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  • Continental Defense in the Eisenhower Era: Nuclear Antiaircraft Arms and the Cold War
  • Rebecca Slayton (bio)
Continental Defense in the Eisenhower Era: Nuclear Antiaircraft Arms and the Cold War. By Christopher J. Bright. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Pp viii+280. $84/$28.

In January 1961, about one-fifth of the weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal—nearly 4,200 out of 18,686 weapons—were deployed for continental defense. This fact is striking in light of the subsequent build-up of nuclear offenses, and it provides the focus of Continental Defense in the Eisenhower Era. The book aims to trace “the development of atomic antiaircraft weapons . . . related official actions, doctrinal decisions, and public policies,” and “their manifestation in popular culture” (p. 2). On the whole, the book succeeds in its aims. Historians of nuclear weaponry will find a wealth of information about the development, testing, deployment, and publicity surrounding U.S. atomic antiaircraft weapons during the Eisenhower era.

The first chapter describes the early development of weapons such as the army’s Nike missile, equipped with a W-7 nuclear warhead, and the air force’s Bomarc missile, equipped with a W-12 nuclear warhead. These war-heads yielded between two and four kilotons of explosive power, a relatively small fraction of what was dropped on Hiroshima. This chapter also discusses President Eisenhower’s early deliberations on air defense, noting that his 1953 commitment to develop a continental defense system said nothing about the nuclear nature of the antiaircraft weapons and had relatively little bearing on the army and air force’s early developments. This observation might be read in support of a view that has emerged among many nuclear historians, that the military services enjoyed considerable autonomy in the early development and deployment of nuclear weapons. However, the book merely observes, and does not suggest this broader analysis.

The second chapter discusses the scientists and engineers who influenced Eisenhower’s policies in the mid-1950s, focusing most on Robert Sprague. Without disputing the significance of Sprague—who has received attention from Valerie Adams, Fred Kaplan, and others—one wonders why he dominates the scene. This reader was not convinced that Sprague [End Page 947] deserves more attention than James Killian, Jerrold Zacharias, Albert Hill, or Lloyd Berkner, or other individuals who are mentioned only in passing in this book.

A third chapter discusses the testing of nuclear warheads for air defense, decisions to pre-delegate authority for their use, and announcements of the early air defense system. Bright makes the interesting observation that Eisenhower apparently worried less about pre-delegation for air defense than he did for offense, because the defensive weapons were to be used against military rather than civilian targets. It would have been intriguing to read a more thorough analysis of contemporary views on the ethics of war and nuclear weapons use.

Subsequent chapters relate the development and deployment of the air force’s Genie rocket and Bomarc and Falcon missiles, and the army’s Nike-Hercules missile. They discuss the services’ intriguing efforts at public relations—ranging from cards of the Nike-Hercules in breakfast cereal boxes, to a “Miss Bomarc” hairstyling contest (the winner is more notable for the missile-like costume adorning her curvaceous figure than for her hair). These chapters also provide an unusual look at the local dimensions of air defense. For example, they recount discrimination against African American soldiers deployed to Nike-Hercules sites in the South.

A concluding chapter reads more like an epilogue, discussing the evolution of nuclear defenses after Eisenhower’s term. John Kennedy celebrated air defenses, and they might have been used during the Cuban missile crisis had events followed a different path. However, from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s, the weapons were slowly taken out of service. The rationales for the drawdown are underdiscussed, as is any role of the anti-nuclear movement. Bright concludes that air defenses had little impact on the Soviet Union’s decision to focus on missiles rather than bombers.

This book is well-researched and copiously annotated—indeed, the 104 pages of endnotes comprise nearly 40 percent of the book. It is also thick...


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pp. 947-948
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