Wernher von Braun, Jupiter Missiles, and the Cuban Missile Crisis


Wernher von Braun and a model of the U.S. Army’s Jupiter ballistic missile.

Proponents of spaceflight have long celebrated the efforts of Wernher von Braun and his German rocket team that built the V-2 ballistic missile for the Nazis during World War II and then came to the United States thereafter to continue their efforts for the American government. He and his team built the launcher that put the first U.S. spacecraft into orbit and the Saturn V rocket that took Americans to the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s.

What is less well understood is the role of von Braun and his team in developing one of the first intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBM) for the U.S. Army in the 1950s and the story of its deployment and use. And might I add, we under-appreciate how the weaknesses of this missile as a strategic weapon was counter-productive to the Cold War confrontation that then reigned.

This rocket team built for the Army the Jupiter, a launcher capable of sending a small warhead a maximum of 500 miles. This missile took many features from the V-2, added an engine from the Navaho test missile, and incorporated some of the electronic components from other rocket test programs. The first launch of this missile took place at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on August 20, 1953, and its capability as an IRBM was tested on May 16, 1958, when combat-ready troops first fired the rocket. The Jupiter was then deployed to U.S. units in Italy and Turkey and served until 1963.

Jupiter missile emplacement showing ground support equipment. The bottom third of the missile is encased in a “flower petal shelter” consisting of wedge-shaped metal panels allowing the crews to service the missiles in all weather circumstances.

It is this deployment of the Jupiter missile that destabilized the situation with the Soviet Union. It was not a pretty story. Seemingly no one in executive leadership positions in either the Eisenhower or Kennedy administrations believed the missiles were in the slightest bit useful. “It would have been better to dump them in the ocean,” Eisenhower complained, “instead of trying to dump them on our allies” when deployed to Europe. Kennedy opined during the Cuban missile crisis that von Braun’s Jupiters were “more or less worthless” as weapons, because of the complexity of preparing them for launch and a constant source of irritation for the Soviets who prompted a confrontation to get them removed from anywhere near the Soviet Union’s borders.

One of the real problems was the range of the Jupiters, necessitating that they must be deployed near the border of the Soviet Union. Albert Wohlstetter, McGeorge Bundy, John Foster Dulles, Robert McNamara, and others argued that placement of the nuclear weapons so close to the Soviet border invited attack and therefore was a provocative act that served as a destabilizer of the Cold War balance. Moreover, the technology was such that it took hours to ready the missiles for launch—they had to be deployed at fixed above ground launch complexes—and could be destroyed by a sniper with a high-powered rifle. Khrushchev’s gambit in Cuba, placing IRBM’s there in 1962, was at some level a reaction to the Jupiter missiles deployed in Turkey and a trade of the two sets of weapons ultimately resulted.

Both Dwight D. Eisenhower (L) and John F. Kennedy (R) questioned the strategic value of the Jupiter ballistic missiles.

For all of von Braun’s technical expertise, the technology he built in this case was counterproductive to the national security objectives of the United States. His missiles helped to spark the most desperate confrontation of the entire Cold War. What criticism does von Braun and his rocketeers deserve for helping to heighten the tensions of the Cold War in the early 1960s? Seemingly, he has skated here just as he was able to do in the atrocities that results from the V-2 experience of World War II, especially the use of concentration camp labor to build those weapons.

The fact that the Jupiter was a relatively useless ballistic missile has been something most have failed to appreciate. While space historians tend to celebrate von Braun as a technical genius—and no doubt he was—we fail to criticize where appropriate when it comes to his involvement in national security strategy and weapons development. The need to deploy the Jupiters so close to Soviet territory, the complicated process of preparing these liquid-fueled missiles for launch, the long preparation time, and the missile’s overarching vulnerability are all weaknesses of Jupiter missile that condemned it to uselessness as a strategic asset.

While von Braun does not deserve criticism for this missile’s deployment to forward areas, his willingness to pursue such a technology is troubling. More troubling, however, was the role of U.S. leadership who noted that the Jupiters were worthless as strategic weapons, warning that the missiles would be a destabilizing influence in the forward front of the Cold War. Regardless, national leaders pursued deployment of them to NATO allies, especially Turkey and Italy, incensed the Soviet Union, and helped to provoke the Cuban Missile Crisis. The only saving grace of this whole sad failure of leadership was the realization by the Kennedy administration that they could trade them away for the removal of Soviet missiles in Cuba. They did so, but kept the trade a secret from everyone and only in the era since the end of the Cold War has it become well known that Kennedy and Khrushchev “cut a deal” to get rid of von Braun’s missiles.

At some level I believe this story has ramifications for the manner in which space historians view the early years of rocket development. The reality is that von Braun was a masterful politician who was able to gain support for his rocket development programs by tying them to military priorities. In both cases, those missiles proved to be mistakes from a strategic perspective. In Hitler’s Germany the investment in the V-2 might have been made in areas that would have been much more useful to the war effort. In the U.S. the Jupiter missile, for all of its technological sophisticate, was likewise a failure from a strategic perspective.

I also see this story as a useful counterbalance to the Eisenhower revisionism that has taken place concerning its leadership. Since the 1970s historians and political scientists have been raising their estimation of Eisenhower as someone much more than a smiling, golf-playing, do-nothing president. They see a lot of evidence of behind-the-scenes activity to go in the direction Eisenhower thought appropriate. There is evidence to support this contention, but this episode suggests that Eisenhower was less effective than the revisionists have argued.

It seems that Eisenhower fully understood that the Jupiters were ineffective weapons that had no strategic value. He was told by many advisors and presumably understood that they would destabilize the Cold War balance. Most NATO allies were unwilling to accept the missiles for those reasons as well, and only by pressing the Turks and Italians did they accept deployment. In light of all of this, one must ask, why would Eisenhower proceed with the Jupiter deployment? This story does not offer an object lesson in effective leadership; indeed, just the opposite.

In this instance and perhaps in many others, Eisenhower was steamrolled by circumstances and powerful rivals. The Jupiters were deployed in the aftermath of the Sputnik crisis of October 1957 and were labeled by the Eisenhower administration as one response among several to that Soviet success. Like many of the actions taken by Eisenhower to respond to the Sputnik crisis it proved singularly counterproductive.

Finally, I believe this story of the Jupiters also holds important implications for the Cuban Missile Crisis and possesses an interesting but not fully explored linkage to the history of space exploration. Perhaps future historians will connect more fully the diplomatic story of the Jupiter missile deployment, operation, and demobilization with the technical story of its development, thus drawing more tightly the work of the Redstone Arsenal, the von Braun team, and the technology they produced to the larger Cold War political story.

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7 Responses to Wernher von Braun, Jupiter Missiles, and the Cuban Missile Crisis

  1. vitiligo says:

    i like this information . thanks

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  2. tps says:

    Did the Thor missiles deployed in the UK also cause problems as well?

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    • launiusr says:

      Not in the same way; it was quite a bit farther from the Soviet Union. It was the missile in Turkey that were really a problem.

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  3. mikej says:

    This article confuses the Jupiter, the Jupiter-C, and the Redstone.

    The Redstone was a missile with a short-range missile, up to 200 miles. It is the Redstone which had an early test launch in August 1953.

    The Jupiter-C was a modified Redstone used to test reentry vehicle technology for the Jupiter while the Jupiter was under development. The Jupiter-C was later modified slightly to launch the first American satellite, but it was never deployed as a weapon. It has very different capabilities (although a similar name) than the Jupiter was the missile which was deployed to Italy and Turkey. The Jupiter indeed had an early test launch in May 1958, but was not operational until 1961.

    The Jupiter and the Thor were based on the same liquid-fueled technology; indeed, their rocket engines were both manufactured by Rocketdyne, were nearly identical, and were both called the “LR-79” by the Air Force (as per he NMUSAF fact sheet http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=6474). Like the Thor, the Jupiter had a range of 1,500 miles and carried the W-49 nuclear warhead (reference NMUSAF fact sheets on the Jupiter [http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=534] and Thor [http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=533]). Both were based in above-ground sites.

    The Jupiter may well have taken hours to prepare to fire as originally envisioned in its “mobile launcher” concept (which the Army favored). The Thor’s launch prep time would have benefited from being launched from fixed bases. A reason the Army favored Jupiter’s mobile concept is that the Thor fixed launch sites could be pre-targeted by Soviet missiles while mobile Jupiter sites could not. However, I’ve read that the Air Force, prior to the Jupiter’s deployment, abandoned the mobile concept in favor of static sites because it gave them the same 15-minute “fast reaction time” that the Thor had.

    Since Thor and Jupiter were both based in above-ground sites, it would seem that they would be equally susceptible to sniper fire (although I suppose you may argue that it’s easier for a trained sniper to hit the shorter, fatter Jupiter than the taller, skinnier Thor).

    The Jupiter program received DOD approval in late 1955 and Thor kicked off in 1956. The technology of the time could not yet support an intercontinental ballistic missile, so it was recognized that the Thor and Jupiter were merely stop-gap measures while development progressed on the Atlas, America’s first ICBM.

    In November 1956, Secretary of Defense Wilson gave the Air Force responsibility for all missiles with a range greater than 200 miles (later changed to 500 miles), but the Army was allowed to continue development work on the Jupiter as far into 1957 as needed “in order to get a feeling of confidence that one of the two land-based IRBM programs will be successful” before dropping either of the programs. The Air Force was certainly reluctant to continue with both missiles (and since the Jupiter was Not Invented Here, the Air Force would have carried on with only the Thor).

    A committee was set up in August 1957 to decide which missile, Jupiter or Thor, to continue, with the results of the study to be delivered to new Secretary of Defense McElroy by September 15. Competition between the Army and Air Force factions was high, and the committee had not yet delivered a recommendation when the Soviets launched Sputnik. In October, Eisenhower approved the Secretary’s recommendation for the rapid development of both missiles.

    So it would seem that the Thor and the Jupiter, with their similar technological similar range, similar deployment methodology, and similar prep time, made equally-poor (or equally-good) weapons and were equally-useless (or equally-useful) as a strategic asset. The DOD certainly thought, for a time, that the missiles were sufficiently equivalent that only one was really needed. If we should be troubled that von Braun chose to pursue the missile which became the Jupiter, we should be equally troubled that the Air Force chose to pursue the Thor.

    Instead, it is the decision to base some of the Jupiters in Turkey that would seem to have been counter-productive to the Cold War confrontation and which sparked the most desperate confrontation of the entire Cold War. Since the Air Force had been responsible for the Jupiter’s deployment since late 1956, I suspect that the Army in general and von Braun in particular had little enough to do with the way the Jupiters were actually deployed in 1961 (and Eisenhower announced the transfer of von Braun’s group to NASA in October 1959, to become effective in July 1960).

    There is nothing inherent in the Jupiter or its designer which could not be said about the Thor or its designers. I suspect that it would not have mattered to the Soviets if fate would have had the Air Force deploying Jupiters to the UK and Thors to Italy and Turkey, or if the Air Force would have succeeded in killing the Jupiter and would have wound up deploying Thors to all three countries.

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  4. vin says:

    given jupiter’s well known shortcomings (e.g., long launch cycles, immobile launch sites) why did the soviets incur great risks in order to remove the missiles from turkey?

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    • Uwe says:

      Because the US otherwise would have been intensely motivated to continue that kind of brinkmanship. Thus warmongers, hoisted on their own petard, got rightsized ( for some time at least, compare to the current situation in the Ukraine where the US had to have their fingers spanked again )

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  5. Pingback: The scientific tourist #332 — the Jupiter IRBM | Sorting out Science

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