Early version of the U-2 in flight.
In the year after his election President Dwight D. Eisenhower redirected American defense policy for the post-Korean era of neither war nor peace. Eisenhower’s policy, labeled the “New Look,” required redefinition of the Soviet threat. Essentially, Eisenhower believed that proxy wars like Korea and the pressure of defense spending would fatally weaken the American economy, and he pledged to cut the federal budget by $14 billion in his first two years in office. The major target for budget cutting was defense, and Harry Truman had already proposed similar cuts in 1952.
Announcing its intention to have “security with solvency,” the Eisenhower administration designed the New Look between December 1952 and October 1953. The new chairman of the JCS, Admiral Arthur W. Radford, assumed the task of turning fiscal guidance into strategy. The administration lopped $5 billion in authorizations from the fiscal year 1954 defense budget and then submitted a 1955 proposal for $35 billion, a figure well below the $42 billion requested by the JCS. Although the administration never reached its fiscal goals, it held defense expenditures around the $40 billion level. During the two Eisenhower administrations, the defense budget fell from 64 percent of federal spending to 47 percent and averaged about 10 percent of gross national product. Even pressured by inflation in the late 1950s and the escalating real cost of high-technology weapons, the administration held to its New Look fiscal assumptions.
To stabilize defense spending, the Eisenhower administration deemphasized conventional forces and stressed the deterrent and war-fighting potential of nuclear weapons. Inheriting a standing force of 3.5 million, the government reduced it to 2.47 million by 1960, well below levels the JCS thought safe. The manpower cuts forced the services to cancel their Korean era expansion plans and eliminate six Army divisions, 15 Air Force wings, and 300 Navy ships by 1960. Alarmed by the New Look, the JCS argued that it needed more insight on Ike’s strategic expectations. Assisted by ad hoc study groups and the newly established professional staff attached to the National Security Council, Eisenhower provided the guidance in NSC Memorandum 162/2 (October 1953), a study that directed the Department of Defense to arm all the services with nuclear weapons. Local wars of the Korean variety would have to be fought by America’s allies, who would use their own ground forces, backed by American air and sea forces.
Anxious to link the New Look to its foreign policy goals, the administration tied the exploitation of nuclear technology to the more aggressive containment of Communism. Impressed by the development of small nuclear warheads, Eisenhower believed they could be directed at more precise military targets “just as you would use a bullet or anything else.” Vice President Richard M. Nixon suggested that nuclear superiority gave the United States an exploitable edge over the Russians: “Rather than let the Communists nibble us to death all over the world in little wars we would rely in the future primarily on our mobile retaliatory power which we could use at our discretion against the major source of aggression at times and places that we chose.” Following the 1953 review of American defense policy, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles announced in January 1954 that the administration would rely upon the threat of nuclear escalation to deter or stop Communist-inspired local wars. Russian adventurism would put at risk the very existence of the Soviet Union, for the United States would “depend primarily upon a great capacity to retaliate, instantly, by means and at places of our own choosing.”
The New Look reflected the administration’s belief that the Russians would do everything within their power to weaken the United States, disrupt NATO, and draw newly independent Third World nations into the Communist orbit. In assessing Soviet military capability, the administration faced greater uncertainty. Its difficulties in collecting information took on greater importance after the Russians exploded a fusion device in 1953, since the New Look depended upon an accurate judgment of the Russians’ ability to destroy SAC’s bomber bases and America’s major cities. The administration made great strides in collecting information, but its problems allowed its critics to charge that Eisenhower was too optimistic. By 1960 the character of the Soviet threat had become a major political issue.
At the beginning of the Cold War, American intelligence experts, principally the Central Intelligence Agency, depended primarily upon human observers to report upon Russian scientific and military activities. Until the mid-1950s the flood of refugees, returning German prisoners, and Russian defectors provided reasonably good information, but improved Soviet internal security, directed by the ruthless KGB, soon made human intelligence scarce. The CIA tried to insert agents in Russia, exploit the network of spies run by the West Germans, and work with its British and French counterparts. The results were not altogether satisfactory, since the British, French, and German intelligence agencies had been penetrated by Russian agents. The CIA complicated its problems when it merged its intelligence collection and covert operations in a single Directorate of Plans, which was dominated by men who had more enthusiasm for covert action than information collection. The American government turned to technology rather than agents. Inheriting the new National Security Agency (NSA), created in 1952, the Eisenhower administration expanded its funding and staffing. NSA’s mission was to listen. Intercepting radio communications and eventually radio-transmitted phone calls, NSA stations tried to translate and analyze millions of encrypted messages, with limited success. The CIA was more successful in communications interception, tapping Russian phone lines in Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, communications intelligence did not give the CIA much confidence that it had a good grip on Russian military developments. Its military collaborators, especially Air Force intelligence, shared its disquiet.
American intelligence agencies looked for other ways to peek at Russian programs. One technical means was to establish radar stations along the borders of the Soviet Union in order to monitor aircraft and missile test flights, and by the end of the 1950s such stations ranged from Europe through Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan. There was no substitute for penetrating Soviet air space for a direct look, but the operational problems of such overflights proved difficult. In Operation SKYHOOK, the Air Force launched high-altitude balloons to transit the Soviet Union, but erratic wind currents limited their usefulness. Manned aircraft were far more reliable—and more vulnerable. In 1952–1953 Russian interceptors contested fly-around and modest overflight penetrations in Europe and Asia by the Air Force and Royal Air Force. Unless the CIA could find an aircraft that could fly above Soviet air defenses, overflights could not be made. Developed by Kelly Johnson of the Lockheed Corporation, the U-2, a thin, gull-like plane, answered the CIA’s needs, since it could fly across the Soviet Union above 70,000 feet. Making its first flight in 1956, the U-2 produced photographs from twenty to thirty flights in the next four years and gave intelligence analysts, according to one CIA official, about 90 percent of their hard data on Russian military developments. The rivalry. The result was an acceleration of America’s own intercontinental missile program. Although all of the services had experimented with missiles since 1945, no service had given its program top priority. Within the Air Force, scientific committee investigations and RAND Corporation studies cast doubt upon the future of the bomber force. Additional studies recommended that guided missiles—ballistic and cruise—join America’s deterrent force, and this position received the strong approval of the Air Force’s two most influential scientific consultants, Theodore von Karman and John von Neumann. A handful of Air Force generals urged a more aggressive missile program, prodded in part by the knowledge that the Army had assembled its own missile development team under the aggressive Wernher von Braun. The strategic part of the pro-missile argument was critical. If the United States expected to have a portion of its nuclear forces survive a Russian first strike, it needed something to complement the bomber force.
In 1955 Eisenhower assigned missile development the highest priority in military research and development. In part, the president had been persuaded by the report of his own Technical Capabilities Panel, chaired by Dr. Killian, which emphasized the growing Soviet nuclear threat and recommended a major American effort. The Air Force had already anticipated the change by establishing a special office to develop two ICBMs, the Titan and Atlas. The key specifications for the missiles were that they have a 5,500-mile range and carry a 1-megaton warhead. With Defense Department approval, the Air Force also went ahead with its intermediate-range missile and intercontinental cruise missile programs. Technically these programs were more advanced than the ICBM program and produced the Thor IRBM for deployment in 1958 and the Snark cruise missile in 1957. The Army pressed ahead with its own IRBM, Jupiter, which also passed its tests in the same period. The Air Force was already at work on a second-generation ICBM, called Minuteman, which was designed to use solid fuel, have a fully developed inertial guidance system, and be built strongly enough to place in deep, survivable concrete silos. The first-generation ICBMs, IRBMs, and Snark had the same disadvantages as the bomber force: They took time to ready for firing, and they had to be launched above ground, making a tempting target for a first strike. By 1960 the Air Force had twelve Atlas ICBMs and thirty Snarks based in the United States and four Thor squadrons stationed in England. Work on the promising Minuteman continued with ample funding.
The Navy slipped into the nuclear deterrence mission by winning official approval of its own IRBM program in the 1955 decision to give missiles high priority. The Navy, of course, had demanded nuclear weapons in the late 1940s but had thought primarily in terms of arming its carrier aircraft. Its post-Korea carriers, six vessels of the Forrestal class and the nuclear-powered Enterprise, had been designed for a flight deck compatible with a new aircraft, the Douglas A 3 D Skywarrior, a true nuclear bomber. In 1954 all the Navy’s deployed carriers bore nuclear weapons to strike Soviet ports and naval forces.
In the mid-1950s the Navy changed course. For one thing, it had a launch platform that met the test of survivability—the nuclear-powered submarine. Driven by Hyman G. Rickover, an engineering officer of genius and irascibility, the Navy had built its first nuclear-powered submarine, Nautilus, operational in 1955. An expert at bureaucratic politics, Rickover had built a nuclear power coalition that included his own Navy staff, the Atomic Energy Commission (in which he also held office), Congress, and the Westinghouse and General Electric corporations. Rickover saw “his” nuclear submarines as weapons to attack ships, but a new chief of naval operations, Arleigh A. Burke, saw the nuclear submarine as a missile carrier for submerged strikes at land targets. The Navy, however, did not have a missile, since it had worked primarily on the Regulus cruise missile for both warships and surfaced submarines. In 1957 Burke redirected the Navy IRBM program toward a solid-fueled missile that could be launched from a submerged submarine. For the missile he followed the Air Force model and created a Special Projects Office, whose staff, the AEC, and the Lockheed Corporation produced the 1,500-mile Polaris missile by 1960. Because the missile had a limited payload and accuracy, its warhead could destroy only an area target. Nevertheless, the relative invulnerability of the launch platform made the fleet ballistic missile (FBM) an attractive addition to the deterrent force.
The White House and the Russians assisted Burke. To review the effectiveness of America’s nuclear posture, the Science Advisory Committee to the Office of Defense Mobilization had established a special “security resources panel” in April 1957. When this group, known as the Gaither Committee, made its report the following November, the Sputnik crisis gave its study special importance. The Gaither Committee report emphasized the nation’s vulnerability to a nuclear attack and the pitiable state of its air-defense and civil defense programs. The only thing that stood between the United States and atomic Armageddon was SAC’s bombers. The Gaither Committee did not think SAC should bear the burden alone. When the Navy in 1957 proposed that it develop three missile submarines, the administration authorized five submarines and moved the operational date forward from 1962 to 1960. Rickover cooperated in supporting the construction of fleet ballistic missile submarines, as long as they were nuclear-powered. In 1960 the first George Washington–class fleet ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) went on patrol with sixteen Polaris sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).