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.
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.
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.