A National Imperative (1945 - 1955)
Japan’s attack on American forces at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 created a national goal to prevent other surprise attacks on the nation. After World War II, the Soviet Union became America’s principal enemy as a new and potentially more dangerous Cold War emerged. Moscow developed increasingly powerful weaponry, and beginning in the 1950s, moved steadily toward acquiring heavy bombers then long-range missiles. Concern over surprise atomic attack, a so-called “nuclear Pearl Harbor,” emerged after U.S. planes detected increased atmospheric radiation from the first Soviet atomic test on August 29, 1949. The North Korean invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950 also caught American intelligence unaware, and (coming less than a decade after Pearl Harbor) escalated fears of surprise attack. As the possibility of war with the Soviet Union grew, America looked to intelligence to provide indications-and-warnings of an attack. But traditional “spycraft,” which relied on undercover agents to gather information, was extremely difficult behind the Iron Curtain due to tight Soviet counterintelligence, the closed nature of Soviet society, and the vastness of the Soviet landmass. The country with the largest landmass in the world was puzzling to American leaders. Washington needed accurate information on the number of Soviet bombers, the location of Soviet forces, the intentions of Soviet leaders, and other critical intelligence. Without this knowledge, many Americans feared a Soviet attack could surprise the United States.
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Beacon Hill Report

In late 1951, Major General Gordon P. Saville, Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Development, added 15 reconnaissance experts to Project Lincoln, an existing study on air defense under way at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This new group’s purpose was to examine ways of conducting reconnaissance against the Soviet Bloc. The group included James G. Baker and Edward M. Purcell from Harvard University; Edwin H. Land, founder of the Polaroid Corporation; Richard S. Perkin of the Perkin-Elmer Company, and Air Force Lt. Col. Richard Leghorn.

Their headquarters, located on Beacon Hill in Boston, became the codename for the reconnaissance project – the Beacon Hill Study Group. During January and February 1952, the group traveled every weekend to airbases, laboratories, and companies for briefings on the latest reconnaissance technology. They were particularly interested in new approaches in aerial reconnaissance, such as photography from high-altitude planes or balloons. On June 15, 1952, seven months before President Harry S. Truman left office, the group published the Beacon Hill Report, which supported additional resources for radar, radio, and photographic surveillance; new technologies such as passive infrared and microwave reconnaissance; and the development of an advanced high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft.

Technological Capabilities Panel

Interest in reconnaissance increased after Dwight D. Eisenhower succeeded Truman as president in January 1953 and expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of intelligence on the Soviet Union and China. On July 26, 1954, President Eisenhower created the Technological Capabilities Panel (TCP), informally called the “surprise attack panel,” to assess America’s defenses in light of growing national threats. The group, composed of about 40 of the nation’s top scientific and military experts, first met on September 13, 1954, led by Dr. James R. Killian, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For the next 20 weeks, the group held 307 separate meetings for briefings, trips, and conferences, and had discussions with every major defense and intelligence community organization, before issuing their findings in a February 1955 report, Meeting the Threat of Surprise Attack. Unlike other commissions, which issued reports that were ignored, the TCP recommendations (at the personal insistence of President Eisenhower) accelerated the development of advanced weapons and intelligence collection systems that became vital to America during the Cold War. Killian, who became the first White House science advisor in 1957, and other TCP members, also gave science a leading role in national policymaking. The TCP report confirmed the shortage of accurate intelligence on activities behind the Iron Curtain and feared the Soviets would overtake America in military strength. The panel recommended developing the Polaris sea-launched ballistic missile, accelerating construction of the Distant Early Warning line across Northern Canada, allocating more resources for America’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) program, and creating Short Range Ballistic Missiles (SRBM) as a substitute until the ICBM program became operational.

The TCP also recommended developing a small civilian scientific satellite to establish the example of “freedom of space” for follow-on military satellites. The panel considered the Air Force and Navy satellite programs side projects that would take too long to initiate. They preferred to focus on near-term solutions like high-altitude aircraft. One of the most significant recommendations came from the TCP’s intelligence subcommittee, directed by Edwin Land (who had worked on the Beacon Hill Study Group), which called for the Central Intelligence Agency to develop an advance reconnaissance aircraft proposed by the Lockheed Corporation – the U-2.