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

  • Author / Creator
    Gainor, Christopher
  • 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.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
  • Language
  • Institution
    University of Alberta
  • Degree level
  • Department
    • Department of History and Classics
  • Supervisor / co-supervisor and their department(s)
    • Smith, Robert W. (History and Classics)
  • Examining committee members and their departments
    • Smith, Susan (History and Classics)
    • Neufeld, Michael (External)
    • Marples, David (History and Classics)
    • Szostak, Richard (Economics)