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Book Review: US Presidents and the Militarization of Space, 1946-1967

Sputnik I exhibit in the Missile & Space Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

Sputnik I exhibit in the Missile & Space Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Sputnik, which means “satellite” in Russian, was the Soviet entry in a scientific race to launch the first satellite ever. USAF photo, PD.

In US Presidents and the Militarization of Space, 1946-1967, Sean N. Kalic examines the roots of American space policy from the post-World War II era through the ratification of the Outer Space Treaty. Kalic argues that presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson all sought to establish the use of space for peaceful purposes while at the same time sustaining the militarization of space to support military missions on Earth. Under each administration, according to Kalic, space was viewed as venue for military activities, but not for the conduct of warfare. An overarching theme that emerges across the different partisan administrations is the extent to which space policy and technological development were driven by the confrontation with the former Soviet Union, especially following the USSR’s detonation of a nuclear weapon in 1947 and the launch of Sputnik a decade later. The book provides an interesting and in-depth examination of the origins of U.S. space policy and the role of presidents in its formulation.

Kalic begins by examining the period immediately following World War II, which laid the foundation for the military’s use of satellites for non-aggressive purposes. According to Kalic, President Harry S. Truman and his administration were far less interested in the research and development of satellites and other space experiments. Rather, Cold War strategic considerations and reducing the defense budget in the wake of WWII were the overriding concerns of the administration. Competition between the Army and Navy and the Army Air Force’s desire to maintain a close working relationship between universities and military scientists in the post WWII era were the primary drivers of early research and development. The air force and the RAND Corporation were the central actors in promoting America’s use of satellites for military applications, such as collecting data and intelligence (as opposed to killing or destroying targets). According to Kalic, “Despite the administration’s reluctance to support the development of satellites, the air force and RAND built the theoretical foundation to use space for military and scientific purposes” (pp. 17).

Unlike Truman, Eisenhower firmly embraced the use of satellites and space systems as a central tenet of the national security strategy of the U.S. and he established a national space policy. Countering threats from the former Soviet Union was the overriding driver of space policy. Eisenhower and his administration believed that the U.S. should use space technology as a means to maintain and expand the international prestige of the nation. In the wake of the Air Policy Commission’s miscalculation of when the USSR would test a nuclear weapon, Eisenhower also wanted to improve intelligence gathering and reconnaissance capabilities. Thus, he directed the National Security Council to define a space policy and to move forward with satellite construction, but Eisenhower chose not to deploy space weapons. Unlike future presidents, Eisenhower maintained that the U.S. should maintain separate military and civilian space programs.

One key question the book raises but might have explored further is why President Eisenhower sought to keep the American public unaware of the nation’s military developments despite public demand for a response to the Soviet Union’s Sputnik launch. Instead, according to Kalic’s account, Eisenhower used the opportunity to make public pronouncements that juxtaposed the United States as the peaceful nation seeking to establish international cooperation in space with the militarism of Soviet Union as evidenced by its “technocratic triumph” of Sputnik (pp. 39). Another interesting topic that might have been further explored is how Eisenhower reconciled his fiscal conservatism principles with the expansion of government (i.e. by authorizing the creation of NASA) and increased spending on space technology and development.

Although it publically maintained that space should be kept free of weapons, the Kennedy administration broke with Eisenhower in acknowledging that the nation’s civilian and military space programs worked in concert with one another. Furthermore, despite their offensive potential, Kennedy authorized the development of anti-satellite programs and ballistic missile defenses, justifying them as defensive and non-aggressive weapons necessary to guard against the USSR. Unlike Eisenhower, Kennedy also sought to overtly challenge the technological superiority of the Soviet Union, for example, by announcing his idea to send a manned mission to the moon.

Of the three presidents examined in this volume, Lyndon Johnson perhaps had the greatest expertise in space policy. The development of his expertise began in the Senate where he served on the Armed Services Committee. Unlike Eisenhower, Johnson was willing to compete with the Soviet Union in space launches and considered Sputnik a challenge on par with the challenge of Pearl Harbor (pp. 92). Kalic notes that rather than engage in a partisan rebuke of Eisenhower’s response to Sputnik, Johnson chose to work with a bipartisan commission to develop new thinking on defense and foreign policy (pp. 94). In return, Eisenhower appointed to Johnson to the U.S. delegation to a United Nations conference on banning weapons in space.

As president, Johnson endorsed a national space program combining military and civilian programs, an idea first advanced in the Kennedy administration. However, despite the American public’s concern over Soviet developments, it remained unaware of the military developments of American space technology through the early years of the Johnson presidency. Finally, in 1964, President Johnson disclosed American anti-satellite and ballistic missile defense technology to public. Although this technology might be used for offensive purposes, Johnson justified it on defensive grounds. Although we don’t necessarily learn why the public was left in the dark under the previous administrations, Kalic asserts that Johnson made the disclosure for three reasons:

  1. to inform the USSR that the United States had the technology and capability to neutralize its offensive weapons plans for space;
  2. to fend off Republican attacks that he was “soft on defense;” and
  3. to ease American concerns about Soviet plans. (pp. 112)

Though Kalic’s account provides a useful starting point, future scholarly work might delve further into the relationship between policy constraints and outcomes and the constraints presidents faced from the international strategic environment, technological developments and public opinion.

Finally, the chapter on Johnson briefly highlights the emergence of a greater degree of partisanship on national security. Whereas Eisenhower didn’t face opposition to his space policy that emphasized civilian programs, Barry Goldwater and other prominent Republicans attacked the Kennedy-Johnson space program as “gambling our national survival.” Thus, the rise of partisanship and its effects on space policy is yet another topic that future scholarly work might explore.

Throughout the account, Kalic portrays presidents as reigning in military and scientific interests seeking to expand weapons into the space frontier. This is apparent from the outset in Kalic’s portrayal of the Army Air Force’s partnership with the RAND Corporation and their drive to develop satellite technology for military purposes under the Truman administration. And in the wake of Sputnik, the air force sought to use the event “to lobby for the weaponization of space and establish itself as the nation’s space force” (pp. 40).  Kalic notes that Eisenhower sought to appease the Air Force interest in space weapons “by using the perceived threat of the Soviet Union’s satellite program to justify America’s early work on anti-satellite and ballistic missile defense systems” (pp. 45). But even while a weaponization debate raged with the military between 1958 and 1960, “Eisenhower remained committed to keeping space free of weapons” (pp. 56).

Throughout the book, Kalic emphasizes the distinction between militarization and weaponization of space. However, we might question how meaningful such a distinction in policy is since the technology can be used for dual purposes. For example, Kalic cites The Space Handbook by the RAND Corporation (1958), which noted the dual nature of astronautics:

Astronautics can provide physical means to aid international inspection, and thereby, can help in the process toward disarmament and the prevention of a surprise attack. Astronautics can also lead to military systems, which, once developed and deployed may make hopes of disarmament, arms control, or inspection more difficult to fulfill.

Furthermore, it’s unclear whether presidents would have favored a policy of weaponization if deploying weapons in space were more technologically feasible. For example, as Kalic points out, President Kennedy and his administration were “never troubled” by the potential offensive use of the SAINT weapons system.

Overall, Kalic provides an important contribution to our understanding of the origins of U.S. space policy and the role of presidents in the militarization of outer space.

Date edited: 02/16/2013 (3:56PM)


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