Victor McElheny

"Edwin Land and Restraint by Reconnaissance"

February 12, 1999

by Glen Asner

 
 

 

On February 12, 1999, Victor McElheny, currently a visiting scholar at MIT's Science, Technology, and Society program, gave a presentation based on his acclaimed biography of Polaroid founder Edwin Land, Insisting on the Impossible: The Life of Edwin Land. A prominent journalist who has written for the Boston Globe, Technology Review, and the BBC, McElheny is perhaps best known as the founder of MIT's Knight Fellowship program, which brings journalists to MIT for a year of intensive study and exchange with the nation's top scientists and engineers to improve the quality of popular writing on science, technology, and medicine.

In his presentation, "Edwin Land and Restraint by Reconnaissance," McElheny focused on Land's "secret career as a military advisor" in the 1950s to President Dwight Eisenhower. As a prolific inventor and founder of one of the nation's most innovative photographic equipment companies, Land was well-suited for advising government decision-makers on photoreconnaissance technology. His strong personality and shrewdness, according to McElheny, rather than prior achievements alone, placed Land at the center of Cold War photoreconnaissance policy developments.

Land made significant contributions to national defense policy during the early years of the Cold War through his participation on a number of advisory committees and study panels, including Project Charles and Project Beacon Hill. Completed in August of 1951, the Project Charles report advocated improving national air defense measures and provided a justification for the establishment of MIT's Lincoln Laboratory and the development of the SAGE air defense system. In the Beacon Hill report of 1952, Land and his co-authors advocated improving radar and photoreconnaissance techniques to keep track of Soviet military developments. In these projects and as a member of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board from 1952 through 1957, Land earned his credentials as a member of the civilian scientific elite (which included such luminaries as Theodore von Karman, James R. Killian, and John von Neumann) that exercised a great deal of influence over military science and technology policy during the Cold War.

Possibly Land's greatest contributions to national defense came in 1954 when James R. Killian appointed him head of the Intelligence section of the Air Force Technological Capabilities Panel. In this position, Land focused on reconnaissance measures and facilitated the development of the U-2 spy plane and satellite technology. An
enthusiastic proponent of developing a high-flying spy plane for reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union, Land decided at the outset that, given Air Force priorities and the urgency with which the nation needed to put a spy plane in the air, the CIA should have responsibility for covert reconnaissance missions with the Air Force playing a supporting role by managing the development of the technology. Land, according to McElheny, harassed important Air Force and CIA officials to make sure that they did not overlook Kelly Johnson's CL-282, the only design Land thought feasible. Not content to remain in a policymaking role, Land engaged with Johnson, the founder of Lockheed's ultra-secret Skunk Works Division, on engineering design priorities. Although Johnson and Land often disagreed vehemently over the configuration of the CL-282, in the end, their collaboration secured Air Force and CIA support for the Skunk Works plane, which later became known as the U-2.

Land again assumed a major role in national technology policy following the shock of Sputnik in October of 1957. Faced with a complex set of policy choices, President Eisenhower named James Killian as his first science advisor and created the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC). As a member of PSAC, Land co-authored a study that led to the establishment of the highly-secretive National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), participated in the formulation of policies that strengthened science education, and promoted the development of satellites for commercial and scientific purposes. Land also served on a special committee alongside Director of Defense Research and Engineering Herbert York, Harvard Physicist Edward Purcell, and General James Doolittle, that laid the foundations for the transformation of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) into NASA, the civilian space agency which has done much over the past forty years to promote nonmilitary uses of space. Nevertheless, Land's contributions to civilian space efforts pale in comparison with his long-term commitment to the nation's secret reconnaissance program. Land and his PSAC intelligence panel continued to review proposals and provide technical oversight for spy-plane and spy-satellite projects, from the Oxcart to Project Corona, until President Nixon abolished PSAC in the early 1970s.

McElheny argued that the history of reconnaissance technology as told through the life of Edwin Land does not fit neatly into the dominant Cold War paradigm which characterizes the two superpowers as lacking the ability and the desire to restrain weapons development. The Cold War was more than a mad race between the Soviet Union and the United States for ever larger and more powerful weapons. By bringing the power of rational inquiry to bear on government policy, Land and fellow members of the scientific elite altered the dynamics of the Cold War. Against military leaders who might otherwise have disregarded intelligence measures in favor of even greater investment in offensive capabilities, Land emphasized "restraint by reconnaissance." By improving our knowledge of Soviet actions and capabilities, McElheny argued, reconnaissance measures prevented misunderstandings which might have lead to the deployment of nuclear weapons or to a misapplication of resources on unnecessary weapons programs. Edwin Land dedicated himself to improving the technological and political status of reconnaissance measures in the United States and, in this way, contributed to world peace.

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