly insisted, must be “simple, reliable, highly producible so that they lend themselves to mass production, and be low in cost.” Fielding thousands of simple rockets would compensate for their reduced accuracy. According to 1958 BMD planning documents, the first 100 Minuteman missiles would cost $1.1 million each, but the thousandth would be nearly half that, the five thousandth less still. By way of comparison, each Titan cost more than $20 million.


This notion of economic efficiency would be one of the chief justifications for the Minuteman system, no matter how compromised that rationale would soon be. From 1957 through the early 1960s a near constant preoccupation with cost runs through Minuteman planning documents—from Air Staff deliberations down to BMD memos. Similarly, inexpensiveness was promoted to the public. At the Air Force Association Convention in 1960, when introducing the Minutemen, Roy Neal insisted that these missiles had essentially reversed trends in weapons development. While this was true in a relative sense, the Minutemen were proving anything but inexpensive. By the time the first missiles were deployed, each weapon cost nearly $35 million, excluding facilities and maintenance. Every dollar spent tied more and more people and companies into the burgeoning national security state. Their development solidified the military-industrial complex, creating a long-term web of dependencies that connected the Air Force, dozens of contractors spread across the nation, and the politicians who sought to protect them.


Still, in the fall of 1957, Q was a mere outline. The new missile was the project of a single engineer. There was no guarantee that the country would either need or choose to build a new missile system. If Eisenhower was to have his way, the footprint and magnitude of the missile fields, of nuclear deterrence itself, would be contained.


But his nightmare about public hysteria—stoked by interservice rivalries and inflated estimates of Soviet capabilities—was about to come true. Sputnik would change everything.


We may credit Edward Hall with designing the Minuteman, but the Soviet satellite made the missiles a reality.


On the night of October 5, 1957, there may have been no better place to be than the plains of western South Dakota. The inky blackness of the autumn night sky, the wide-open expanse of prairie, and the near absence of lights would have been the perfect platform for viewing history. Don Paulsen, a twenty-seven-year-old Korean War veteran and lifelong South Dakotan, stepped out of his house in rural Wall (population 629), lay down on the cold ground, and waited. While most Americans were told that they could see the tiny object moving overhead, like an orbiting star, if they knew where and when to look, on the eastern seaboard urban lights could bleach out the sky. Their best hope, authorities said, would be to try to pick out the pin-sized speck of light with binoculars. But in Wall, South Dakota, Paulsen did not need binoculars: he could see Sputnik with the naked eye.


With history in the making, the entire world turned its eyes skyward that week. Sputnik was the first man-made object to orbit earth. The satellite was essentially empty: there were no cameras, no devices, no research tools of any kind on board, yet the space age, long the stuff of fantasy and fiction, was here. Unlike long-range bombers, which could be detected with radar on their flight across the seas, satellites and missiles, both shot from rockets, were invulnerable to countermeasures. Missiles, Americans learned, would someday be accurate to a matter of miles, then a half mile, then—sometime down the road—a few feet. Even the most out-of-the-way place imaginable, like Don Paulsen’s yard in Wall, South Dakota, suddenly seemed as exposed as a military base along the Iron Curtain.


Sputnik was a watershed moment in the psychological Cold War. It left Americans feeling vulnerable, behind, and scandalized. Senate majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson led the convulsions of national anger and fear. He predicted the day when the Soviets “will be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses.” The editors of Newsweek, mincing few words, declared that a dozen or more Sputniks “equipped with H-bombs” would “spew their lethal fallout over the U.S. and Europe.” Sputnik also provided the missilemen with a powerful tool for bashing the president and his Grand Old Party. Senator Henry Jackson, a Democrat from Washington and a fierce cold warrior, argued that Americans under Republican leadership were losing the war for space. He declared that first part of October “a week of shame and danger.” With shrill alarms in the nation’s dailies and the patterns of election-year politics raising the rhetoric, Americans were soon preoccupied with missiles. The missile gap and the answers of the missilemen were not far behind. It was not that the missilemen were correct, but rather that they seemed to have ready-made solutions to the crisis of national confidence.


Public concern and Sputnik also pried open Eisenhower’s legendarily tight fists (though they do not appear to have altered his own assessment of the nation’s strategic position). Within months the president was forced to reconsider his defense ceilings, loosening the constraints he had imposed on military spending. The nation’s missile programs—Weapon System Q in particular—were the direct beneficiaries. By February 1958, Q was a weapon under development. Funding and support were forthcoming. The name “Minuteman” had begun to adhere. The Pentagon approved Minutemen for research and development by March. In just five months Q had gone from idea to weapon, an extraordinary feat in a time of peace. The Air Force projected that an operational Minuteman ICBM could be available by 1963, but quickly—and seemingly unrealistically to many—that date would be revised to 1962.


Sputnik also revealed the elite world of strategic thinking and planning to unprecedented levels of public attention. Most defense planning remained highly secretive, cloistered in the halls of the Pentagon, the White House, and the armed services. But post-Sputnik fears of a missile gap led to widespread public participation in conversations about Cold War defenses. Suddenly Americans were interested in the types of weapons that were supposed to protect them from nuclear annihilation. Almost overnight newspaper readers learned a new vocabulary; headlines tracked decisions about missile systems, numbers, and war-fighting capabilities. Terms such as “ICBM,” “IRBM,” and “SLBM” became recognizable acronyms denoting the missiles soon to be in the nation’s arsenal: intercontinental, intermediate-range, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The language of nuclear warfare, “counterforce,” “first strike,” “no-cities,” “window of vulnerability,” and “mutually assured destruction,” was cycled into popular discourse. So absurd but ubiquitous was this language that it was quickly satirized in Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove (1964).


More seriously, the Minutemen were quickly caught up in these public arguments about the size and nature of the nation’s deterrent force. Almost certainly some version of the missiles would have been built, but without Sputnik and the missile gap, the Minuteman would have been a different program. Developed in step with the dawn of the nuclear space age, the Minutemen were inextricably tied to larger popular and political concerns about the Cold War. Right away the men of the BMD had to sell their idea to the Pentagon, but soon they would also have to turn their attention to a broader audience. And in the late 1950s the public was listening.


The need for salesmanship was in part why Ed Hall lost his job. In the fall of 1958 he was shipped off to France to work on a NATO program. Given his abrasive character, Hall was not the man anyone wanted trying to sell the new missile to the Pentagon, the president, or the American people. The Minuteman program instead would be left to Air Force officers Lieutenant General Otto Glasser and General Samuel Phillips, both of whom were better suited to the politics and diplomacy of weapons procurement.


It would be up to these men to translate Hall’s weapon into a working and sellable rocket. Hall’s design was an abstraction—an engineer’s match for the questions at hand. Hall had never identified precisely where in the country his missiles would be deployed. Nor did anyone yet know how many Minutemen would be approved— estimates ranged from 47 (thanks to budgetary limitations) to 10,000 (Air Force dreaming). Until 1960 no real estate had been appraised. Like plastic overlays, new ideas about space and war would be placed above and below Hall’s own plans, eventually creating the missiles’ own peculiar nuclear geography. The map would be messy and transient, shifting with the strategic winds, but Hall provided the first hazy outlines of how, if not where, the Air Force could deploy the Minutemen.


Photo (partial) by Brian Bergstein

Photo (partial) by Brian Bergstein


Gretchen Heefner is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Connecticut College.


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