Miller Center

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

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.