Wednesday’s Book Review: “US Presidents and the Militarization of Space, 1946—1967”

212-6994-Product_LargeToThumbImageUS Presidents and the Militarization of Space, 1946—1967. By Sean Kalic. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2012.

I was quite pleased when Sean Kalic’s book, US Presidents and the Militarization of Space, 1946—1967, appeared in the Centennial of Flight Series that I edited at Texas A&M University Press in 2012. It offered a good history of national security space policy, especially at the level of the presidency, supplanting the works that were already available because they were either outdated or focused on a narrow question. Beforehand we tended to fall back on Paul B. Stares, The Militarization of Space: U.S. Policy, 1945-1984 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), which is a good book but is now quite out of date. Although Stares covers the same time frame as Kalic, he did not have access to many of the documents declassified in the post-Cold War era. The other work that has found some use in considering these issues is Matthew Mowthorpe’s The Militarization and Weaponization of Space (New York: Rowan and Littlefield, 2004), but it is essentially a work of political science and not much of an history. It also bounds its narrative by dealing only with the U.S., the Soviet Union, and China.

The thesis of Kalic’s book asserts that Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson worked successfully to avoid the weaponization of space. Using it for military or national security purposes is one thing, as the author notes, but avoiding the placement of weapons there and maintaining it as a sanctuary from destructive actions was a well thought out strategy that each president regardless of party pursued. Indeed, an irony too great to ignore is that both of the superpowers locked in Cold War struggle for more than a generation cooperated to ensure space remained inviolate despite everything else that divided them. They found it a stabilizing force in the Cold War when reconnaissance satellites from either side could overfly the other and relay data about possibly belligerent actions. Making decisions based on real data, and controlling military systems through satellites, proved much more important than any destruction that might take place in space during the Cold War.

There was always a national security core to space policy from the earliest era, and all sides have pursued all manner of satellites that perform military missions. They are free to do so because of the effort to avoid weaponization of space and to erect diplomatic barriers to attack by foreign powers. The right to defend against attack, however, explicitly emerged as a prerogative at the beginning of the space age. No one has seriously questioned the right of any nation to defend its space assets from attack.

The author makes this case throughout this work and it is a case well worth making in the post-Cold War era. This is true because there is a persistent drumbeat from the military community since the 1990s to develop weapons that can attack an enemy’s satellites. These theorists ask about how best to ensure American access and reliance on space assets for its many uses, including military ones. Debate over this issue has been marked by two extreme positions, neither of which are representative of the majority of those debating the subject. The first is the “sanctuary” concept, which insists that space should not be used for military purposes under any circumstances and the second is a “Star Wars” approach that seeks to ensure American hegemonic status in space through weaponization and other potentially offensive actions.

This “Star Wars” position is best stated by the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, which concluded in 2001: “We know that every medium—air, land and sea—has seen conflict. Reality indicates that space will be no different. Given this virtual certainty, the United States must develop the means both to deter and to defend against hostile acts in and from space” (Donald H. Rumsfeld, et al., Report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization (Government Printing Office, 2001), p. x). Those taking the “Star Wars” approach are seeking to overturn fifty years of policy put in place by Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson to avoid weaponization of space. Kalic’s book has a public policy element to it in that it may help inform this debate.

The author of this work has undertaken a broad review of the documentary record and written a well-crafted narrative that relates the unfolding of the subject. Moreover, the writing is both adequate and the material is logically presented. It presents a fully articulated discussion of presidential space policy in the 1950s and 1960s based on good documentary sources, sound analysis, and strong writing.

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One Response to Wednesday’s Book Review: “US Presidents and the Militarization of Space, 1946—1967”

  1. rangerdon says:

    A fine precis of an important work. This is a research interest of mine, and your post points to a great resource, and also summarizes important history. Interesting that old Rumsfeld wants space militarized — I wonder if that’s due to any real security concern, or simply a desire to keep the very successful peaceful use of space from becoming a model for how we interact on Earth. After all, if we can get along in space, what do we need a trillion dollar war machine for? And what would his military contractor friends do? (I note that Rumsfeld owns a huge chunk of the stock of the company that makes tamiflu…and thus profits mightily every time there’s a flu scare.)


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