'Secret Empire': Cold War genius

April 06, 2003|By Ray Jenkins | Ray Jenkins,Special to the Sun

Secret Empire: Eisenhower, the CIA, and the Hidden Story of America's Space Espionage, by Philip Taubman. Simon & Schuster. 464 pages. $27.

It is hard to imagine a more bleak and dangerous world than the one Dwight Eisenhower faced when he became president in 1953. The United States was bogged down in a land war in Korea. Russia was ruled by a paranoid tyrant who not only possessed the atomic bomb but the missiles to deliver it as well. America was gripped by a growing anxiety -- not entirely unfounded -- that a "missile gap" made the country vulnerable to instantaneous annihilation. And on top of all this, the new president was flying blind: He has no inkling of the real scope and purpose of Soviet military power.

How Ike confronted these crises is told in this compelling book of Cold-War history by a respected reporter who covered national-security affairs for The New York Times for two decades before becoming the newspaper's deputy editorial-page editor. In the process Philip Taubman adds new luster to Eisenhower's growing reputation for greatness.

Instead of capitulating in panic to either preemptive war or an arms race which might bankrupt the nation, the new president chose to pursue a risky espionage operation to gain the intelligence essential for making strategic decisions. He recruited the best minds of science, government and industry then gave them a mission to create, almost from scratch, photo-reconnaissance techniques which ultimately provided detailed maps of the whole vast expanse of the Soviet Union. In its totality, the result was a phenomenal achievement, not only in technical mastery but in the fact that it was all carried out under a cloak of secrecy which, if breached, would have rendered it useless.

The mission provided the president the intelligence necessary to make the proper strategic decisions. The result was a standoff which, despite one terrifyingly close call during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, avoided nuclear war for more than three decades until the Soviet Union finally collapsed under its own torpid weight.

In a book of this kind, it would be easy to fall into excessive entanglement in arcane technological detail of building high-altitude planes and satellites, but Taubman largely avoids this trap by focusing on the scientists, the managers, the test pilots who carried out the historic mission. The author unabashedly sings of unsung heroes, the men of courage, tenacity and above all, patriotism who brought Eisenhower's vision into reality. The result is uplifting and inspirational.

Taubman seeks to apply the lessons of the Secret Empire to modern imperatives. That's a tall order, considering that the book was researched prior to the terrorist attack on New York in 2001. But he does ruefully note that in part this attack was possible because the nation's intelligence mechanisms had grown fat and lazy, relying entirely too heavily on the technology that served so well during the Cold War while neglecting "human resources" -- spies who burrow into the shadowy world of terrorism in all its hydra-headed forms.

In the end, this book is eerily timely in its irony: Today, satellites not only take pictures, but also function as guidance systems to drop bombs of incredible power and precision. Inevitably, the science Eisenhower harnessed to avoid war became a critical tool for waging war.

Ray Jenkins, as a reporter for the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger, won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for his coverage, with another reporter, of the 1954 Phenix City, Ala., upheaval. He has worked for the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser-Journal, The New York Times and the Clearwater (Fla.) Sun, and was editorial page editor of The Evening Sun. His book, Blind Vengeance, was published in 1997 by the University of Georgia Press.

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