The most intractable problems of the Cold War, such as the division of Germany, the uncertain status of a splintered Berlin, and Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, could not be solved as long as a strong Soviet Union existed. Although no one could have foreseen it when Bernard Schriever assembled his small band at the Schoolhouse in Inglewood in the summer of 1954, their greatest achievement and that of all those who were to labor with them was to help buy the time needed for the Soviet Union to collapse of its own internal contradictions. Time was the only solution. A nuclear war was certainly not the answer. And until the coming of Mikhail Gorbachev, whose attempts at reform hastened the collapse, the leaders of the Soviet state regarded the post-Second World War status quo as nonnegotiable. But they could not evade the cumulative effects of time.
The Soviet society that Joseph Stalin fashioned was not sustainable. The three pillars of the state—the Communist Party, the military, and the secret police—were costly to maintain. The precise figure is difficult to arrive at, but a high percentage of total production went to the military. To urbanize and feed the workers in his new heavy industries, Stalin had utterly destroyed initiative in Soviet agriculture with his forced draft system of collective and state farms. Russia, once the breadbasket of Europe through its possession of Ukraine, no longer grew enough food to feed itself. Khrushchev’s effort to revitalize agriculture, constrained as it was by this straitjacket of state control and centralized planning, failed, and he began the imports of American corn and wheat that were to continue under his successor, Leonid Brezhnev. The system produced no products that could be sold abroad to renew wealth that would offset such imports and help pay the costs of maintaining this expensive state. The Soviet Union’s only exports were raw materials, such as petroleum and natural gas. Much of the latter two were wasted providing cheap energy to its East European possessions to try to keep their restive populations from rising as the Hungarians had in 1956, and in subsidizing client states like Fidel Castro’s Cuba, which had its own unworkable Marxist economy. Once a source of power and prestige, the empire had become a costly burden.
The Soviet Union, as heir to czarist Russia, was the last of the great multinational empires. The restiveness of its many peoples extended from Ukraine in the west through Kazakhstan and the other former khanates of Central Asia in the east that the czarist army had sabered into submission. Stalin kept the ethnic tensions under control through terror, but his successors were less hard men and tensions grew with the years. The rot fully set in after Brezhnev’s overthrow of Khrushchev in 1964. He and his associates were stand-still men who wanted to enjoy their perquisites, in Brezhnev’s case young mistresses, a tame form of wild boar shooting, and a collection of expensive foreign cars.
“All that stuff about Communism is a tall tale for popular consumption. After all, we can’t leave the people with no faith,” he once said to his brother, Yakov, shocking his sibling, who was a firm believer in the Party line. One would have thought Brezhnev might have learned something from watching the American debacle in Vietnam. He did not. Instead, he demoralized his own army by sending it into a fruitless war in Afghanistan in 1979 to rescue Afghan Communist protégés who had seized power and provoked tradition-bound Muslim tribesmen into revolt against unbelievers. The Soviet empire was like a house whose beams have been consumed by powderpost beetles. From the outside, the beams appear sturdy. Yet when the point of a knife is thrust into one, the thin crust cracks open to reveal nothing but the powdered wood residue the beetles have left inside. Gorbachev’s endeavors at reform during the latter half of the 1980s brought civil liberties, but also wrought a plunge in the already marginal living conditions of ordinary Russians as his tinkering made the sclerotic economic system worse. In 1989, in his desperate attempt to hold the Soviet Union together, he let Eastern Europe go and the Berlin Wall was torn down. Enraged, the old guard of the Party attempted to overthrow him in August 1991, in a coup that failed. Boris Yeltsin then led the Russian Republic out of the Soviet state and the empire that so many had for so long thought invincible broke into fragments.
In doing so much to foster a nuclear stalemate, Schriever and his associates contributed mightily to buying the time necessary for the Soviet Union to exhaust itself. By starting in the mid-1950s, before it was too late, and then winning the race for a practical ICBM, they warded off the possibility of blackmail that Trevor Gardner had so dreaded and also discouraged nuclear adventures by the Soviets. After Khrushchev’s humiliation in the Cuban Missile Crisis, no Soviet statesman would ever again dare such a gamble. Nor could any Soviet leader hope to prevail in a surprise attack after the deployment of Minuteman in 1962 and the growing presence beneath the seas of the Navy’s Polaris missile-firing submarines. The same dilemma applied to the United States once the Soviets reached parity with their own solid-fuel ICBMs and missile-firing submarines around 1970. No American leader could contemplate a first strike, as it was called, against the Soviet Union without knowing that enough of Russia’s nuclear arsenal would survive intact to destroy the United States in turn. A nuclear stalemate was complete.
The strategists referred to the condition as Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD. There was nothing mad about the grim equation. It made perfect sense by enforcing a nuclear peace. The arms race should have ended there. It was senseless to go on, but go on it did on both sides at the cost of trillions. Technology was in the saddle of a horse named Fear in a race of human folly. Minuteman went through two transformations into missiles always bigger and better. Minute-man II, with its range of 7,021 miles, a more powerful warhead, and accuracy to within a mile, was succeeded in 1971 by Minuteman III. It could fly 8,083 miles and was the first ICBM to carry multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles, called MIRVs. Its warhead was fitted with three MIRVs, each yielding 375 kilotons, the equivalent of thirty Hiroshima bombs, and each released at timed intervals onto a different target with an accuracy of 800 feet. The 1,000 of these third-generation Minutemen deployed by the United States thus became the equivalent of 3,000 rockets. The Soviets were always matching, and to humanity’s ultimate good fortune always deepening the stalemate, until time could do its work.
Purchasing the time in which the Soviet Union could self-destruct was not the only accomplishment of Schriever and those he led. Their ICBMs became more than weapons, they became vehicles that opened the exploration of space. John Glenn, the first American to circle the earth in February 1962 in NASA’s Mercury program, was lofted on an Atlas rocket and orbited and returned to earth in a modification of the same Mark 2 hydrogen bomb reentry vehicle used on Thor. The technology that applied to bringing a bomb back into the atmosphere without burning the bomb up made it possible to do the same with a man. The second-generation Titan ICBM, Titan II, was the lifting horse in Gemini, NASA’s 1965 follow-on program in its progress to the moon. With a booster stage thrust of 430,000 pounds, this ICBM was able to hoist into orbit a spacecraft large enough for two men to perfect the rendezvous and docking operations in space that were a necessary precursor to the moon voyage. The venture that had been forced to rely on Simon Ramo to round up the technogical expertise needed because the American aircraft industry was an aerospace desert in the mid-1950s generated a vast aerospace industry that would carry the United States into the twenty-first century as the world’s sole superpower. The question became not the quantity and quality of American military power, but whether the leaders of the United States would wield it wisely or foolishly, as the war in Iraq would so aptly illustrate.
Schriever was unable to obtain control of the space photoreconnaissance system for the Air Force after Discoverer succeeded and became the covert Corona. Again on the advice of Killian and Kistiakowsky, as well as that of Edwin Land, Eisenhower established a new ultra-clandestine office to jointly manage reconnaissance satellites with the CIA. Under President Kennedy, it was named the National Reconnaissance Office and kept so hush-hush that its very existence was secret. The NRO dwelt within the Air Force, was chiefly manned by Air Force personnel, and its head was the undersecretary of the Air Force, but it was not of the Air Force. The undersecretary reported directly to the secretary of defense on NRO matters and Air Force officers assigned to the NRO were forbidden to discuss anything they did with outsiders. The only Air Force officer who could be briefed on its activities was the chief of staff, and he could not tell anyone beneath him what he learned.
Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s and then Johnson’s secretary of defense, also canceled the manned space programs Schriever initiated. Manned space missions remained the sole prerogative of NASA. But the ICBM endeavor had led the Air Force to invest too much in the infrastructure of space operations at Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg and to educate too many officers in guidance and astronautical engineering to suppress the impetus to use space. And by the 1970s enough officers who were disciples of Schriever were attaining senior positions of influence to propel space operations forward. Whole families of satellites came into being. Weather satellites were sent aloft, initially to avoid wasting reconnaissance satellite film by attempting to photograph targets in the Soviet Union when they were obscured by cloud cover, then for general prediction of weather to assist military operations. Communications satellites, free of the interference caused by weather and other factors within earth’s atmosphere, began sailing in space to provide command and control of ground forces, naval vessels, and aircraft. Intelligence satellites were developed that not only transmitted photographs but also eavesdropped on hostile communications. Midas, an early warning infrared satellite system first envisioned under the WS-117L program, circled the earth in a series known by the innocuous title Defense Support Program (DSP). The sensors on the satellites would be able to detect the flame of a Soviet missile the moment it was fired. (During the 1991 war in the Persian Gulf over Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait the sensors picked up heat from the firing of one of his medium-range Scud ballistic missiles as soon as it was launched. The missile’s course could then be quickly triangulated and people in the target area warned to take shelter.) The coming of Global Positioning System satellites has been an enormous boon to navigation and the accuracy of weapons. Whether it is a Tomahawk cruise missile fired over a 1,500-mile course or a 2,000-pound bomb dropped from a fighter-bomber overhead, a weapon can be guided either spot-on or to within one meter of the target, hardly a difference given the ensuing blast. As one of Schriever’s professional descendants, Major General Franklin “Judd” Blaisdell, who began his career as a Minuteman missileer and rose to become the Air Force’s director of space operations and integration, put it this way: “Space is the ultimate high ground.”
These military satellite systems inevitably evolved into like systems for civilian use in communications, navigation, television broadcasting, and other fruitful purposes. The communications satellites, relaying voice, data, and televised images throughout the world, made globalization possible. By 2007 approximately 6,600 satellites of all types, military and civilian, had been sent up over the years. Of these, 850 to 920 were in active use in 2007, 568 for communications. The most common orbit is along the line of the equator about 22,000 miles above the earth. It is called geosynchronous because the satellites are given an orbital speed synchronized with the rotation of the earth. Viewed from earth, they appear to be motionless. The satellites are, in effect, parked in space at a point where they can most efficiently fulfill their function. So much that Schriever and his comrades pioneered would be taken for granted and go unremarked in daily life. For example, most people who slide their credit card into the electronic reader on a gas pump or an automated teller machine have no idea their card’s validity is being checked via space, because it is cheaper to rent access to a satellite than to a phone line. And they assume, correctly, that if they have a GPS instrument in their car, they won’t get lost anymore.