Eisenhower and Ballistic Missile Defense the Formative Years, 1944-1961

By Baucom, Donald R. | Air Power History, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Eisenhower and Ballistic Missile Defense the Formative Years, 1944-1961


Baucom, Donald R., Air Power History


Behind all these other changes in the middle years of the 1950s loomed the changes of science, remaking the world and bringing new problems. More and more, the jet aircraft, the nuclear power plant, the hydrogen bomb, the ballistic missile were coming into the consciousness of all of us.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1963. (1) Introduction

Although the United States started an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) program shortly after World War II, it was conducted with minimal funding and with a low priority for the first decade. As a result, developments were still in the conceptual phase in 1953, when Dwight D. Eisenhower became the thirty-fourth President of the United States. However, by the time Eisenhower left office eight years later, the U.S. was pursuing a major ABM program and had established a firm conceptual foundation for future ballistic missile defense (BMD) developments.

America's postwar ABM program was a direct response to the German rocket program of World War II, which produced the world's first long-range ballistic missile, the V-2. (2) While used only during the final months of the war, the V-2 and its airbreathing cousin the V-1 made a strong impression on Allied leaders, including Eisenhower.

Eisenhower and the Dawn of the Missile Age, 1944-1945

As Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, General Dwight Eisenhower witnessed the dawn of the missile age and was duly impressed by the destructiveness of the V-2 rocket. Indeed, while overseeing the preparations for Overlord, Eisenhower received "alarming intelligence reports concerning the progress of the Germans in developing new long-range weapons of great destructive capacity." He considered these warnings serious enough to give them as one reason for launching Overlord at the earliest possible moment. (3)

Eisenhower's sense of urgency was not misplaced. About a week after D-Day, German V-1 "buzz bombs" began falling on London. Three months after D-Day, the Germans ushered in the ballistic missile age when they began launching V-2 rockets against key Allied targets, especially London and the port city of Antwerp, Belgium. (4)

V-weapon attacks against England had "a very noticeable effect upon morale," according to Eisenhower. The successful lodgment of Allied armies on the continent in June 1944 had given the British "a great sense of relief." However, "their hopes were dashed" when the missile attacks started. Moreover, Eisenhower pointed out, it was not just civilian morale that was affected. "Soldiers at the front began again to worry about friends and loved ones at home, and many American soldiers asked me in worried tones whether I could give them any news about particular towns where they had previously been stationed in southern England." (5)

Eisenhower understood the operational characteristics of Germany's "V" weapons. The V-2, he noted, "was a rocket, shot into the air to a great height, which fell at such high speed that the first warning of its coming was the explosion. During flight it could not be heard, seen, or intercepted." Because of its velocity, the V-2 tended to penetrate whatever it hit before exploding. If it struck in the open and penetrated the ground, the missile's explosive forces were channeled upward, causing little damage to surrounding structures. However, if it hit a building within a cramped urban area, the V-2 detonated inside the building so that its explosive forces were coupled to the structures around it. In this case, Eisenhower wrote, "the destruction was almost complete." (6)

Between September 8, 1944, and March 27, 1945, the Germans aimed 1,359 V-2s against London; 1,190 of these attempted launches were successful. The V-2s which struck England destroyed or damaged thousands of homes and buildings. They also killed 2,724 civilians and seriously injured another 6,467 civilians. On the average, according to Sir Winston Churchill, England's wartime prime minister, each V-2 killed twice as many people as did a V-1. …

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