The history of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the military’s top-secret research and development agency.
During the Cold War, the arms race between the United States and Soviet Union was a result of the belief in mutually assured destruction. If one nation were to strike with nuclear weapons, it would precipitate its own downfall. This constant tension created a unique environment in which the American military needed to invest heavily in new arms and technology to stay one step ahead of their Soviet foes. Officially created in 1958 by President Dwight Eisenhower, DARPA was tasked with leading the military’s efforts to develop the means to prevent a Soviet nuclear strike or invasion. The department quickly evolved to encompass all manners of defense, including cutting-edge psychological and biological warfare. Jacobsen (Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America, 2014, etc.) is no stranger to secretive government projects, and she weaves a dramatic history of the agency that exposes, through newly declassified documents and firsthand interviews with former DARPA scientists, the astounding and often terrifying developments that emerged from the program. One of the greatest pleasures of Jacobsen’s thoroughly crafted narrative is the anachronisms of obsolete high-tech. For instance, the author details the development of ARPANET, the predecessor to today’s Internet, and the room-sized computers that it was designed to use. However, not all DARPA projects are as apolitical and quaint. There is the unavoidable truth that DARPA was created to develop sophisticated weaponry designed to annihilate populations. One of the most egregious examples is Agent Orange, the extremely toxic defoliant. Chronicling DARPA to the present day, Jacobsen also sketches portraits of the immensely brilliant, ambitious, and flawed scientists that dedicated themselves to science and country.
Filled with the intrigue and high stakes of a spy novel, Jacobsen’s history of DARPA is as much a fascinating testament to human ingenuity as it is a paean to endless industrial warfare and the bureaucracy of the military-industrial complex.