Ashley Conkle

Political Science 501 – Dr. Angel

Research Paper

May 28, 2004


Eisenhower’s Impact on National Defense


            The Cold War era was a time of much trial and tribulation in the United States.  The 1950s and 1960s were especially troublesome years as tensions were strong between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower, attuned to these tensions, was concerned with the security of the U.S. and took measures to strengthen America’s national defense.  He revamped the National Security Council (NSC), created the office of National Security Advisor (NSA), commissioned the Killian committee to assess the Soviet Union’s military capabilities and America’s capability to defend itself.  He then implemented some of the committee’s more sensible recommendations, such as the U-2 spy plane, and the study of civilian defense.  By following some of the committee’s recommendations and implementing changes to the defense department, Eisenhower was able to recognize the problems in America’s national defense system and develop solutions, which gave the U.S. a more stable future.

            When Eisenhower took office in 1953, he found himself faced with rising tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and minimal options for national defense except nuclear weapons.  One of the first steps Eisenhower took to strengthen national defense was to reorganize the National Security Council, a body created in 1947 by the National Security Act, to advise the president on matters of national security (Snead 22).  When Eisenhower took office, he inherited a National Security Council that was very inefficient and ineffective.  He quickly sought to change the NSC and asked Robert Culter to examine the NSC and recommend changes to make it a more effective body (23).

            Cutler assessed both the make-up of the NSC and how the NSC conducted meetings.  He eventually concluded that the president needed to expand the five-member senior NSC staff to include an advisory committee or planning board that would develop policy papers and advise the president.  He also recommended that the president attend the NSC meetings on a regular basis and chair the meetings (23).  Eisenhower agreed with both recommendations and expanded the NSC to include the Secretary of the Treasury, the director of the Office of Defense Mobilization, and the director of the Mutual Security Administration, which would meet, along with the original five-member senior NSC staff to develop policy papers on national security issues (24).  The restructuring of the members of the committee and the commitment of the president to attend regular meetings gave the NSC more advisory power and gave the president a forum for discussion on national defense policy.

            Culter also recommended that the president create an office for a special assistant within the NSC allowing for better coordination.  He argued that the creation of this post would make sure that the board fully discussed all issues presented to it and that both the NSC and the president stayed fully informed of the many aspects of any one issue (Bose 39).  In response to this recommendation, Eisenhower created the office for a special assistant, which later became known as the National Security Advisor; this office has seen its powers grow with subsequent presidents.

            Once he had reorganized the NSC, Eisenhower started to deal with the problems facing the nation, namely the issue of the threat of nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.  Eisenhower knew that he needed to do something to keep the threat in check.  People within the government as well as those outside of it pressured Eisenhower to increase the amount of money spent on defense.  Eisenhower believed that increasing the defense budget without first assessing the threat was hasty.  In September 1954, Eisenhower commissioned the Killian committee to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the Soviet Union.  It also assessed America’s vulnerability to attack and what the administration needed to do to improve U.S. offensive and defensive capabilities (Snead 35-36).  The chairman of the committee was James R. Killian, the president of MIT and later, Eisenhower’s Science Advisor, divided the committee into three panels, of which each would investigate a different aspect of national security.  The first panel investigated America’s offensive capabilities, the second panel investigated continental defense, and the third panel investigated America’s intelligence capabilities (36).  Combined, these panels reached several important conclusions.

            The committee concluded that aircraft and missiles were an important deterrent and might cause the Soviet Union to hesitate before attacking the U.S.  It also concluded that “the United States is at present unacceptably vulnerable to surprise attack.  [Its] military defenses are as yet numerically deficient and have serious qualitative weaknesses” (38).  The U.S. lacked the numbers and strength to defend the nation from surprise attack.

            The committee also felt that the U.S. did not have a clear picture of Soviet capabilities.  It discovered that the different U.S. intelligence agencies based their estimates of the Soviet Union’s capabilities on “limited firsthand evidence, extrapolations from known U.S. weapons capabilities, estimates of Soviet manufacturing, and sightings of Soviet military hardware” (38).  These types of information were not very specific, nor completely reliable.  The committee concluded as such that this vague basis for estimates of Soviet capabilities was dangerous to America’s national defense.

            Through its conclusions, the committee made several recommendations.  It recommended that the U.S. accelerate the development of ballistic missiles, acquire additional bases for Strategic Air Command (SAC), review U.S. and Soviet target systems, construct the Distant Early Warning Line to allow the earliest possible warning of a Soviet missile launch directed at the U.S., develop a gap-filled radar to allow the U.S. military to detect Soviet planes at any altitude, use nuclear weapons against Soviet bombers and missiles, study ways to protect civilians better in the case of a surprise attack, and develop a spy plane capable of photographing the Soviet Union from high altitudes (39-40).  The committee presented all of its findings and recommendations, except for its recommendation of a spy plane, to the president at a meeting of the NSC. 

            President Eisenhower liked many of the committee’s recommendations and implemented some of them right away, such as the acceleration of missile development, the protection of civilians, and the development of a spy plane.  He accelerated the production of ICBMs and IRBMS and quickly approved the production of two ICBMs, the Atlas and the Titan, and two IRBMS, the Jupiter and the Thor.  He also approved funding for the development of a new type of ballistic missile, Polaris, which was solid-fueled and submarine-launched (Herken 89).  This helped to strengthen not only U.S. defense but also improve America’s military technology.

            However, before ordering the production of even more ballistic missiles, Eisenhower first conducted intelligence operations to determine just how many additional missiles the Department of Defense needed to develop to adequately protect the U.S.  One of the major intelligence programs that he initiated was the U-2 spy plane, a result of the Killian committee’s recommendation to develop a spy plane to photograph Soviet nuclear missile stockpiles and launch sites.  On the recommendations of Edwin H. Land, the chairman of the third panel of the Killian committee, which investigated U.S. intelligence capabilities (Land 1), Eisenhower ordered an investigation into whether a spy plane was necessary.  His staff soon determined that it would greatly improve U.S. intelligence of the Soviet Union and at a meeting of Eisenhower, Secretary of Defense, Allen Dulles, and several high-ranking military officials in late November 1954, Eisenhower approved the allotment of $35 million for the development of “thirty special high performance aircraft” (Goodpaster 1).  This was the first step in the creation of a program that would greatly improve intelligence estimates of Soviet nuclear capability.

            Throughout its duration, the U-2 discovered where the Soviets had missile sites but located very few missiles.  There had been a growing concern in the U.S. that the Soviet Union had considerable numbers of ICBMs.  In a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) from 1957, the government estimated that the Soviet Union would have 100 ICBMs by 1960.  In 1960, they had thirty.  Another estimate for 1962 gave the Soviets 1,500 ICBMs.  In actuality, the Soviets had only then just reached the 100 ICBMs that they were supposed to have in 1960 (Licklider 615).  The implementation of the U-2 allowed Eisenhower to know the actual number of Soviet ICBMs and keep down the amount of money spent on defense.

            Another recommendation of the Killian committee that Eisenhower followed was the recommendation to study how to protect civilians in the case of a surprise attack.  In May 1957, Eisenhower established the Gaither committee to determine how much protection passive and active defense programs provided for the population and which programs would be most effective in protecting the population.  Eisenhower gave the committee access to nearly every intelligence source in the U.S except the U-2 because he feared the repercussions should the Soviets discover the existence of the program.

            The Gaither committee investigated ideas such as fallout shelters and an early warning system as well as the current defense spending and the threat of Soviet attack (Snead 96).  It concluded that the current U.S. active defense system was inadequate, the passive defense system was not sufficient to provide protection for civilians, SAC was vulnerable to attack, the defense department was poorly organized, and the was an increased risk of attack as the Soviet Union developed more ICBMs (120).  They determined that the U.S. government needed to make major changes to its defense systems to defend itself adequately from a Soviet attack.

            The committee recommended that the administration give SAC more air bases so that it had better response time in case of an attack.  It also felt that SAC was not prepared to defend its bases from attack and recommended that the military should install Nike-Hercules missiles around the base to fortify them (122). 

            Another recommendation that the committee made was that the U.S. needed to accelerate the development of ICBMs and IRBMs.  It recommended that the administration increase the number of planned ICBMs from 80 to 600 and the number of IRBMs from 60 to 240 (122).  If Eisenhower agreed to do so, it would mean that the defense budget would also have to increase, something that Eisenhower wanted to avoid because he wanted to keep the budget balanced without having to raise taxes or cut programs.

            The committee’s recommendation to accelerate the ballistic missile program allowed Eisenhower to use the intelligence information garnered from his U-2 program.  The Gaither committee did not have access to the U-2 intelligence but Eisenhower did.  The U-2 flights were revealing that the Soviets did not have the stock piles of nuclear weapons that most people in the U.S. believed.  With the intelligence information that Eisenhower obtained from the U-2, he kept the increase of missiles to 130 ICBMs and 180 IRBMs (154), keeping the amount of money spent on defense down as well.

            The Gaither committee’s recommendation of a reorganization of the defense department is the recommendation that Eisenhower liked the most.  He had been trying to get Congress to implement changes in defense by they had been reluctant to do so.  When the committee released its report, recommending reorganization, Eisenhower quickly drew up a proposal to do so.  He wanted the troops of every branch of the military overseas to have one commander that would oversee them all instead of a commander for every branch because it would allow for better communication.  This commander would report directly to the Secretary of Defense, who reported directly to the president.  He wanted the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to answer to the Secretary of Defense instead of to their separate branches of the military and he also wanted the JCS to concentrate more on managing their respective branches instead of developing operational plans.  His proposal also included a recommendation that the government create a position for a director of defense research and technology and also a recommendation that Congress appropriate funds to the Secretary of Defense instead of the different branches of the military (151).  The Gaither report allowed Eisenhower finally to convince Congress to pass his proposal for the restructuring of the defense department and give the military continuity and the power that it had lacked in the past.

            Eisenhower was very important to the development of the defense department that the U.S. has today.  He restructured the military so that it could communicate better with the president, making it easier for the president and those in the field to react to quickly evolving situations, and gave more power to the NSC, allowing him and future presidents to have a better forum for debate about military policy.  He also commissioned several studies to investigate the effectiveness of America’s national defense, and implemented changes to the structure of defense programs to help the military more efficiently and keep the country safer on the recommendations of these studies.  Eisenhower’s programs and policies put the country on a path to a more stable future and gave subsequent presidents more insight into military affairs so that they could make more informed decisions. 






                                                                     Works Cited

Bose, Meena.  Shaping and Signaling Presidential Policy: The National Security Decision

Making of Eisenhower and Kennedy.  College Station, Texas: Texas A&M UP, 1998.

Goodpaster, Andrew J.  “Memorandum of Conference with the President – 24 November 1954.” 

26 May 2004.  <>.

Herken, Gregg.  Cardinal Choices: Presidential Science Advising from the Atomic Bomb to SDI. 

Stanford, California: Stanford UP, 2000.

Land, Edwin H.  “Letter to Allen Dulles – 5 November 1954.”  26 May 2004.


Licklider, Roy E.  “The Missile Gap Controversy.”  Political Science Quarterly 85 (1970): pp.


Snead, David L.  The Gaither Committee, Eisenhower, and the Cold War.  Columbus, Ohio:  The

Ohio State University UP, 1999.