New York Times editorial-page editor and Polk Award–winner Taubman delivers an expertly related, accessible account of a turning point in American intelligence, when on-the-ground spying gave way to a belief that technology could cure all ills.
Having been caught unawares at the Battle of the Bulge by a lack of reliable information about German troop movements, Dwight Eisenhower had long been determined to improve American capabilities. The death of Josef Stalin in 1953, however, saw the US again caught off guard; as Eisenhower complained, “Ever since 1946, I know that all the so-called experts have been yapping about what would happen when Stalin dies and what we, as a nation, should do about it. Well, he’s dead. And you can turn the files of our government inside out—in vain—looking for any plans laid. We have no plan.” Demanding better and timelier information about Soviet military capabilities and deployments, Eisenhower authorized the development of two innovations: high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft such as the U2 and SR-71, which enabled “timeliness, geographical coverage, accepted accuracy”; and supposedly secret satellites that could photograph every inch of the Soviet empire. Those goals were met, but only after severe technical obstacles were overcome by throwing millions and billions of dollars at them. The results were both good and bad, Taubman writes. Eisenhower and his successors had the benefit of better information about such things as missile silos and moving tank columns, but in the end they would also have to contend with “distortions in the nation’s intelligence agencies, including an overreliance on dazzling machines and a shortage of resources in more traditional fields like the recruitment and training of spies”—a shortcoming recently and keenly underscored by the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Absorbing throughout, and meaty stuff for intelligence and aviation buffs.