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The United States Air Force and the emergence of the intercontinental ballistic missile, 1945 - 1954 Open Access


Other title
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Gainor, Christopher
Supervisor and department
Smith, Robert W. (History and Classics)
Examining committee member and department
Smith, Susan (History and Classics)
Neufeld, Michael (External)
Marples, David (History and Classics)
Szostak, Richard (Economics)
Department of History and Classics

Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
In March 1954, the United States Air Force decided to give a high priority to developing an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). This missile, when armed with nuclear warheads, became the central and defining weapon of the Cold War. Following the political controversy in the United States that resulted from the Soviet Union’s launch in 1957 of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite of the Earth, a number of historians strongly criticized the U.S. Air Force and the Administrations of President Harry S. Truman, who held office from 1945 to 1953, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who served from 1953 to 1961, for not moving more quickly on rocket and missile programs, which they argued allowed the Soviets to gain possession of the first ICBM before the United States. This study argues that the relatively limited power of early atomic weapons and the technical challenges involved in building long-range missiles were the most important reasons the United States government did not give ICBMs a high priority before 1954, rather than air force reluctance to give up crewed aircraft, as has been previously argued. Government policymakers and scientific and engineering experts were preoccupied in the late 1940s drawing up policies for nuclear weapons and developing bomber aircraft and aircrews capable of delivering nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union, and missiles to defend against Soviet bomber aircraft. In 1954 the advent of thermonuclear or fusion weapons with their enhanced firepower and small size caused experts and policymakers to move ahead with the development of America’s first ICBM, the Atlas. Instead of working back from the political controversy that followed the 1957 launch of Sputnik, as influential historical accounts of this period have done, this dissertation places the actions of Truman and Eisenhower Administration policymakers into the broad context of the technical, scientific, political and economic environment that existed from 1945 to 1954. In doing so, this study seeks to show how technological, political and social forces combined to lead to the creation of a new technological system, the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile armed with nuclear weapons, which became a key part of America’s nuclear forces.
License granted by Christopher Gainor ( on 2011-09-30T20:45:21Z (GMT): Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of the above terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis, and except as herein provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
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