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Presidential Reflections on U.S. Intelligence: Dwight D. Eisenhower

From President Truman on, each president has written a note of thanks to the men and women of the CIA. These notes are displayed with the president’s official photograph in the Presidential Gallery of the New Headquarters Building. This story is the fourth in a series about the relationship each president has had with the CIA. This article will focus on President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

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When President Dwight D. Eisenhower took office in 1953, he was no stranger to the value of intelligence. Eisenhower had experienced the profound power intelligence could have during his days as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe in World War II. During Eisenhower’s tenure, the Cold War was at its height. Fortunately, advances in technology fostered by the CIA — such as the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft and CORONA — allowed Eisenhower to peer behind the Iron Curtain.


Sneaking a Peek With U-2

In 1954, President Eisenhower authorized the development of a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. Its purpose would be to fly over the Soviet Union and collect strategic intelligence. This mission was entrusted to the Central Intelligence Agency.

The CIA and Lockheed’s “Skunkworks” worked together to develop the U-2. It would be flown at subsonic speed by one pilot at altitudes of 65,000 to 70,000 feet. The U-2’s design allowed it to glide and stay aloft for more than eight hours. By 1956, the U-2 had been tested and was ready for its first flight over the Soviet Union.

Concerned by the potential for diplomatic conflict, and even war, that overflights of the Soviet Bloc could cause, Eisenhower reserved the right to approve missions himself. Eisenhower limited the number of missions to what he considered the minimum necessary to close vital intelligence gaps, which the photographs from the U-2 did with great success.

Soviet radars tracked most, if not all, U-2 flights over Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but their missiles and fighters could not reach high enough to shoot the U-2 down. All the Soviets could do was to deliver protest notes to the United States, and push their developers for technological or tactical breakthroughs, while American developers tried in vain to make the U-2 invisible to radar. After many failures, the Soviets were able to get a missile close enough on May 1, 1960 when they shot down a U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers.

At the Four-Power Summit in May 1960, Eisenhower said this about the U-2 project:

“It must be remembered that over a long period, these flights had given us information of the greatest importance to the nation’s security. In fact, their success has been nothing short of remarkable.”

Into Space With CORONA

President Eisenhower endorsed the CORONA satellite project in February 1958.

The purpose of CORONA was to provide broad imagery coverage of the USSR to identify missile launch sites and production facilities.

The project was a joint effort between the CIA, U.S. Air Force, and private industry. The head of the CIA project branch was Dr. Richard M. Bissell Jr., the Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence for Planning and Development.

By February 1959, the CORONA was ready for a test. Unfortunately, its first mission was a failure. From 1959 to 1960, CORONA experienced 13 failed missions. In spite of these setbacks, the project team never gave up.

Their persistence paid off. The first successful recovery of film from space occurred on August 18, 1960. In its debut, the CORONA acquired more overhead photographic coverage than all of the U-2 flights over the USSR to that date.

Invaluable Intelligence

Intelligence collected from the U-2 and CORONA projects showed that the Soviets had greatly exaggerated their military capabilities. There was, indeed, a missile gap, but it was sharply in favor of the United States.

President Eisenhower recognized the value of intelligence and organizations like the CIA. During the laying of the cornerstone for the Original Headquarters Building in 1959, Eisenhower paid tribute to Agency officers:

“By its very nature the work of this agency demands of its members the highest order of dedication, ability, trustworthiness, and selflessness — to say nothing of the finest type of courage, whenever needed. Success cannot be advertised: failure cannot be explained. In the work of intelligence, heroes are undecorated and unsung, often even among their own fraternity. Their inspiration is rooted in patriotism — their reward can be little except the conviction they are performing a unique and indispensable service for their country, and the knowledge that America needs and appreciates their efforts. I assure you this is indeed true.”

Carrying on the tradition started by President Truman following the Agency’s founding, President Eisenhower wrote a note to the men and women of the CIA acknowledging their service to the United States. He is the second president to write a note for the CIA’s Presidents’ Gallery:

An indispensable organization to our country.”


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Posted: Sep 07, 2010 07:05 AM
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2013 12:41 PM