Eyeing the Red Storm: Eisenhower and the First Attempt to Build a Spy Satellite

Eyeing the Red Storm: Eisenhower and the First Attempt to Build a Spy Satellite

by Robert M. Dienesch


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In 1954 the U.S. Air Force launched an ambitious program known as WS-117L to develop the world’s first reconnaissance satellite. The goal was to take photographic images from space and relay them back to Earth via radio. Because of technical issues and bureaucratic resistance, however, WS-117L was seriously behind schedule by the time Sputnik orbited Earth in 1957 and was eventually cancelled. The air force began concentrating instead on new programs that eventually launched the first successful U.S. spy satellites.

Eyeing the Red Storm examines the birth of space-based reconnaissance not from the perspective of CORONA (the first photo reconnaissance satellite to fly) but rather from that of the WS-117L. Robert M. Dienesch’s revised assessment places WS-117L within the larger context of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency, focusing on the dynamic between military and civilian leadership. Dienesch demonstrates how WS-117L promised Eisenhower not merely military intelligence but also the capacity to manage national security against the Soviet threat. As a fiscal conservative, Eisenhower believed a strong economy was the key to surviving the Cold War and saw satellite reconnaissance as a means to understand the Soviet military challenge more clearly and thus keep American defense spending under control. 

Although WS-117L never flew, it provided the foundation for all subsequent satellites, breaking theoretical barriers and helping to overcome major technical hurdles, which ensured the success of America’s first working reconnaissance satellites and their photographic missions during the Cold War.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803255722
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska
Publication date: 04/01/2016
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Robert M. Dienesch is an adjunct assistant professor of history at the University of Windsor, Ontario, and a research affiliate with the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society. His work has been published in Quest: The History of Spaceflight and Northern Mariner.

Read an Excerpt

Eyeing the Red Storm

Eisenhower and the First Attempt to Build a Spy Satellite

By Robert M. Dienesch


Copyright © 2016 Robert M. Dienesch
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-8675-7


Truman and Eisenhower on the Cold War (1945–55)

A distasteful but vital necessity.

— President Dwight D. Eisenhower

War ... always starts with a Pearl Harbor kind of attack. In an atomic war the first attack, no matter how well prepared for it we may be, will really be a disaster.

— Louis Ridenour

Virtually every history of satellite reconnaissance justifies the creation of the program by citing the need for U.S. intelligence on Soviet military capabilities. The argument focuses on the growing atomic threat from the USSR in the early 1950s combined with problems in penetrating Soviet security as the primary drives for the setting up of the WS-117L satellite program. This interpretation is logical. There certainly were serious problems affecting the gathering of intelligence on the Soviet Union from 1945 to 1953, and by the time Dwight Eisenhower took office in January 1953, the lack of information was a growing concern. But was the monitoring of Soviet military developments the sole reason for the WS-117L?

In this chapter I look at the contrasting views of presidents Harry S. Truman (1945–53) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953–61) on the threats and challenges that the cold war posed to the United States beginning soon after the end of the Second World War.

Harry Truman and the Cold War (1945–53)

The United States required intelligence in the light of increasing tensions with the Soviet Union. During Truman's years in the WhiteHouse the international situation changed dramatically. Truman and his administration expected the wartime U.S.-Soviet relationship to last into the peace, and it startled them to find the peace so short-lived. Joseph Stalin, determined to ensure the safety of eastern and east-central Europe from Western influence, established communist governments there, thus creating a sphere of influence around his vast nation. When the Americans responded by providing assistance (initially financial, but later military) to help contain what they saw as communist ambitions, the result was a cold war that polarized the world and lasted decades. The deterioration of U.S.-Soviet relations and the start of the cold war did not occur overnight but rather emerged slowly through the second half of the 1940s and finally became an idée fixe in the American psyche during the first three years of the 1950s.

With mounting evidence of a change in Soviet attitudes toward the United States and a growing sense of hostility from the Soviet Union, the Truman administration became increasingly aware of the need for strong intelligence about the threats confronting the country. Pearl Harbor was the best argument for more national intelligence. The most shocking and destructive single experience in American history up to that time, this event traumatized every living adult American. The attack was possible because of a clear intelligence failure, the heart of which was the American inability to monitor Japanese military movements and intentions effectively. Most American information came from code- breaking, especially the top Japanese diplomatic code, PURPLE. However, absence of military data from such signals and the huge volume of traffic left intelligence experts unable to interpret indicators of a possible attack. This inadequacy and the absence of an effective system for coordinating and forwarding information to key U.S. commands climaxed in Pearl Harbor, which propelled the nation into war.

The memory of that fateful day was still very fresh after war's end. Americans often recalled with perfect clarity what they were doing when they heard about the attack and the feelings it created, even years later. The trauma of the event and the suspicion that poor intelligence was probably to blame for it found reinforcement in the numerous investigations into what happened on that day. Starting soon afterward with the Roberts Commission, the military and civilian arms of government conducted eight inquiries. The last, the formal Joint Congressional Committee Investigation (November 1945–July 1946), produced forty volumes of material, including much of the testimony from other investigations. Next to President Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963, and the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, no other event in modern American history has had such an impact. It was the fear of another Pearl Harbor that underscored the desire for intelligence and for satellite reconnaissance.

In 1945 the United States was the sole possessor of atomic weapons, but that monopoly proved to be a paper tiger. Although the government was drafting plans to use such devices against the Soviet Union, it had very few bombs with which to do so. Immediately after the war it had no need to increase its atomic stockpile rapidly, as it did not see the Soviets as a threat or believe that they had any such devices. Possessing only conventional and chemical weapons, the Soviet Union could not project its power beyond Europe, let alone attack North America directly. Lacking any bases in countries near the United States and possessing only relatively short-range aircraft, it could not appreciably threaten its chief rival in the near future.

Conversely, because the United States did have nuclear weapons, it thought that dropping a few from long-range bombers would quickly knock out the Soviets if such an eventuality became necessary. Since the heavy bomber was the only feasible means of delivering the weapons, the U.S. Air Force understandably concentrated on preparations for strategic bombing, which became its primary task and evolved into a "bomber mentality" with respect to procurement, training, and intelligence assessment. General Eisenhower noted that proclivity before he entered the White House in 1953, by which time the air force's fixation had become the norm. Authors such as Lawrence Aronsen argue that a major reason for this was the air force's solid belief that the Soviets wanted war and that the bomber was their only means of devastating the United States.

One clear legacy of Pearl Harbor was the assumption that future wars would begin with a surprise attack. Having seen the advantage that surprise gave an attacker and knowing that the Soviets would eventually develop atomic weapons, Americans viewed the example of Pearl Harbor with great unease. The pairing of an unexpected attack and the power of nuclear weapons seemed a nightmarish combination that would paralyze the victim's economy and government. A corollary to this was the notion of a distinct U.S. disadvantage in the new atomic era. The postwar tendency in democratic societies to downplay military preparedness suddenly became a potential danger. The destructiveness of a nuclear strike meant that lack of preparation and neglect of military abilities would bring rapid defeat to a democracy.

Immediately after the war strategic thinkers began to assess the impact of the bomb on warfare and national security. Bernard Brodie, an architect of nuclear deterrence theory and an articulate spokesman for the role of nuclear weapons in peacetime, quickly grasped the weapons' implications. Arguing that their vast power would render any attack devastating, he concluded that the age of defense was over: some bombers would always make it through the defenses. Their destructiveness would prevent the victim's buildup of sizable military forces after the initial assault. Thus the United States had to be constantly ready to wage preemptive war. No weapon system, however "superior," could guarantee strategic superiority. To Brodie the best solution was deterrence. The key to safety was the retention of enough nuclear weapons to convince a potential aggressor of the likelihood of massive retaliation.

An integral component of deterrence was the acquisition of accurate intelligence on the Soviet Union. However, until 1947 the United States had no centralized structure for doing so. The Office of Strategic Services under Gen. William J. Donovan had run wartime intelligence gathering and covert operations. It was unpopular within the administration, however, and Truman disbanded it quickly at war's end.

Increasing tensions with the Soviet Union soon forced the president to rethink his decision and establish a permanent intelligence agency. The first steps in this direction took place on January 22, 1946, a little over one month before former British prime minister Winston Churchill added the phrase Iron Curtain to the Western world's vocabulary. Truman authorized creation of the Central Intelligence Group, or CIG. The CIG was to correlate, evaluate, and disseminate all intelligence relating to national security, and the primary target was the Soviet Union. Although a major step forward, the CIG did not last long. Increasing demands for intelligence, rivalry among the military services, and limited resources prevented it from being totally effective. Moreover the new cold war necessitated an ever-stronger intelligence organization. Thus in 1947 the National Security Act gave the CIG a permanent statutory foundation as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

One of an intelligence community's primary tasks is preparing intelligence estimates. Under the CIG its Central Reports Staff had handled this task, assisting the director in producing these evaluations. In 1947 the Office of Research and Evaluation took on this duty for the new CIA. Accepting Truman's geostrategic vision of national security, the CIG (and the CIA) looked at a variety of factors that affected the United States. "National security" in the broadest sense now involved more than just weapons; it included economic forces, political and ideological threats, and control of resources and industrial infrastructure. Thus the concept became much broader in the Truman era.

The primary focus remained the Soviet Union, although the danger came not just from tanks and atomic weapons but from elements that experts had never really considered before in great detail. Seeing the Soviet regime as hostile in every way, U.S. officials perceived possible threats not just in Soviet military actions but in national and regional instability and weakness in various parts of the world. The Soviets could exploit this situation through political, economic, and psychological means to undermine potential American strength.

As officials were preparing the first estimates, lack of hard intelligence about the Soviet Union quickly became apparent. Initial estimates, such as the report of October 1946, "Soviet Capabilities for the Development and Production of Certain Types of Weapons and Equipment," indicated the problems of predicting the Soviet Union's capabilities. Noting that "any report of this nature is at best educated guesswork," the authors pointed out that "an estimate of capabilities ten years hence obviously cannot be based on evidence, but only on a projection from known facts in the light of past experience and reasonable conjecture." As a foundation for their assessment, the writers relied on their current estimates of Soviet scientific and industrial abilities. They also compared American experience and estimates of capabilities (both current and predicted) with past Soviet capabilities. They also obtained information from former Soviet prisoners — mainly German scientists the Soviets had captured during the war and forced to work for them and who were now going home.

Such estimates were problematic. First, by relying on American experience, they failed to account for the different setup of the Soviet economy: a "command economy" could call on more resources and use different avenues of research and development, thereby speeding development. Assuming that their own country's research and development was normative, American analysts found the Soviet Union to be far behind. Such a conclusion assumed that the Soviets would follow the same steps in the same order and in the same amount of time. This fallacy — "mirror imaging," as the historian Abram Shulsky describes it — involves "assessing or predicting a foreign government's actions by analogy with the actions that the analyst feels he (or his government) would take were he (or it) in a similar position."

Second, this misinterpretation helped to create another problem: underestimation of Soviet capabilities, in which the absence of hard data played a role. Viewing the Soviets as backward, many Americans (including Truman) rejected the idea that the Soviets could compete in highly scientific and technical fields such as atomic energy. Noting the Soviet Union's postwar rebuilding and "limited technological development," the CIG's report argued that the USSR would be incapable of research and development in many advanced areas such as nuclear weapons for at least ten years. Most predictions for the period up to 1950 attributed any Soviet achievements to captured German technology and scientists. The CIG anticipated that by 1948 the Soviets would only develop bombers with performance characteristics similar to the B-29s they had captured and interred in Asia during the war. It suggested that by 1950 they might produce almost 150 aircraft per month.

Central to U.S. national security, of course, was the Soviets' ability to attack the United States directly with atomic weapons. While acknowledging the Soviets' overwhelming conventional strength, particularly in Europe, the CIA did not believe they were willing to risk open war in the face of the U.S. nuclear arsenal (at least in 1948). The Soviet Union would require enough atomic weapons and an effective means of delivery, neither of which it possessed in 1948.

The accepted opinion of the U.S. scientific community in the period 1946–49 was that at worst the Soviet Union was five years from developing its own atomic weapon. Members of the Interim Committee who advised the president on postwar atomic energy concurred. Secretary of War Henry Stimson had set up the group in the spring of 1945, and it consisted of Vannevar Bush, James F. Byrnes, and James B. Conant. The president ignored its prediction of a U.S. monopoly lasting only three to four years, as did many of his key advisors, who wanted to be the only player for a longer period of time.

Gen. Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, was by May 1945 sure that the United States and Britain had a monopoly on the crucial ingredient: high-grade uranium. Basing his reasoning on a special study of the world's uranium deposits called the Murray Hill Area project, conducted for him by top experts from 1943 to 1945, Groves believed that the Soviet Union lacked uranium and this would keep them at least twenty years behind in their development of nuclear weapons. No one ever challenged the highly secret findings, and Groves's committee had excluded any experts who might have dissented. As a result many U.S. officials thought that their country had gained control over the requisite raw resources. All of these experts and officials seriously underestimated Soviet capabilities.

This type of complacency and overconfidence was common among U.S. officials, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). Truman and his administration did not expect a Soviet nuclear device before 1950 or even 1955.23 Even the CIA did not anticipate an atomic test prior to 1953. In a July 1948 memorandum for the president the CIA made it clear that it based its assessment on American, British, and Canadian experience. The agency found no reason to expect a Soviet weapon before the 1950s. Noting that it was "impossible to determine its exact status or to determine the date scheduled by the Soviets for the completion of their first atomic bomb," the memo added that the Soviets' supply of fissionable material would allow for only between twenty and fifty weapons by 1955, depending on the date of their first atomic test.

The nuclear bomb would be useful only if the Soviets could deliver it to its target. In the CIA's report of September 28, 1948, "Threats to the Security of the United States," the agency stated that it did not believe the Soviets could attack the United States directly except via one-way suicide missions, which they could not launch at a scale sufficient to cripple the United States. The CIA predicted that the Soviets would not present a palpable threat from bombers and possibly by launching short-range missiles from submarines until 1955.


Excerpted from Eyeing the Red Storm by Robert M. Dienesch. Copyright © 2016 Robert M. Dienesch. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Filling in the Gap
List of Abbreviations

Part 1. Eisenhower's Delicate Balance
1. Truman and Eisenhower on the Cold War (1945-55)
2. Eisenhower and Defense: Three Challenges, Three Responses (1953-56)
3. Eisenhower and Satellite Reconnaissance: Three Projects (1954-58)

Part 2. WS-117L
4. Origins: RAND and Satellite Reconnaissance (1945-54)
5. WS-117L: Two Stages (1954-57)
6. Satellite Photography, Film Return, and the Birth of CORONA (1957-58)
7. SENTRY/SAMOS, MIDAS, and the Dissolution of WS-117L (1958-60)

Epilogue: WS-117L in Perspective

Appendix: Historiography of Eisenhower and Space Reconnaissance

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