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  • U.S. Presidents and the Militarization of Space, 1946–1967 by Sean N. Kalic
  • Damon Coletta
Sean N. Kalic, U.S. Presidents and the Militarization of Space, 1946–1967. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2012. 182pp. $40.00.

In U.S. Presidents and the Militarization of Space, Sean Kalic emphasizes the distinction between militarization and weaponization. Militarization is the exploitation of satellite capabilities for military purposes: navigation, communications, and remote sensing. These activities strengthen defense, giving the U.S. military certain advantages in monitoring events within the atmosphere. Yet, these same capabilities, like the Athenian wall in the time of Thucydides, also enable offense. They dramatically improve the effectiveness of attacks by terrestrial weapons and lay the foundation for offensive breakout through aggressive space-based systems. This last approach draws the term “weaponization,” and Kalic credits the space program presidents—Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson—for assiduously rejecting orbiting missile bases, lasers, and space mines.

Kalic builds his case around government documents and archived collections of papers, including some recently declassified files, of individuals involved in the presidential decision process. U.S. Presidents and the Militarization of Space is nevertheless a thin volume and at times prone to repetitive prose. Kalic maintains his focus when analyzing the mountain of archival materials on U.S. space policy during the Cold War. At each juncture in the development of the national space program, Kalic reminds us, “both the military and civilian space efforts served to reinforce the fundamental objective ... to preserve space as a weapons-free frontier for the benefit of all” (p. 119).

Thinly sliced history has both advantages and a downside. Kalic helps us see surprisingly strong links, across a 20-year time span, between individual advisory reports and otherwise obscure presidential choices to back some satellite projects while slow-rolling others. The distinctions between weapon-enhancing capabilities and weaponization, and between nuclear warheads flying through space to strike targets and fractional-orbital bombardment systems that placed nuclear weapons in orbit (p. 83), may seem like a hard sell to naturally skeptical Cold War allies in Europe and Asia. Yet, by stringing together the fate of diverse U.S. space programs and tying the pattern back to big ideas about space nurtured in think-tank reports dating from 1946 (p. 8), Kalic succeeds. U.S. presidents of both parties, from the time of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik launch in 1957 to U.S. Senate ratification of the Outer Space Treaty (OST) in 1967, did not simply get lucky. They studied the issues of militarization and weaponization, they listened carefully to contending arguments, and they thought hard [End Page 184] about civilian and military uses of space. Against bureaucratic and political pressure, they cultivated a distinction. They stopped shy of space weaponization, and they made reflective self-restraint work for U.S. interests.

Remarkable as this sequence of virtuoso performances from the presidency sounds, Kalic’s interpretation generally conforms to the historiography of early U.S. space policy. Kalic acknowledges his debt to Paul Stares’s The Militarization of Space: U.S. Policy, 1945–1984 (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1985), and he draws strength from Walter McDougall’s epic political history The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (New York: Basic Books, 1985). Without citing the book directly, Kalic’s tale of prudent hedging and strategic insight with regard to space also tracks well with the inspiration for Michael E. O’Hanlon’s recommendations in Neither Star Wars nor Sanctuary: Constraining the Military Uses of Space (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2004). These books share an urgent concern that the era of the U.S. government’s perspicacity with regard to space may meet an abrupt end. Stares, eyeing Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), and O’Hanlon, a generation later, worry that hawks in Congress or space-power advocates within the U.S. Air Force will finally win the day, sending the United States down the expensive and dangerous path of weaponization. McDougall sees space as a kind of honey trap, drawing U.S. democracy toward massive, smothering, illiberal government in order...


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pp. 184-186
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