Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Cover: Marc J. Cohen,
reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 1/22/2004
Summary: Highly Recommended. Surprises all the way. The post World War II American spy industry.
In SECRET EMPIRE, Taubman asks more than once whether the American political will still exists to persevere in the face of failure upon failure upon failure. He provides no concrete answer, but does supply plenty of hints.
Between 1942 and 1945, America spent over a billion dollars to successfully develop the atomic bomb. Throughout the 1930s, the Soviets were putting together five and ten year plans just to get bread on the table for its citizens. Pockmarked by corruptions and inefficiency, Soviet economic plans limped along behind a wall of statistics and future expectations. When it came to technology however, the Soviet had an advantage. They had an espionage apparatus that was second to none.
Taubman’s book deals with the concept of spying rather than the mechanics–the who, what, where and when. But in reading this excellent history, the reader can not help but to reflect upon the irony of America rushing to the skies to find out the latest advancements in Soviet technology when those advances were lifted directly from America itself. One area in which the Soviets had their own blueprints was rockets. The Rocket Research Development Center was established in Moscow in 1932 and the first rocket fired in August 1933. The Russians captured the Nazi V-2 rocket center at Peenemunde along with about five thousand German technicians and twenty-thousand members of their families. By July 1953, strategic intelligence services in the West were justifiably worried that the Soviet would develop a missile with a range long enough to strike London, England by 1956. The West responded to the worry by launching a spy program that eventually reduced the thrust of missile power to a very secondary consideration. It was what you did when you got the missile up that was important.
There are many conclusions one can reach in this book. Taubman artfully, and wisely in the final analysis, avoids making heady conclusions. For instance, is it possible that the only reason we have world-wide satellite communications today is because the American military needed a way to spy on the Soviet Union without creating an international incident? And what of the entire argument that scientific advancements are driven by the exigencies of war and conflict? Heady stuff. In Taubman’s work, the conclusions are un-necessary. That’s a lot more down to earth stuff, like the foibles and character of human nature.
The author mentions the men (at the time, it was men only–about 252 between 1950 and 1970) who lost their lives flying reconnaissance planes deep into Soviet territory to provide the American military with intelligence about Soviet air defense and communication systems. This started in 1946 and continued into the early 1950s when the newly elected President Dwight W. Eisenhower became determined to find a better way. Eisenhower is the surprise in this book. A subplot, really, but his presence pervades the book. Having read his autobiography years ago and perhaps being too focused on what he did rather than why he did what he did, he comes across in this book as a truly pragmatic thinker. An odd pragmatic thinker, but pragmatic and a thinker nonetheless. What are you to make of a man who tells his aides that if the Soviets were violating U. S. airspace in the manner the U.S. was violating Soviet airspace, there would be war? But this President, who held such a tight rein over the flight schedules of reconnaissance planes, was not making judgements based upon fairness or mutual respect. He was fighting a war.
Taubman takes us from the start of the air reconnaissance missions to the almost haphazard development of the U-2 planes (capable of flying at an attitude of 75,000 feet), to the incredible Corona satellite projects. So much of this history we, for the most part, take for granted, as if it were all a breeze-the inevitable outcome of American know-how and stick-to-it-ness. But the facts show that it was far from an historical stroll. Taubman escorts us through the fumbles and failures along the way.
There are no down sides in this book. There are, in fact, surprises all the way.