Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2020-074
14 Aug. 2020
Review by David Cullen, Arkansas Tech University
The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, The Pentagon Agency That Changed the World
By Sharon Weinberger
New York: Knopf, 2017. Pp. x, 475. ISBN 978–0–385–35179–9.
Descriptors: Volume 2020, 20th Century, Cold War Print Version

The first decades of the Cold War produced two federal agencies—the CIA and DARPA[1]—whose early successes led to a series of ambitious failures that badly damaged the reputation of US foreign services. Of the two institutions, the CIA has been the subject of far more books (and films).[2] With The Imagineers of War, noted journalist Sharon Weinberger[3] does something to correct this imbalance.


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Created in 1958, the "Advanced Research Projects Agency" (ARPA) was charged with closing the missile gap between the USSR and the United States. The Soviet Union had launched its Sputnik satellite in 1957, panicking many in the Eisenhower administration for geopolitical reasons. The United States needed to immediately develop new missiles to reassure Americans of their safety and intimidate Soviet leaders. Like the CIA, ARPA received little oversight by congressional committees. This was not an attempt, at least initially, to hide the activities of the agency but to free it from bureaucratic impediments.

Sputnik and the subsequent failed launch of the US Vanguard missile created a sense of urgency at the Pentagon and among Eisenhower's political associates. Established in February 1958, ARPA was meant to win the space race with Russia. Despite its half-billion-dollar budget, it had no permanent staff, laboratories, or offices. But the lack of infrastructure proved to be a positive, giving ARPA far more freedom than most national security organizations. For example, the new agency supported the efforts of John Hopkins University scientists working on the problem of identifying satellite positions in space. Their navigation system, Transit, was the forerunner of today's Global Positioning System. This accomplishment took about a year. Under normal Pentagon review procedures, a year or more would have passed before even a go-ahead to start the project. About the same time, ARPA authorized the development of the Saturn rocket by a team headed up by the former Nazi scientist Wernher von Braun. But, with the creation of the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA), ARPA's role in the space race ended.

Enter William Godel. Forced to resign his commission in the Marines due to a leg injury sustained during the war, he was recruited by the head of the Office of Strategic Services, William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan, to work in the intelligence office of the Pentagon. There he earned a reputation for completing difficult assignments quickly and with little conflict. This led to later stints with the newly created National Security Administration and the steering committee of the Psychological Strategy Board. This is the point where Godel became instrumental in shaping ARPA's future. Appointed to the agency in early 1959, he grasped that the space race was as much a matter of publicity as of accomplishment. He argued that the launch of a much larger rocket than the Vanguard would showcase technological advances that would capture the attention of the press and the public.

Godel found his answer in the Atlas rocket. The plan was for it was to carry the SCORE (Signal Communications by Orbiting Relay Equipment) satellite into orbit. Both NASA and the Eisenhower administration balked at financing what seemed to be a costly publicity stunt. But Godel persuaded them that such a feat would yield political and diplomatic benefits. SCORE became the first of a long series of communications satellites. But Godel realized that ARPA's role in space would always be overshadowed by NASA. To ensure the continued funding of ARPA, he turned his attention from space to Vietnam.

Given the military's growing interest in counterinsurgency and the use of technology and psychology as weapons, Godel the former intelligence officer saw in Vietnam the perfect laboratory for ARPA to prove its worth. But his new boss, Jack Ruina, appointed in 1961, argued for a more theoretical basis of operations. He wanted "to create a science agency that served national security, while Godel wanted to build a national security agency served by scientists. This battle over those competing visions would characterize the agency's future" (85). One source of tension between the two men was the sheer number of ideas Godel hoped to test in Vietnam, many of which Ruina considered ridiculous: for instance, a steam-engine paddle boat that could glide over a few inches of water, chemical defoliants to remove jungle cover, a plant killer to eradicate the Vietcong's food supply, military dogs trained to search jungles for the enemy, the relocation of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese into protected hamlets, mass hallucination of the Vietcong, and parapsychological military tactics.

Godel received assistance for these ideas from Edward Lansdale, who in 1961 was at the peak of his influence because of his work in the Philippines.[4] Lansdale's ties to the Pentagon and the leadership of Vietnam resulted in ARPA's Project Agile Vietnam programs. Agile encompassed Godel's Combat Development and Test Center and the Vietcong Motivation and Morale Project. These programs were responsible for the use of Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant that entered the water supply and caused illnesses among generations Vietnamese. As Weinberger points out, "treating the entire world as a living laboratory had a fundamental problem: real people were living in those laboratories, and some of the agency's ideas looked callous at best or at worst sinister" (162).

By the mid-1960s, lack of oversight of ARPA's funding led to expensive projects whose purpose few fully understood. For example, the agency financed a program to provide a psychological profile of the enemy. The resulting widely distributed booklet consisted of interviews with four persons, only one an enemy combatant. In November 1963, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara demanded a full accounting of money spent on—and the results of—ARPA-funded projects. Because Godel used cash both to influence members of the Vietnam government and to finance operations that needed regular infusions of funds, the Test Center could not accurately account for its expenditures. Federal courts found Godel guilty of embezzlement and he served five years in prison.

ARPA nonetheless continued to exist, chiefly because of its most notable success—the internet. The need for scientists to communicate with one another quickly and effectively led to a streamlined communications network called ARPANET. The work of these engineers and scientists was the precursor of the internet. Between the 1970s and the Ronald Reagan administration, DARPA ("defense" was added to the name in 1972) pursued projects that led to stealth aircraft, drones, driverless cars, and virtual-reality war games. As always, however, the agency also pursued more outlandish concepts like super soldiers who used mind control to manipulate weapons, jetpacks for individual soldiers to fly over the enemy, and weaponized parapsychology.

The author contends that DARPA in fact played a significant role in winning the Cold War, but since 2000 has concentrated less on defense and more on creating engineering feats of wonder; as a consequence, "the danger facing the agency today is irrelevance to national security" (365). For all his mistakes, William Godel saved the agency in 1959 and showed that the government must not be constrained by what is possible but should always consider what might be possible. Sharon Weinberger warns us that assessments of DARPA must recognize that "the price of success is failure, and the price of an important success is significant failure, and the consequences of both should be weighed in assessing any institution's legacy" (10).

[1] I.e., the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

[2] See Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (NY: Doubleday, 2007).

[3] She is executive editor for news at Foreign Policy and author of Imaginary Weapons: A Journey through the Pentagon's Scientific Underworld (NY: Nation Books, 2006).

[4] See Max Boot, The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam (NY: Liveright, 2018).

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