Book Review: Michael H. Armacost, The Politics of Weapons Innovation: The Thor-Jupiter Controversy
[Image above: A Rocketdyne LR79 (S-3D) engine ignites during a Jupiter test launch at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 1960. While designed and built by the Army, the Air Force won operational control of the missile in an inter-service struggle. (U.S. Air Force photo)]
Michael H. Armacost’s The Politics of Weapons Innovation: The Thor-Jupiter Controversy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), is a book about the inter-service rivalry between the Air Force and Army Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile Programs in the 1950s. The conflict matched Bernard Shriver’s Western Development Division of the Air Force (supported by the forerunner to the TRW Corporation) against the Army’s superior rocket team at Red Stone Arsenal led by Werner Von Braun (supported by Chrysler Motor Company). Von Braun's team would famously go on to form an essential part of NASA in the wake of Sputnik, the failure of the Vanguard program, and the Air Force's complete lack of research and development into satellite technology. As I’ve written before, the Air Force of the 1950s was only interested in building bombers, missiles were decidedly a secondary effort until the Pentagon forced them to get in the game. The inter-service competition Armacost explores, which was unusually brutal and cost the career of at least one US Army officer, was part of a broader conflict over roles and missions in the early Cold War and control over nuclear weapons and funds in the Eisenhower era.
Armacost's study makes use of interviews and correspondence with many of the participants in the events he describes and his book is well written with just a couple of typos in the original, long out of print edition. Despite its subject, the book is a relatively enjoyable read and Armacost writes clearly and concisely. Because his book was written shortly after the events described (in 1969), his proximity to events and a paucity of sources outside of those then publicly available in media accounts, does leave some gaps in his narrative, especially as it relates to the events surrounding the battle over air defense/missile defense and the incidents involving Army Colonel John C. Nickerson (who was court-martialed for his role in leaks regarding Air Force missile programs). Armacost's viewpoint also seems to favor the Air Force at places, though he is mostly unbiased.
The biggest gap (in my opinion) is the lack of context of the Thor-Jupiter controversy in the wider development of strategic deterrence theory and the struggle between advocates of Eisenhower's "Massive Retaliation" strategy based on the "New Look" and Maxwell Taylor's argument (adopted by the Kennedy administration) for "Flexible Response." Armacost alludes to both but does not explore them in-depth, in part due to his proximity to the debate. Further, the role interservice rivalry played in the development of the idea of a nuclear "triad" is not discussed by Armacost, because it developed as he was writing. (FYI -I've written a little about that here).
In the grander scheme, Armacost's work is not the final word on the subject, however, for the last 50+ years it is one of the only book-length treatments of the subject, so it remains a key work in understanding Cold War history and early weapons development and belongs the bookshelf of any student of CBRN or Cold War history. A final note for those seeking to obtain a copy: While Armacost wrote his book first, his book is probably best read after a later work (1978), Edmund Beard's Developing the ICBM: A Study in Bureaucratic Politics, which builds on Armacost's work, and references it at multiple points. I hope to have a review of that up shortly.
Fortunately, while Armacost’s book remains out of print, used copies are readily available online. Head over to Amazon or AbeBooks to find one. While you are there, please consider buying a copy of my book too!
As an added bonus, please enjoy the following video of the first successful Jupiter Missile Launch in 1957.