As Kim Il Sung’s tanks were crossing the 38th Parallel, Colonel Bernard Adolph Schriever was completing his year as a student at the National War College at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington. The War College was a necessary stop for an officer with a future and was part of the apprenticeship Schriever had been undergoing for the momentous role that lay ahead. These years following the end of the Second World War were to be a time of learning and preparation for him and to prove a time of professional peril as well.
After George Kenney had told him just before his return from the Pacific in September 1945 to find himself a job that he liked, Schriever had decided that the place to go was Headquarters, U.S. Army Air Forces, at the Pentagon. This, as he later put it in an old Texas saying, was “where they were cutting the bacon.” He wanted to get involved in research and development. Technology and the seemingly limitless possibilities it held for the air arm were an exhilarating prospect for those attuned to grasp it. The Germans had dramatized those possibilities by surprising Allied airmen late in the war with the Messerschmitt 262, the first jet fighter to see combat, and with the V-2, the first ballistic rocket. The V-2 was inaccurate, with an average range of only 180 miles, but terrifying nonetheless when the approximately 1,650 pounds of high explosive in its warhead detonated on impact. Bennie had initially gone back to Wright Field near Dayton, Ohio, still the Army Air Forces’ main research and development center. He had been disillusioned. The officers there seemed parochial and, worse, they appeared not to see his colonel’s eagles but still regarded him as the lieutenant who had once been a test pilot. The best he could hope for there was someday to run a laboratory. He might, perhaps, be rewarded with the single star of a brigadier before he retired. As always with Schriever, if he was going to get involved in something, he wanted to do it at a level that mattered, and so he went to the Pentagon. With the endorsement of Kenney, he was accepted by Brigadier General Alden R. Crawford, chief of the Air Staff’s Research and Engineering Division. While Crawford hired Schriever on Kenney’s recommendation, he did not know at first precisely what he would do with him. Within a few days of Schriever’s arrival for duty at the Pentagon in January 1946, Hap Arnold solved that problem by sending for him and starting him on his life’s vocation.
When Arnold had been able to begin the process of making science and technology the handmaidens of postwar air power in the early fall of 1944, with the defeat of Germany and Japan now certain, he had turned to an acquaintance from his California days, the renowned Hungarian aeronautical engineer Theodore von Kármán. Robert Millikan, the president of Caltech and Arnold’s other California friend in the world of science, had brought von Kármán to Caltech in 1930 as an émigré from the growing threat of Nazism. Von Kármán was an engagingly eccentric man with curly salt-and-pepper hair that was receding, bushy eyebrows, and a prominent nose. No matter how many years he lived in the United States, he would forever speak English with a pronounced accent from his native tongue, turning all w’s into v’s. He became distinctly American, however, in what he wanted in a glass, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, which he drank straight, and he was rarely without a cigar, unless he had put it down to turn his attention to an attractive woman. Yet despite considering himself a connoisseur of the opposite sex, he never married, sharing a large house in Pasadena with his equally eccentric mother and sister.
Von Kármán had been valuable to Arnold on several occasions during the war. On this historic one in September 1944, they met in the back of a staff car at the end of the runway at La Guardia Airport. Von Kármán was recuperating from intestinal surgery at a sanatorium at Lake George, New York, and Arnold was on his way to the second Quebec Conference of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and their Combined Chiefs of Staff. After von Kármán had recovered, Arnold said, he wanted him to come to the Pentagon and organize a team of “practical scientists” who would compose for Arnold a blueprint of the future of air power. “What I am interested in is what will be the shape of the air war, of air power, in five years, or ten, or sixtyfive….I want to know what the impact of jet propulsion is, of atomic energy, of electronics.” After some hesitation and assurances from Arnold that von Kármán would be reporting directly to him and not some intermediary, the Hungarian agreed.
By the end of that month von Kármán was in Washington recruiting his team. When complete, it would consist of thirty-three members, including several Army Air Forces officers assigned as specialists and military assistants. Its star was Lee DuBridge, a Cornell and University of Wisconsin physicist who was then heading the Radiation Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Rad Lab as it was called, which had produced remarkable advances in radar for the AAF and the Navy. After the war, he was to succeed Millikan as president of Caltech. In a briefing for the team, Arnold told the scientists to “forget the past; regard the equipment now available only as the basis for [your] boldest predictions.” As soon as hostilities diminished enough to permit it, he wanted von Kármán to travel to Europe and scour the Continent for wartime technical secrets that had remained hidden. To provide von Kármán with the status he needed, Arnold awarded him the protocol rank of major general. He also had him officially designated as consultant on scientific matters to the Army Air Forces and he and his team as the service’s Scientific Advisory Group.
On May 1, 1945, only five days after Hitler put a pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger, von Kármán and six members of the team were in Paris on their way to Germany. (One of those he chose to take along was a Chinese-born scientist and protégé of von Kármán named Tsien Hsue-shen, a leading rocket expert. Ten years later, partly as a result of the anti-Communist hysteria in the United States, Tsien was to return to China and become the father of its intercontinental ballistic missile program.) The first trove they encountered was a large clandestine laboratory that American troops had overrun in a forest near Braunschweig (Brunswick) in northern Germany. The fifty-six-building complex was managed by a German aeronautical engineer named Adolf Bäumker, who happened to have been von Kármán’s assistant when he had directed the aeronautical laboratory at Aachen before immigrating to Caltech. The secret laboratory specialized in advanced research into aircraft design, ballistics, engines, jet propulsion, and guided missiles. The team’s interrogations of Bäumker and others on his staff led to caches in nearby salt mines and other hiding places of some 3 million documents, which they ordered microfilmed and shipped back to the United States. A team member from the Engineering Division at Wright Field was so impressed by the swept-back wing, or arrowhead, design used in the Me-262 jet fighter to increase performance that he cabled back to Ohio to have the B-47, then on the drawing boards as the first postwar American strategic jet bomber, changed from straight to swept-back wing.
At Munich, they made more astonishing discoveries. To escape capture by the Soviets, Wernher von Braun, Germany’s principal rocket designer, and General Walter Dornberger, the head of its rocket program, had surrendered to U.S. forces, along with about 400 other engineers and technicians who had worked at the rocket center at Peenemünde up on the Baltic. While interrogating these two men and others on the V-2 as well as the V-1—a relatively slow and low-flying cruise missile driven by a pulse-jet engine that had also been used to attack England—team members learned that the Germans had worked out the drawings and computations for a two-stage rocket that would throw a warhead 3,000 miles, the first step in building a missile that could fly even farther to reach the United States. Other surprises followed, including the discovery that the Germans had twelve supersonic wind tunnels in operation or under construction at five different research centers. The best of these were dismantled and shipped home as well. Von Kármán was astounded at the progress German aviation and rocket specialists had made and thankful that Hitler and his generals had failed to take full advantage and transform these discoveries into practical weaponry. Had they done so, he believed that they certainly would have prolonged the war.
The urgency of the team’s report was determined by the accelerating decline in Arnold’s health with his third heart attack in the fall of 1945. Von Kármán was back in Europe seeking more information that October, and had a trip to Japan planned as well, when Arnold called from his sickbed in Washington and asked him to hurry the report’s completion. They agreed on a deadline of December 15, 1945. Von Kármán had already parceled out the work among the team members, each of whom was writing or collaborating in the writing of thirty-two monographs on subjects all across the span of technology from supersonic flight, to heat-and television-guided missiles, to more arcane subjects like terminal ballistics and destructive effects. Now the pace became a quick-step march and then double time to the finish. A few days before the December deadline, the thirty-two monographs, grouped by general subject into twelve volumes, with von Kármán’s separate introductory and summary volume, were stacked on a table in the Pentagon office assigned to the group. Von Kármán had entitled his volume Science: The Key to Air Supremacy, but no one had given thought to a title for the study as a whole. Major Thaddeus “Teddy” Walkowicz, a team member who was to become a close friend of Bennie Schriever, suggested Toward New Horizons. (Walkowicz, like Jimmy Doolittle, was one of the handful of Air Corps officers who had earned a Ph.D., his also from MIT.) Von Kármán liked the suggestion and so Arnold got the blueprint for the future he had requested, prophetic in title and text. The monographs were not how-to-do-its—detailed plans for supersonic planes or missiles or for advanced radars and other electronic devices. Rather, they were guides, elaborate descriptions of what was feasible given further exploration and innovation. In what was to be the most enduring heritage of the report, they pointed the way.
In his letter of transmittal to the general, von Kármán restated the maxim both men shared: the Army Air Forces had become the principal defensive and offensive arm of the nation and the strength of that arm depended on a continuous input of technological and scientific progress for unforeseeable years to come. “The men in charge of the future Air Forces should always remember that problems never have final or universal solutions,” von Kármán wrote his friend and patron, “and only a constant inquisitive attitude toward science and a ceaseless and swift adaptation to new developments can maintain the security of this nation through world air supremacy” (emphasis added). There was truth in this maxim and there was also a dark side to it that neither man seems to have perceived. Arnold was being given the blueprint he wanted for a high-tech postwar air force. He was also being given the blueprint of the postwar arms race with the Soviet Union. As von Kármán had eloquently stated, there could be no rest if preeminence was to be maintained, and by 1945 technology had reached a liftoff point where, as long as there was fear to provide the money to fuel it, technology would become self-racing. What destructive devices could be created would be created simply because they were possible and the other side might create them if the United States did not. And there would always be more weaponry to create, because technology was now without limits in its inventiveness.
As part of the process of institutionalizing technology within the Army Air Forces, von Kármán recommended perpetuating the Scientific Advisory Group. “A permanent Scientific Advisory Group, consisting of qualified officers and eminent civilian scientific consultants, should be available to the Commanding General, reporting directly to him on novel developments and advising him on the planning of scientific research,” he urged. He offered to serve as chairman. He also argued that if science was to be drafted into the service of the AAF, the AAF in turn had to create an infrastructure of well-equipped research and testing centers. The German achievements, he said, were “not the result of any superiority in their technical and scientific personnel … but rather due to the very substantial support enjoyed by their research institutions in obtaining expensive research equipment, such as large supersonic wind tunnels.”
The AAF’s only research and development facilities were those at Wright Field and the proving ground at Eglin Field in Florida. Both were “definitely inadequate,” von Kármán said. Wind tunnels require large amounts of electricity to operate. The wind tunnel at Wright Field could be used only an hour a day and then only by prior arrangement with the local power company. With competing demand from the many industries in the Dayton, Ohio, area, electricity was not available in sufficient quantity nor would it be in the future. Von Kármán’s discoveries in Germany and the hopelessness of replicating them at Wright Field had already instigated a proposal by the Engineering Division that October for the initial link in the infrastructure von Kármán wanted, a new Air Engineering Development Center at a site with plenty of hydroelectric power. The outcome was the building of a major research and testing center for aerodynamics and propulsion at Tullahoma, Tennessee, named the Arnold Engineering Development Center in honor of the general after his death. Among the first of the facilities installed there were the pick of the German wind tunnels von Kármán’s team had dismantled so that they could be put back together at a proper site in the United States. Also constructed was a replica of a high-altitude engine test stand they had run across. It had been devised for the Luftwaffe by the Bavarian Motor Works (BMW), whose luxury automobiles were to delight American yuppies decades after the war.
Arnold was extremely pleased. He decorated von Kármán and members of the team with the Meritorious Civilian Service Award. A week after receiving the study he forwarded a copy to General Carl Spaatz, who was now functioning as his deputy, with a memorandum saying he hoped Spaatz would agree with him that “it is an exhaustive report, and one that should be used as a guide for scientific and preplanning people for many years to come.” He also welcomed von Kármán’s recommendation to perpetuate the Scientific Advisory Group. In a letter to Spaatz earlier that month he had reiterated his conviction that it was of the utmost importance to retain, in the postwar period, the unhindered access to civilian scientific talent that the AAF had so benefited from during the war years. “We must not lose these contacts,” he wrote. He and Spaatz and von Kármán met and agreed that the Scientific Advisory Group would become a permanent organization within the AAF under a new name, the Scientific Advisory Board, with von Kármán continuing to head it.
Von Kármán’s patron had also begun to focus that fall and winter of 1945 on ways to implement ideas he was garnering from the professor. He had the staff draw up a plan to initiate twenty-eight different pilot projects in guided missiles in the spring of 1946, from short-range, twenty-mile rockets to intercontinental ones, and set aside $34 million in wartime money to fund them. He allocated as well $10 million to the Douglas Aircraft Company for a one-year program of long-range studies. The first study, completed in May 1946, was on the feasibility of launching a satellite into space for a variety of military uses from photoreconnaissance to weather reporting and communications. The Douglas enterprise, called Project RAND, for “research and development,” was separated from the aircraft firm within a couple of years and metamorphosed into the RAND Corporation, located in Santa Monica, California, the think tank that provided the soon to be independent U.S. Air Force with strategic and tactical analyses throughout the Cold War.
Then, in January 1946, with less than a month to go before his retirement to his ranch in Northern California, Arnold had taken his final step. He had summoned Schriever and given him the mission of cultivating relations with the civilian scientific community in the postwar years through a new Scientific Liaison Branch to be established within the Research and Engineering Division.