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Did Ike Say "After You"?

For those interested in some of the arcana of military space history, over at, in reference to yesterday's Fox News column, Matte Bille posted:

It is a good article, but I must point out part of the premise is incorrect. Rand writes,

"We now know, as a result of documents unclassified only in the past few years, that the Eisenhower administration wanted the Soviets to be the first..."

I have been poking into this for the last three years (my book The First Space Race, sponsored by the NASA History Office, will be out next spring), and there is no evidence for this. Donald Quarles pointed out to Ike after the fact that "the Soviets have unintentionally done us a good turn," by establishing the freedom of space, but that's evidence the US was surprised, not that it planned things this way. When the 1955 Stewart Committee picked Vanguard over the more mature Project Orbiter, the Navy (Vangarud) and WvB (Orbiter) were promising almost identical schedules. There is no document, unless I've totally missed something big (in which case please tell me) that even hints we planned things to come out the way they did. Most American leaders assumed the US would be first because the Russians were perceived as technological imcompetents, but as the SecDef, Charlie Wilson, said publicly, he didn't care who was first. Von Braun argued that being first was very important and justified a crash program, but everyone just assumed he was shilling for his own approach (which of course was part of his intention) and ignored him.

UPI columnist Jim Bennett responds:

Here's what I said about it in my chapter in the Hudson Institute book 2020 Forecast (2001):

Background. A useful understanding of the prospects for space exploration and development over the coming twenty years requires a clear understanding the origins of space activity in the United States and elsewhere. These origins have their roots in the post-World War Two assessment of German rocketry achievements undertaken in the USA, the USSR, Britain, and elsewhere. The achievement of the practical means for entering space by Germany, combined with the development of nuclear weapons by the USA, left the militaries of the major powers with the determination to exploit new technologies and the fear of being left behind by others. American defense authorities commissioned the "Project RAND" effort by Douglas Aircraft, which eventually became the RAND Corporation, thus inventing a third element of Cold War defense activities, the think tank.

This activity led to the 1946 RAND study Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Space Ship, (1) which clearly indicted that rocket-launched artificial satellites were practically feasible in the near future, and suggested some immediate military roles of value for them. Primary among these was military reconnaissance. This was desirable both for operational reasons (the superior vantage point from space) and for legal-political reasons (the fact that a satellite could pass over a foreign country without permission, while a reconnaissance airplane could not). This study led to the commissioning of a
subsequent, highly classified detailed effort labeled Project Feed Back, (2) whose task was to create a practical high-level definition for a launch vehicle and satellite reconnaissance system. This was an audacious effort, considering that the most advanced launch vehicle flown at that time was a two-stage upper-altitude probe using a V-2 as first stage. The Project Feed Back report was delivered in 1954, and its recommendations were apparently approved and put into implementation shortly thereafter. This project eventually delivered the satellite reconnaissance system generally known by the title of its civilian spinoff (and cover), Tiros. This story can be understood through the now-declassified Feed Back documents, unavailable until the end of the Cold War.

This history is important because it facilitates an accurate understanding of the actual drivers of space activity. These have always been, and are now, primarily the requirement to deliver high-quality satellite reconnaissance for national-security purposes. The immediate corollary of this is that the civilian programs of the US and the USSR have always been secondary to the national-security activities. In the beginning the civil space programs were assembled primarily for propaganda or cover purposes. In fact there is substantial evidence that the Eisenhower administration viewed the impending launch of the first Soviet satellite, Sputnik, with satisfaction, as it would permit the precedent of innocent overflight of national territory to be set by the USSR.

What caught the Eisenhower administration by surprise was the intense public reaction to the Sputnik launch. It was the need to demonstrate American technological prowess without revealing the actual state of American technology being prepared for the Feed Back-inspired reconnaissance system that led the White House to create what is now the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as a visible, civilian answer to Soviet accomplishments.

The principal reference for this is ( 2. Lipp, J.E., and Salter, R.M., Eds. Project Feed Back Summary Report, Contract No. AF 33(038)-6413, The Rand Corporation, March 1, 1954). The discussion therein of the political and international law issues in reconnaissance overflight makes it clear that the report viewed a Soviet first overflight as a positive outcome. Since the report was subsequently implemented essentially as written, so far as can be determined from open records, it is a reasonable assumption (but not a proven fact) that their recommendations on first overflight were also adopted as national security policy.

I would be interested in hearing whether the Eisenhower quote was in public or in private, and if in private, whether it was made in the company of people all of whom had access to the reality of the reconnaissance program. Eisenhower was rather famous for deliberate misdirection through comments, and had a long history of using deception strategically (most famously in the Normandy-Pas de Calais deception for D-Day) and in would be entirely in character, and strategically sensible, if he had deliberately created a smokescreen through his
"inadvertently" comment.

Matt Bille is not going to get to the bottom of this matter with the aid of the NASA History Office. I doubt that NACA or NASA had access to the national security information and documents that dealt with the issue of first overflight before the fact. Why would they? They had absolutely no need to know, and this was one of the nation's central national security secrets. Their job was to be the civilian smoke screen. Ike knew that they would be more effective at the role if they didn't have the whole background.

I don't have the smoking gun on this issue. That's why my chapter says "suggests that". But the Feed Back report makes it clear that the people who created the program had a positive desire for a Soviet first flight. This program was central to US national security in the eyes of the Administration, from Ike on down. My judgement on the matter is that the Administration, acting through the deepest level of national-security apparatus, had at least biased American activities to make it so. I don't think this can be disproven (or proven) until the national security archives are fully opened.

I don't personally have a lot of first-hand knowledge of the issue, but there's a comments section below for anyone interested in discoursing on it further. I'm off to an all-day meeting.

And by the way, today is the forty-fifth anniversary of Sputnik.

[Update on Saturday afternoon]

Len Cormier comments at

All of this occurred pre-NASA. In 1956 and 1957, there were only two staff members in the National Academy of Sciences IGY Earth Satellite Office--Gil Reid and myself (plus secretaries). To the best of my knowlege, the decision to continue solely with Vanguard rather than Jupiter was entirely influenced by the strong desire to have the U.S. IGY satellite launch vehicle to be derived from a research rocket (Viking) rather than from a military ballistic missile (like the Redstone).

However, three key persons on the National Academy's IGY Satellite Panel--Dick Porter, the Chairman, Jim Van Allen, head of the Working Group on Satellite Instrumentation, and Bill Pickering, head of the Working Group on Tracking and Computation (and Director of JPL)--felt strongly that the U.S. should also back von Braun's Jupiter-C concept. The "race" aspects of the satellite launch business were freely acknowledged at the time; nonetheless, the timing of Sputnik was still a surprise. On October 2, Gen. Blagonravoff had replied to my question of "when" with the answer "na kanune" -- a rather ambiguous term meaning "on the eve." This could mean in a day or two (which did occur), but also a month or months in the future.

Porter was on the Homer Jo Stewart committe and voted for a switch in priorities to Jupiter-C--even though Dick worked for GE, the contractor for the Vanguard first stage engine. Van Allen and Pickering--with Porter's encouragement--worked quietly with von Braun to prepare Explorer I and the second, third and integral fourth stages derivived from the WAC Corporal. As is well known, Jupiter-C wasn't given the go-ahead until after Sputnik and the Vanguard failure.

The Vanguard was actually quite a remarkable and sophisticated vehicle for its time. It's gross mass was only a ten tonnes.

As for the benefits of unrestricted satellite overflights, this seems to be have been well recognized before Sputnik. No one talked about it much, and no one wanted to make an issue of it before it became a fait accompli. From the point of view of our "civilian" satellite office at the National Academy, the question of who launched first was not expected to be particularly important for unrestricted overflight--since this principal seemed to be already established by the international and cooperative nature of IGY--including the hoped-for launch of satellites during IGY. The actual launch by either the USSR or the USA would only confirm this principal.

Based on this, and the consensus apparently reached in the comments section, it is indeed too strong to say that it was actually Administration policy to let the Russians go first, though it also seems that they weren't particularly upset about it, either, at least until the public impact became clear. I'll put an erratum in my Fox column next week.

This discussion (particularly Len's comment) also shows the clear historical value of capturing the memories of people who were there, while we still can.

Posted by Rand Simberg at October 04, 2002 08:05 AM
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I must respond that Jim Bennett's assertion rests on a very shaky foundation. Because the Feed Back report noted that there was a political benefit to having the USSR launch first does not mean this became US policy. The declassified NSC meeting minutes concerning the subject don't mention it, and Quarles statement to Eisenhower disproves it, since Quarles was in charge of US satellite efforts for DoD and therefore would have been in on any plan to letthe USSR launch first.

Posted by Matt Bille at October 4, 2002 08:30 AM

Bille says "Donald Quarles pointed out to Ike after the fact that "the Soviets have unintentionally done us a good turn," by establishing the freedom of space, but that's evidence the US was surprised, not that it
planned things this way.

Posted by Jim Bennett at October 4, 2002 11:02 AM

(part 2) The Quarles quote characterizes the Soviet's motivation as unintentional. How does that disprove that we didn't intentionally try to provoke it? As for the lack of NSC discussion, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I will grant that if the US was hoping the Soviets would launch first, this was probably a stronger driver in 1954 than in 1957; by the latter date, I suspect the prospect of the IGY-related scientific satellite launches were seen as mitigating the overflight problem substantially. However, the overflight issue was certainly an issue in any consideration of possible orbital activity prior to IGY.

I'll be very interested in reading the Bille book when it comes out. I hope it gives due regard to the Eisenhower Adminsitration's motivations in protecting the existing, classified space program started in 1954, which have gotten much less attention than they deserve in standard histories.

Posted by Jim Bennett at October 4, 2002 11:14 AM

All I know is that since the Russians were the first into space this caused our space program to produce some of the best footage of rockets blowing up into colorful fireballs.

Posted by Hefty at October 4, 2002 12:18 PM

There are significant errors in Mr. Bennett's assertions. For instance, his claim that "This project eventually delivered the satellite reconnaissance system generally known by the title of its civilian spinoff (and cover), Tiros." contains several errors. First, Tiros was a weather satellite, not a reconnaissance system. Second, it was not a cover for anything. Third, the path from the Feed Back report to Tiros is certainly not a straight one. Feed Back did not progress very far for quite awhile and when it did get going, it spawned the Air Force's Advanced Reconnaissance System (ARS). After several renamings, that program became the Samos reconnaissance satellite. If one wants to be really picky, you can trace Tiros back to Feed Back. But the problem is that Feed Back proposed a television-based reconnaissance system. The Air Force rejected such a system in 1956. Tiros did not really get started as a television-based weather satellite until 1957, and then as a US Army (not Air Force) project. It only really advanced as a NASA program in 1959.

If the author wants to draw a path from Feed Back to an operational satellite program, then the proper path is to the actual reconnaissance satellites, both overt and covert, such as Samos and CORONA.

Furthermore, if the author wants to draw a path from Feed Back to political policy, then he needs to visit the intervening steps, which included, most importantly, the National Security Council, but also the National Academy of Sciences and even the CIA. And most importantly, he must look at the role played by Donald Quarles. Yet he makes no mention of those steps or the documentary evidence that they produced.

Furthermore, I am slightly surprised by Bennett's comment: "Matt Bille is not going to get to the bottom of this matter with the aid of the NASA History Office. I doubt that NACA or NASA had access to the national security information and documents that dealt with the issue of first overflight before the fact. Why would they? They had absolutely no need to know, and this was one of the nation's central national security secrets."

I think that Mr. Bennett misunderstands the role of the NASA History Office. The History Office itself sponsors research, allowing an author to go where the evidence is. They do not simply provide documents. In addition, they have many documents collected from non-NASA/NACA sources, such as the Eisenhower Presidential Library. These have been collected by their own staff and donated by other researchers (such as myself). If he wishes to pursue this subject, I strongly suggest that he visit the office himself and use their collection. They are open five days a week, from 8:30-4:30.

I strongly suspect that Mr. Bennett is unaware of the considerable number of documents that have been declassified on this subject (many at my request) that have pretty much put this issue to rest. In particular, the relevant documents from the Eisenhower Presidential Library were declassified starting in 1995 following my submission of Mandatory Declassification Review requests. Most of the relevant documents were released within a year of my requests, with the rest trickling out over the next several years. In addition, the State Department declassified a large number of National Security Council records around 1997. These contained much useful information on this subject and have been available for several years now. They can be accessed at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene Kansas, the National Archives Archives II facility in College Park, Maryland, and in the NASA History Office.

I also think that Mr. Bennett may be unaware of the considerable amount that has already been written on this subject. I suggest that the author read the following:

Dwayne A. Day, "Cover Stories and Hidden Agendas: Early American Space and National Security Policy"

Michael J. Neufeld, "Orbiter, Overflight, and the First Satellite: New Light on the Vanguard Decision"

Both essays are contained in: Reconsidering Sputnik: Forty Years Since The Soviet Satellite. Edited by Roger Launius, John M. Logsdon, and Robert W. Smith. Harwood Academic Press.

In addition, I suggest looking at my chapter on this subject in Eye in the Sky, edited by Dwayne A. Day, John M. Logsdon, and Brian Latell. Smithsonian Institution Press.

Finally, for information on how Feed Back was actually enacted within the Air Force, I suggest looking at a memoir written by former Air Force Captain James Coolbaugh in an issue of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society that I edited several years ago. I do not have the citation at hand, but can look it up.

The documentary record on this is very clear and there is a very good chain of evidence. There also do not appear to be any missing documents that we are aware of based upon the existing documentation.

The documents that we do have make a pretty strong case. If one is going to argue that the US "wanted" the Soviet Union to be first in space, then one must provide an equally strong chain of evidence. But drawing a line between two distant points does not constitute proof. Handwaiving in history is not allowed.

Posted by Dwayne A. Day at October 4, 2002 03:08 PM

Leaving aside the extensive sources quoted above by both sides, which I simply do not have the time to delve into, to me, the proposition that we wanted the Soviets to be first in space sounds a bit too much like sour grapes for to be true.

Posted by Carey Gage at October 4, 2002 03:52 PM

My principal purpose in discussing Feed Back and its consequences was to point out that US space policies prior to Sputnik were driven primarily by the existing classified recon satellite activities and the need to protect them, part of which involved precluding a Soviet propaganda campaign against overflight. The creation of NASA cannot be understood properly except in this context. My understanding of Eisenhower Administration attitudes is influenced by conversations I had with the former Feed Back team leader, Stuart Kreiger, subsequently co-founder of Planning Research Corporation, who I came to know when he served as Chairman of American Rocket Company in the late 80s. I made several only very partly successful attempts to obtain the Feed Back report through FOIA at that time, at his urging. As it was still classified, he was only willing to discuss its effects on subsequent decisions in somewhat elliptical terms. However, it was clear to me that many people involved in the program were strongly concerned about the innocent overflight issue and were prepared to accept a Soviet first flight as an acceptable solution. From the description of the evidence he has obtained and reviewed, I will agree that Mr. Bille has indeed done the research into available national security documentation and I have no reason to believe that he is wrong in stating there is no evidence to support the theory that the Eisenhower administration had a policy to deliberately provoke the Soviets into launching first, or to deliberately delay US IGY activities to that effect. I continue to believe that the Eisenhower Administration's initial complacency over Sputnik stems primarily from satisfaction over the resolution of the overflight issue. The Quarles quote would seem to support that interpretation. There may have been a bias (never riased to policy) against a first US flight during the period prior to agreement on the IGY approach. Unless further evidence comes to light, (and it would be surprising if there were any such evidence) Mr. Bille's research has disproven the speculation to the effect that there may have been an active, official policy to make a Soviet first flight happen.

Posted by Jim Bennett at October 5, 2002 08:23 AM

It is good to see Mr. Bennett's comments. A copy of the Feed Back report can be found in the NASA book Exploring the Unknown, Volume 1. We had an older version of the report at that time. Shortly after it came out, we obtained a complete version.

But Feed Back is not the key here. The key is the documents that followed, particularly the National Security Council documents, all of which have been declassified and which are referenced in the works that I previously cited. As I noted, this subject has been pretty much put to bed by myself and Michael Neufeld. But although we closed it, there were several there before us. Most notably, Stephen Ambrose wrote about it in the early 1980s, Walter McDougal covered it in his very important book The Heavens and the Earth, and Cargill Hall wrote about it in Exploring the Unknown, Volume 1. They had the broad outlines, but not the key documents. We acquired them later (ca. 1996-1999), but they pointed us in the right direction.

Posted by Dwayne A. Day at October 6, 2002 06:37 PM

I think the point of whether or not we knowingly wanted the Russians to be first is a mute point by the fact that we proved to be mostly unsuccessful at building rockets at that time. It would have been on thing if we had designed and built a known working rocket that we could have launch at any moment. Except that we were waiting for the Russians to go first to create precedent concerning space bound over flight. But before Sputnik and further after Sputnik the space program produced failure after failure. I think the American public sentiment at the time, that we failed, was quite justified when everyone had to witness Vanguard I turning into a rubble heap on a live nationally televised broadcast.

Posted by Hefty at October 7, 2002 11:06 AM

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