Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2021-023
29 Mar. 2021
Review by John Smoley, Minneapolis
The Bomb and America's Missile Age
By Christopher Gainor
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2018. Pp. xii, 228. ISBN 978–1–4214–2603–7.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, 20th Century, Cold War, ICBMs Print Version

The Bomb and America's Missile Age recontextualizes the story of America's intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) development, concentrating on the Atlas missile during the early Cold War. Historian Christopher Gainor's work begins with the German V-1 and V-2 programs, whose technology and technicians American and Soviet forces snapped up after World War II. Gainor highlights the work of Air Force staff and contractors, who are overshadowed by Wernher von Braun's team of Army scientists in histories of the space and missile races.


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The author also clarifies the origins of American missile research in the aftermath of the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, noting how the development of thermonuclear weapons, far more than governmental priorities, made ICBMs technically feasible and politically palatable. Up to that time, Pres. Harry Truman's top priority had been defensive missile systems able to thwart nuclear attacks by Soviet bombers. However, his initial efforts to unify research and development of missile technology were decidedly haphazard. Gainor traces the history of the military industrial complex back to Pres. Frankln Roosevelt's appointments during World War II; he details how quickly both inter- and intra-service rivalries led to duplications that impeded missile development efforts.

The serious doubts about the technical feasibility of ballistic missiles that plagued their development from the start were resolved, in part, by breakthroughs in complementary technologies. For example, the Atlas missile benefited tremendously from improvements in nuclear yields, and reduced warhead weight facilitated the US thermonuclear weapons program. Atlas missile payloads and accuracy standards weren't met any faster, they just became less stringent thanks to fusion-reaction warheads.

Gainor also reframes missile development history using Soviet source materials that belie Cold War beliefs about the dominance of the USSR's early missile efforts. In fact, Soviet and American ICBM programs progressed on remarkably similar timelines. The author compares their first successful ballistic missiles—the R-7 and Atlas—to assess the relationship between their space-launch vehicles, derivations of which remained in use long after they ceased to serve as ICBMs. He explains how streamlining the Atlas's design gave the United States a significant lead in missile production, while the R-7's huge payload requirements gave the Soviets the lead in the early space race.

Gainor makes a convincing argument in a clear prose style, identifying an array of competing defense contractors, scientists, military research teams, and weapons systems to make specific points without bogging down in excessive analysis of technical and political particulars. He demystifies the military industrial complex for non-specialist readers with his concise distinctions between related military technologies, like ramjets and rockets. While his focus on the Americans' ballistic missile program is Air Force-centered, he touches on many major military developments in a good overview of the missile race in the Cold War's first two decades.

The book's chapters begin and end with clear theses and conclusions, and a historiographical epilogue helpfully summarizes the relevant recent scholarship. Gainor seeks out coincidences that raise interesting questions. Did, for instance, Robert Goddard anticipate on his deathbed the role missiles would come to play in delivering nuclear warheads days after the first wartime use of atomic weapons? Colorful quotations generate suspense in a story whose ending is all too well known. Consider Vannevar Bush's opinion that:

Long-range missiles might carry atomic bombs eventually…. But as long as atomic bombs are scarce, and highly expensive in terms of destruction accomplished per dollar disbursed, one does not trust them to a highly complex and possibly erratic carrier of inherently low precision. (78)

Christopher Gainor's new book shows how quickly ICBM science and industry turned the tables by highlighting the challenges of missile development and buy-in during the early Cold War. With the abandonment of ballistic missile defense nearly a half century ago, only fitful attempts have been made to develop the technology to combat these weapons. And longstanding public apathy about the United States' ICBM program, beginning with Atlas, continues to pose a global existential threat.

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