Secret Empire

In Secret Empire: Eisenhower, the CIA, and the Hidden Story of America’s Space Espionage, Philip Taubman, a reporter and editor for the New York Times, tells the little-known story of the American development of space-based intelligence on the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The creation and deployment of such technological marvels as the U-2 spy plane and the first reconnaissance satellites in the 1950’s and early 1960’s helped prevent a disastrous military conflict with the Soviet Union. This also laid the foundation for an American reliance on technological espionage that would persist into the twenty-first century.

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower took office in 1953, he quickly grew frustrated with the dearth of good intelligence available on the Soviet Union, and especially its nuclear and missile programs. Eisenhower realized that such ignorance was extraordinarily dangerous in a world poisoned by the Cold War’s supercharged atmosphere of fear and suspicion. He did not want to go to war by mistake, or invest in costly weapons that were not necessary.

Since his days as a commander in World War II, Eisenhower had been impressed by the practical possibilities opened up by government cooperation with science. Working outside normal bureaucratic channels, Eisenhower set a small group of scientists, engineers, and businessmen the task of finding reliable and safe ways to spy on the Soviet Union from the sky. To maintain secrecy, Eisenhower entrusted the operational aspects of the program to the CIA. What resulted was an inspiring story of scientific and technological problem solving. First with the U-2, and then later with satellites, the United States received enormous amounts of intelligence on the Soviet Union that allowed informed American decision-making, and made possible a series of arms limitation agreements.

With great verve, Taubman tells a compelling story of Americans doing things right, and making the world safer as a result.