Drew Pearson drove to the Pentagon with an ambush in mind. It was 1957, around the ides of March—a fitting time for an ambush—and his car wended its way through a capital city brightened by spring’s recent arrival. On the National Mall, hints of narcissus displaced brittle winter air. Soon, the edge of the Tidal Basin would dissolve into clouds of pink and white cherry blossoms. But Washington’s buoyant sense of spring deflated on Pearson’s windshield as he drove from the yellow brick townhouse in Georgetown where he lived and worked, crossed the Potomac River into Virginia, and headed south, toward the vast five-sided bunker where defense officials had sequestered what was rightfully his. Pearson was angry. He had a long and trusting relationship with the Pentagon, and now, for his decades of courtesy, its highest officials had screwed him. To make matters worse, now they were giving him the runaround.
At 59, Pearson was the don of the Washington press corps and a consummate political insider. Every morning, kids on bicycles the country over bombarded front doors with newspapers carrying his syndicated column, The Washington Merry-Go-Round. Every evening, teletype machines in hundreds of newsrooms spat out the near-sibylline opening line of the Merry-Go-Round’s final edition—“Drew Pearson Says.”When Americans—from California housewives to Midwestern insurance salesmen to cabinet secretaries—wondered about the inner workings of their government, they turned to what Drew Pearson had to say. His column kept America informed about its elected officials. It went with America into the polling booth. It prompted official action. What Drew Pearson had to say was, in effect, a democratic institution. He wasn’t the kind of guy you gave the runaround.
At the Pentagon, Drew Pearson had something to say to an audience other than his vast readership. He had something to say to Charles Wilson, President Eisenhower’s secretary of defense. In the ambush Pearson had in mind, Wilson was Caesar to his Roman senators. The secretary of defense was a silver-haired man with a toothy smile, which he deployed with the ease of a man unencumbered by the job of overseeing the Cold War’s escalation. In person, Pearson called him “Charlie.”Stalking the halls of the Pentagon in March 1957, he surely had other names for Wilson in mind, but to utter them in public would have violated the decorum of the era.
As Wilson sat at the front of the briefing room, blinking in the TV news crews’klieg lights, Pearson bided his time. He would wait for the secretary to feel his way into the press conference routine. He would let Pentagon beat reporters feed Wilson the usual fare of the day—military aid to Vietnam, the nuclear missile stalemate with the Soviet Union, the race to put a manmade satellite into orbit. Then, with Wilson off guard, the knives would come out. He would embarrass Wilson in front of the TV cameras. Wilson deserved embarrassment because he had violated the unspoken code that governed how reporters and officials dealt with each other in Washington. Pearson had played the usual Washington game, and Wilson—who now looked so relaxed as he settled into the press conference—had changed the rules mid-match.
“Would you say,”Pearson asked in the flat accent of those, like him, raised with no regional allegiance, “that the statement that your guided missile program favors commercially the AC Sparkplug Division of General Motors—should that or should that not be classified?”
Wilson squinted through the brilliance of the klieg lights, trying to surmise who had just struck at one of his weak spots. Before becoming defense secretary, Wilson had been president of General Motors, and he was still dogged by a moment during his confirmation hearing, in 1953. He later insisted he had been misquoted. But the phrase that stuck was the one that appeared in newspapers at the time: “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.”Pearson was a distinctive-looking man. He had a long, thin face, with a near-bald pate and a graying moustache, which he kept carefully trimmed. But with the glare, Wilson probably couldn’t see a thing. He would have recognized the voice.
The “statement”Pearson now referred to was an unsigned memorandum he had obtained. It made the serious allegation that Wilson had put G.M.’s interests ahead of the country’s when, the year before, he had transferred the missile program at the heart of the nuclear arms race from the army to the air force with its profusion of G.M. contracts. When Pearson approached the Defense Department, as a courtesy, to ask about the memorandum—acquired in the course of his reporting—military officials confiscated it and refused to return it. When he protested that the document wasn’t classified, Pentagon censors took out their “secret”stamp and pressed it to the first page. Was Charlie Wilson, with his winning smile, trying to cover up the real reason for his air force decision?
What brought Pearson to Wilson in March 1957 began five months earlier—not on the tree-lined streets of Georgetown or in the wide halls of the Pentagon, but on an army base in northern Alabama. Before World War II, Huntsville, Alabama, was just a sleepy cotton town nestled amid the limestone karst of the Tennessee River Valley. Low on superlatives, it prided itself on being the “Watercress Capital of the World.”In 1941, preparing for likely American entry into the world war, the War Department built a series of facilities to manufacture and store munitions. That included not only bombs and grenades but also chemical weapons. It’s not clear how the people of Huntsville felt about the conversion of their agrarian hamlet into an industrial assembly line for the same kind of poison gas that had charred American lungs in the trenches of World War I. Whatever their initial feelings, Huntsville’s citizens came to embrace the military presence. Their economy grew and, in turn, they grew to rely on it. After the war—to the relief of a populace not much interested in a return to pastoral irrelevance—the newly established Defense Department decided to headquarter the army’s peacetime rocket program at the town’s Redstone Arsenal.
In 1950, a group of strange men appeared in Huntsville. The men—about 120 of them—were a curiosity in a town of only 15,000 people. They had come from Fort Bliss, in Texas, to build long-range missiles for what would become the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA). Before that, they had come from Peenemünde, on Germany’s Baltic Sea coast, where they had designed and built the Nazi V-2 rocket that terrorized London in the last year of World War II. These German scientists had been captured by American soldiers. Military officials had secreted them to the United States to keep them out of Soviet hands. Recognizing their value to American rocketry, those officials decided to put them to work. They would build new generations of V-2-like rockets for the United States. The rockets would served two purposes, each crucial to American dominance in the Cold War. Rockets bearing nuclear warheads—and their deterrent effect—would help keep the Cold War cold, or so officials hoped. Rockets bearing satellites—or, for that matter, people—into space were key to the most benevolent Cold War proxy fight, the space race.
In Huntsville, the local reaction could be summed up in the attitude of one Huntsville resident, who observed at the time, “The last time our boys had seen Germans, they were shooting at them.”It wasn’t out and out hostility. It was more perplexity. The scientists’military colleagues sought to smooth things over. According to the ABMA’s commanding officer, Brigadier General John B. Medaris, the army policy was to never refer to them as “German scientists.”Instead, “we called them ‘first-generation Americans,’or ‘former German scientists who are now American citizens.’”Surprisingly, the perplexity doesn’t seem to have lasted long, and the Germans were received with Southern hospitality.
The scientists cheerfully adapted to their new home. At Fort Bliss, the scientists had called themselves “POPs”or “prisoners of peace.”They lived in isolation in a military compound with nothing to do but admire the desert and distant mountains from their windowsills. In Huntsville, “we could …rent houses, and even build houses wherever we wanted to,”one of the scientists, Ernst Stuhlinger, later recalled. “We could join churches and other civil organizations. We had immediately nice neighbors, and the neighbors were very friendly with us, to us. Everybody called us first names, which was unusual for us.”
On integration, the chief German scientist, Wernher von Braun, took point. Von Braun was a tall, square-jawed man who might seem severe but for his disarming smile. He was highly sociable, not at all like the twitchy eponymous character he would later inspire in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. He became close to leaders in the Huntsville’s city government, chamber of commerce, and Episcopalian church. “We grew into the community quickly,”Stuhlinger said. It “became home.”
The ebullience with which they took to Huntsville surely has a darker side too. Many of them were happy to have avoided war crimes tribunals. To make their presence more palatable to the American public—not to mention their coworkers—intelligence agencies had whitewashed their Nazi backgrounds. To everybody who knew them, these were apolitical scientists with no interest in fascism and no knowledge of Nazi atrocities. The program was given a name, Operation Paperclip, befitting the portrait of oblivious eggheads that the Office of Strategic Services—and its successor, the Central Intelligence Agency—was trying to paint. Only many years later would it become clear that Paperclip protected scientists who had not only embraced fascism but used slave labor and performed grotesque human experiments. It’s unlikely that Huntsville’s community leaders would have embraced von Braun had they realized that he had volunteered to serve in the SS as early as 1933 and employed forced labor from concentration camps in the V-2 program.
By the mid-1950s, Huntsville had grown to a population of nearly 50,000. A quarter of that number worked at Redstone Arsenal, with 3,000 people employed in von Braun’s rocket program alone. So it came as a blow not only to the ABMA but to the entire town of Huntsville when, on November 26, 1956, Secretary of Defense Wilson released a “Roles and Missions Directive”announcing that the US. Air Force, rather than the army, would have chief responsibility—and would receive the budget—for the missile program von Braun had been developing at Redstone. The directive, dubbed the “Wilson Memorandum,”left the future of von Braun’s team deeply uncertain. Its engineers were left wondering whether the ABMA would be absorbed by the air force, ordered to work on less prestigious rocket projects, or simply disbanded. “The psychological impact at Huntsville was devastating,”Medaris would later recount, “not only at the Arsenal but in the town, and morale reached an all-time low.”The town’s economy depended on jobs created by the ABMA. Townspeople burned Wilson in effigy in Huntsville’s Courthouse Square.
For von Braun’s team, the decision was a betrayal of a tacit promise. The air force and the army had shared responsibility for developing intermediate-range ballistic missiles, or IRBMs. IRBMs were designed to travel over 3,400 miles at speeds of up to 16,000 miles per hour. A nuclear-tipped IRBM launched from the English countryside would be able to reach Moscow in under seven minutes. In short, these weapons were key to the Cold War.
The army’s IRBM was codenamed Jupiter, and the air force’s was Thor, as if to preordain that the inter-service rivalry would possess the rancor of sectarian strife. When Wilson issued his directive in November 1956, the army’s thunder god was winning the battle. Two months earlier, on September 20, 1956, von Braun’s team had successfully launched a Jupiter rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Thor lagged far behind. Air force officials could have gotten a good view of their rival’s September 20 Jupiter launch standing on construction equipment a few miles away at the future Thor test launch facility, which was then still many months from completion. In fact, the industry magazine Missiles & Rockets, in an issuepublished just days after the Wilson Memorandum, reported that “[t]op Pentagon officials are not entirely satisfied with the progress of the Air Force missile program.”
Von Braun’s team had expected that if they could develop a rocket better than Thor, it would win out, should Pentagon decide to cancel one of the two competing programs. Instead, Wilson rewarded the ABMA’s success with official annihilation. With a bureaucrat’s eye for the technicality, he observed in his memorandum that “the development of a weapon by a particular military department does not in itself predetermine its use.”Just because the army got to develop the Jupiter rocket, that didn’t mean the army would ever get to use it. An air force spokesperson added insult to injury, telling Missiles & Rockets that—absent the air force taking full control of the army rocket program—“it will be better for the country if the ABMA team were broken up and the individuals filtered out into industry and other organizations.”Von Braun would spend the next several months striving mightily in private letters to head off aeronautics contractors who sought to poach his staff.
From Huntsville, Stuhlinger saw the Wilson Memorandum in the Götterdämmerung imagery implied by the names Thor and Jupiter: “A lightning bolt struck out of that thundercloud that had been hanging dark and heavy over Redstone Arsenal.”Stuhlinger’s use of the past perfect continuous was not his second language failing him. The cloud had loomed near for days as persistent rumors of Wilson’s decision spread ahead of its publication, and the thunderhead had first appeared on the horizon over a year earlier.
In the burgeoning space race with the Soviet Union, as in the arms race, there was inter-service competition for the lead role. The goal was to get a satellite into orbit before the “Reds,”and the army’s Project Orbiter—run by von Braun’s team—was well on its way to edging out its rival, the Naval Research Laboratory’s Project Vanguard. Project Orbiter proposed to use the army’s Redstone rocket—a rocket based on the V-2—as a vehicle to put a satellite into orbit. Unlike the Navy’s rockets, the Redstone had a proven track record. Yet, an ad hoc Defense Department committee had, in August 1955, chosen Project Vanguard over Project Orbiter. The committee felt that the Navy’s rocket—though still under development—was a more “scientific”launch vehicle and possessed “more dignity.”It lacked a history of use for military purposes—and, one might add, Nazi purposes.
Von Braun’s team was incredulous. The Pentagon had settled for aesthetics over dispatch when time was of the essence. The space race was, after all, a literal race. “I’m all for dignity. But this is a Cold War tool,”Time magazine quoted von Braun as saying at the time. “This is not a design contest. It is a contest to get a satellite into orbit, and we are way ahead on this.”Even Milt Rosen, a civilian Navy engineer who presented Project Vanguard to the committee, was amazed. “I thought they’d win, too,”he would say afterward. “They had a rocket, and we didn’t.”
More demoralizing still, members of von Braun’s team were keenly aware that their Cold War opponent—the Soviet Union—was hurtling toward the finish line. Charles Lundquist, then a 31-year-old American engineer working on Project Orbiter, was in regular phone contact with a friend in Washington with access to current U.S. intelligence. “He was phoning me every now and then to say, ‘The Russians are about to launch a satellite,’”Lundquist said. “We knew it was about to happen.”Stuhlinger had gleaned similar information from Russian counterparts he met at international scientific congresses.
Von Braun’s chief interest was space. (During his time at Fort Bliss he had written a science fiction novel about space travel entitled Mars Project. Despite significant effort, he never found a publisher for it.) Yet, in public, he spoke as if resigned to defeat. “Let’s not get involved in this inter-service bickering,”he told his superiors. “Let’s concentrate on that work which is assigned to us.”
His private actions told a different story. Although instructed to stop all satellite work, von Braun—encouraged by a thirty-nine-year-old army colonel, John C. Nickerson, Jr., who served as the ABMA’s liaison with Washington—had his team divert the Project Orbiter rockets to the IRBM project. That would provide the cover his team needed to continue secretly to develop a rocket capable of launching a satellite. “Surely we didn’t think it was in the national interest to sit and let the Russians do it first,”if and when Project Vanguard faltered, Lundquist said. Forgotten by Pentagon overseers, Project Orbiter remained a presence in the imagination of the ABMA staff. Over coffee, Lundquist and his colleagues would joke about sneaking one of the missiles to Cuba and launching a satellite there: “If we can’t launch it as the army, we’ll all take a couple weeks off and go do it down there on our own.”
But if the Pentagon had forgotten about Project Orbiter, officials in Washington had not forgotten about von Braun’s ambitions, of which he continued to remind them. Von Braun and Nickerson had tried—and failed—to get the committee to reconsider its stance on Project Orbiter in April 1956. As the September 20 Jupiter-C launch approached, Defense Department brass grew skittish, though it’s unclear whether they realized that the Jupiter-C was the Project Orbiter rocket by another name. These officials, worried that von Braun’s obsession with spaceflight might drive him to sneak a satellite into the Jupiter-C, admonished Medaris to order the German scientist himself to confirm that the rocket’s payload—its fourth stage, in rocketry terms—was only sand. From Huntsville, Medaris called von Braun at Cape Canaveral. “Wernher,”he said, with a familiarity that belied his normally formal style, “I must put you under direct orders personally to inspect that fourth stage to make sure it is not live.”Obeying his orders, the large German lumbered out onto missile scaffolding suspended in the swelter of a hot Florida night, an evening that saw humidity near 90% and evening temperatures in the 80s. At the tip of the missile—his favored wool suit surely drenched in sweat, his boyish mop of hair matted to his forehead—he opened a hatch and peered inside. As he stared at a mound of sand, he must have dreamed of the day when, instead, he would look upon the wire-and-metal form of a satellite.
Two months later, Wilson’s decision pushed that dream further away. But as von Braun despaired, Medaris looked for solutions. Medaris was a stern and fastidious man. He wore his moustache closely cropped, kept his hair brilliantined, and arrived at the ABMA for the first time carrying a riding crop. He sought to replace pointless despondency among his men with soldierly pragmatism. (He opened a staff meeting on November 30 by announcing, “A bunch of people around this place are acting like children.”) The Wilson Memorandum, Medaris noticed, allowed the Army to conduct “limited feasibility studies”of IRBMs. Medaris saw an opening for the army to win back a place in the arms race. Through such studies, the ABMA could prove Jupiter’s superiority over Thor. It was a long game Medaris sought to play, and to play that game, he had to avoid losing before it began. Just after the memorandum’s release, he gathered his top staff—including von Braun and Nickerson—and told them that “there is one thing that we must not do under any circumstances, and that is to attack the decision itself. The very last time to harass a man is just after he has made a tough decision.”Others, like Nickerson, saw Wilson’s decision as less tough and more nefarious—a case of corporate nepotism, Wilson doing a favor for his former employer, General Motors. Whatever the reality, antagonizing the secretary of defense, Medaris feared, would only make matters worse.
Capitol Hill was not Drew Pearson’s preferred hunting ground. When congressmen or their aides saw Pearson’s long face and tidy moustache materialize at their office door, they knew he had stalked his quarry—government secrets—among the usual tipsters and executive branch sources and come up empty handed. Only then would he go “under the Dome,”as he called sniffing out news in the Capitol. The executive branch was where the banner-headline news got made, where investigations and wars began, where diplomacy faltered and failed, where covert operations were botched. Congress was where one scavenged for carrion—secondhand information on the real decision-makers culled from committee hearings and hallway scuttlebutt. But one day in December 1956, not long after the Wilson Memorandum devastated Huntsville, the Hill proved a happy hunting ground for Pearson.
The columnist was preparing for a Christmas trip to U.S. military installations in Canada and Greenland. He was accompanying a troupe of Broadway entertainers to “bring cheer to American troops in the Arctic,”as he put it. An unusual role for a journalist, it was a sign of the times that a Washington reporter would be invited to take part in a USO show. Bound for sub-zero temperatures, Pearsonsoaked up the unseasonably warm Washington December as he returned to his office in Georgetown, carrying a document he had obtained from congressional sources headed “Considerations on the Wilson Memorandum.”It might provide fodder for the Merry-Go-Round while he was in the frozen north.
The Merry-Go-Round’s headquarters were in a townhouse on 29th Street in Georgetown. Its Federal-style exterior of faded yellow brick and polished brass fixtures was as old as the city whose secrets it stockpiled. In one of the townhouse’s five offices, Pearson found Jack Anderson. Anderson was a handsome former Mormon missionary who had spent his Salt Lake City youth dreaming of a day when his name would stand for more than just a kid from a provincial city on a dead lake. He had come to Washington, after a reporting stint in China during World War II, to pursue that dream and, at 34, was one of Pearson’s four “legmen.”“Legmen”was Pearson’s name for the reporters who, with little recognition, helped him gather the political gossip and Washington secrets that fueled his daily column. The rooms in which the legmen toiled over their telephones and steno pads, Pearson was fond of reminding them, had once been slave quarters.
Both men immediately appreciated the significance of the “Considerations on the Wilson Memorandum.”Its presentation—complete with bullet points—was deceptively bureaucratic in form. In substance it was, as the journalists would later put it—albeit clumsily—“packed with as much explosive power as is packed in the warhead of a ballistic missile.”The document accused by name the senior-most echelon of the Pentagon—and its private contractors—of organizing the military’s missile and satellite programs not with the nation’s best interest in mind but on the basis of ambition, bitterness, greed, and nepotism. The document’s writer chastised the Defense Department in particular for failing to grasp the value of the army’s Jupiter rocket and Project Orbiter. It was obvious, too, that these weren’t the empty accusations of a conspiracy theorist. They were clearly levied by somebody with deep inside knowledge of the highest levels of military planning and policymaking.
The document accused Secretary of Defense Wilson of favoring the Thor rocket over Jupiter because a subsidiary of Wilson’s former employer, General Motors, was a Thor project contractor. It accused the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Arthur Radford, of prejudice against the army: “Admiral Radford is a rather bitter enemy of the U.S. Army and has made a long series of recommendations to Mr. Wilson which are hostile to legitimate Army interests.”It accused Secretary of the Air Force Donald Quarles of lobbying for the inferior Thor program simply because he had ambitions to become secretary of defense. It accused the air force of open disdain for its coordinate service. “Let’s face it,”the memorandum read. “Most Air Force officers think there is no need to have an Army.”Finally, it accused “[t]he aircraft industry, and particularly the Douglas Aircraft Co.,”which was in charge of the Thor project, of acting to maximize profit, even as that goal ran contrary to the national interest.
Besides its significance, Anderson and Pearson also immediately appreciated another thing about the document. It was not marked classified. But to eyes accustomed to poring over classified documents, it was clear that more than a few of the facts supporting the writer’s incendiary accusations—including upcoming launch dates and technical rocketry data—were almost certainly classified. Pearson had a policy of, in his words, “consulting competent agencies of the government regarding news affecting the national defense, especially news which might contain security information prejudicial to the nation.”The policy dated from World War II—a period when many journalists considered self-censorship a patriotic practice—but had continued in peacetime. There was also a thought, Anderson would admit though Pearson would not, of “journalistic self-preservation.”A Washington journalist shut out of government offices is a Washington journalist out of work. The process had the added benefit—still in practice today—of giving Pearson or his legmen an opportunity to pry further information loose during deliberations with agency officials.
As Pearson’s legman, it was Anderson’s duty to take the document to the Defense Department. One day in mid-December, Anderson left the yellow townhouse, crossed the Potomac, and—as Pearson would three months later—headed south. Across the river, the Washington Monument loomed, rocket-like, its launchpad obscured by the bare cherry blossom trees.
Anderson brought the “Considerations on the Wilson Memorandum”first to Brigadier General Andrew J. Kinney, the air force’s chief information officer. The document contained as much classified army information as air force information, and why Anderson went to the air force first remains unclear. It may have been chance, a coin-toss choice. A more likely explanation is that Anderson was thinking like a journalist. The air force was the primary target of the document. It was likely to react defensively, to want to rebut the claims made by the document’s author. An agency on the defensive and caught by surprise will sometimes disclose information with near reckless abandon in an effort to set the record straight. By going to the air force first, Anderson would be the only reporter there to gather whatever news might come dislodged in the process and bring it back to the townhouse on 29th Street.
Anderson’s meeting with Kinney didn’t work out as he’d planned. As Kinney read “Considerations on the Wilson Memorandum,”he “turned white.”Anderson described what happened next as if it were a goof from a silent slapstick comedy. When Kinney reached the document’s end, he “gulped hard”and, apparently without a word to Anderson, “rushed to the office of the Air Force Secretary [Donald] Quarles, who made equally good time taking the memo to Secretary of Defense Wilson.”Reading Anderson’s account, one imagines the legman’s All-American mug peering quizzically from around Kinney’s office doorframe as he watches a brigadier general flail—like Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp—through the staid halls of the E-Ring. Wilson “at once ordered that it be confiscated and turned over to his deputy Reuben Robertson for investigation. It lay in Robertson’s safe for ten days—not only out of reach of the authors, but also without the knowledge of Secretary of the Army Wilbur Brucker.”
When Brucker, ten days later, learned about the document’s existence, “he stormed into Robertson’s office, demanded to know why he had not been consulted, and angrily accused the Deputy Secretary of Defense of playing footsie with the air force.”The document may have been critical of the air force, but it contained classified army information. Brucker—evidently in a rage—also had some choice words for Anderson and Pearson, who had not brought it to him first. “It was a rip-snorting performance,”Anderson wrote, based on secondhand reports of the event. “Before Brucker departed, still breathing fire and fury, he took custody of the document and thereafter ordered the inspector general to find out who was responsible for the leak.”
When Pearson returned from the Arctic, he was outraged. Confiscation was unheard of and an abuse of the good will embodied in his clearance policy. The columnist got to work seeking the return of the document. Wilson personally refused to return the document even with classified portions redacted. “[T]he seizing of a document submitted by a newsman for guidance,”Pearson would write, “is unprecedented during my experience in Washington.”He sounded a cautionary note, warning that Wilson’s actions would not go unpunished by the press corps. The posture of the press with respect to government secrets—deferential in the wake of World War II—was poised to transform, from chummy to adversarial. The confiscation “makes much more difficult the voluntary machinery of asking the military’s advice on news which might involve security—a system which benefits the military more than it does the newsman.”Three months later, Pearson was headed back to the Pentagon to embarrass Charlie Wilson.
Meanwhile, unknown to Pearson and Anderson, a separate copy of “Considerations on the Wilson Memorandum”was in the mail, en route to the yellow townhouse in Georgetown. Mysteriously, it never reached its destination.
Across town, another copy of the document did reach its intended recipient, the offices of Missiles & Rockets, a trade magazine influential in military circles. The addressee—Erik Bergaust, the managing editor—had largely supported the army in its rocketry fights with other branches of the military, and it’s likely the author hoped Bergaust could further his cause. Through the bare hardwoods on Logan Circle, the editor could gaze daily on the bronze equestrian statute of Union Army commander John A. Logan, now garnished with a dignified patina. But a friendship—rather than romantic statuary—secured Bergaust’s apparent allegiance to the army.
In 1949, at age 23, Bergaust had emigrated from Oslo, Norway, where he had grown up under five years of Nazi rule. But Norway—in large part because of its own complicity—had fared well under the Wehrmacht, and in the United States, Bergaust had no compunction about striking up a close friendship with Wernher von Braun. In fact, the young editor had become a kind of Boswell to von Braun’s Dr. Johnson, chronicling the German’s work in painstaking detail in the pages of Missiles & Rockets.
“Considerations on the Wilson Memorandum”arrived unsigned and appeared to be unclassified. Bergaust, who had made many trips to Huntsville as von Braun’s Boswell, assumed that the ABMA’s press officer, Gordon Harris, had sent him the document as background. Bergaust was not aware that Medaris—the ABMA chief—had ordered his Redstone Arsenal staff to refrain from criticizing Wilson’s decision to favor Thor over Jupiter. But he was aware of that the ABMA staff experienced Wilson’s decision as a fatal cataclysm. It would not have surprised Bergaust, therefore, that an official document from the ABMA press officer was as vitriolic in tone as the document he had just received. What did a moribund agency have to lose by anonymously trashing an adverse decision to a friendly journalist? Bergaust was already scheduled to pay Redstone Arsenal a visit the following day. He could look into the document’s provenance then.
On a chilly January morning, with document in hand, Bergaust boarded a four-seat plane at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, destined for Huntsville. During the flight, he showed the document to his sole fellow passenger, a young brigadier general in the army named August Schomburg. “Very interesting,”he told Bergaust. “A damn good article if I may say so. However, I think there are a couple of things in there that aren’t clear yet.”His measured reaction could not have prepared Bergaust for the bedlam he would find in Huntsville. The document had come to him late. Brucker, the secretary of the army, had already acted on Pearson’s copy.
On landing, it quickly became clear that Gordon Harris had not sent Bergaust “Considerations on the Wilson Memorandum.”
“You too!”Harris exclaimed when Bergaust showed him the document. “You’ve got to give it to me. All hell has broken loose!”
Just days earlier, on December 31, Medaris had received a call while he and his wife were hosting Redstone Arsenal’s New Year’s Eve party. On the line was his boss in Washington, the army’s chief of ordnance, General Emerson Cummings. “His voice and manner were as cold as ice,”Medaris later wrote. “He informed me that the Inspector General of the Army, Lt. General Ogden, would arrive at Redstone Arsenal the following day and that he expected to see me immediately on arrival.”
“What’s the matter?”Medaris asked.
“He will tell you when he gets there,”Cummings replied.
1 “One day in 1957…” Details on Drew Pearson’s trip to the Pentagon were drawn from his account of the trip. Drew Pearson, “Charlie Wilson May Put His Foot in His Mouth But He Took the Wind Out of My Sails,” The Washington Merry-Go-Round, March 27, 1957, available in Jack Anderson Papers, MS2001, Box 23, George Washington University Gelman Library Special Collections Research Center (hereafter “JAP, Box #”); Drew Pearson & Jack Anderson, U.S.A.—Second-Class Power? (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1958), 157-158 (hereafter Second-Class Power).
1 “At 59, Pearson…” Details about Pearson’s reach can be found in Anderson book, Pearson books. Copies of the final typescript, from the 1950s, of The Washington Merry-Go-Round transmitted to subscribing newspapers can be found in the Anderson Papers, Boxes 20-31.
3 “The ‘statement’…” The details on the memorandum and the Pentagon’s reaction to it are drawn from accounts by Anderson and Pearson. Drew Pearson, “Secretary Wilson Ordered Court Martial on Basis of Secret Document Received by Merry-Go-Round,” The Washington Merry-Go-Round, March 11, 1957 JAP, Box 23. Second-Class Power, 156-157. Draft accounts by Jack Anderson, JAP, Box 317.
4 “Before World War II…” Background on Huntsville in Bob Ward, Dr. Space: The Life of Wernher von Braun (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2005), 75 (hereafter Dr. Space). Official Army history of Redstone Arsenal, available at http://www.garrison.redstone.army.mil.
4 “In 1950…” Details of arrival from Rebecca Wright, NASA Oral History, Interview with Ernst Stuhlinger, May 7, 1999, Huntsville, Ala., 19-21, available at http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/history/oral_histories/StuhlingerE/ES_5-7-99.pdf (hereafter “Stuhlinger Oral History”).
4 “‘The last time…’” Dr. Space, 76, 80.
4 “According to the ABMA’s commanding officer…” John B. Medaris, Countdown to Decision (New York: Putnam, 1960), 117 (hereafter Countdown).
5 “At Fort Bliss…” Stuhlinger Oral History, 19-20.
5 “On integration…” Dr. Space, 80. Ernst Stuhlinger, Wernher von Braun, Crusader for Space: A Biographical Memoir (Malabar, Fla.: Krieger, 1996), 105 (hereafter Crusader).
5 “‘We grew into …’” Stuhlinger Oral History, 21.
5 “The ebullience…” Annie Jacobsen, Operation Paperclip (New York: Little, Brown, 2014), 396-400.
6 “By the mid-1950s…” Population figure from Dr. Space, 75. Number working under von Braun fromMichael J. Neufeld, Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War (New York: Knopf, 2007), 301 (hereafter Dreamer).
6 “So it came as a blow…” The full Wilson Memorandum can be found in Missiles & Rockets, December 1956, 70-71, bound version available from Columbia University Library (hereafter M&R, month/year, page). The Medaris quote comes from Countdown, 120.
6 “…burned its author in effigy…” Dr. Space, 98.
6 “For von Braun’s team…” For details on IRBMs and the September launch, see Countdown, 118-120. Erik Bergaust, Reaching for the Stars (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960), 200-206 (hereafter Reaching). Crusader, 105.
7“In fact, the industry magazine…” M&R, December 1956, 83.
7 “Instead, Wilson rewarded…” Reaching, 199-207.
7 “An Air Force spokesperson…” M&R, January 1957, 25.
7 “Von Braun would spend…” Letters in Wernher von Braun Papers, MSS44172, Box 3, Folder 1957 O-S, Library of Congress (hereafter WvB, Box #, Folder #).
7 “From Huntsville, Stuhlinger…” Crusader, 105.
8“The goal was…” Background on Project Orbiter and Project Vanguard. Dr. Space, 97-98. Dreamer, 296-304. Matthew A. Bille & Erika Lishock, The First Space Race: Launching the World’s First Satellites (College Station, Tex.: Texas A&M Press, 2004),79-82 (hereafter First Space Race).
8 “‘scientific’”/ “‘more dignity’”/“‘I’m all for dignity…” “Reaching for the Stars,” Time, Feb. 17, 1958, 24.
8 “Even Milt Rosen…” First Space Race, 80.
8 “More demoralizing still…” Phone interview with Charles Lundquist, March 7, 2014 (hereafter “CL Interview”). Stuhlinger Oral History, 40.
9 “(During his time…” WvB, Box 1, Folder 1952; Box 2, Folder 1957 A-G
9 “‘Let’s not get involved…” Crusader, 105.
9“His private actions…” CL Interview. Dreamer, 303. Countdown, 120. Dr. Space, 98.
9 “‘Surely we didn’t think…’” CL Interview.
9 “Von Braun and Nickerson had tried…” Dreamer, 297-99, 303-04.
9 “These officials…” Countdown, 119-120. Dr. Space, 98.
10“…riding crop.” Dr. Space, 93.
10 “He opened a staff meeting…” Dreamer, 306.
10 “The Wilson Memorandum, Medaris noticed…” Countdown, 126.
11 “Capitol Hill…” Jack Anderson & James Boyd, Confessions of a Muckraker (New York: Random House, 1979), 15 (hereafter Confessions).
11 “The columnist was preparing…” Drew Pearson, “Entertaining Troops in the Arctic Is Cold Business,” The Washington Merry-Go-Round, Dec. 22, 1956, available in JAP, Box # 22.
12 “The Merry-Go-Round’s headquarters…” Details of the headquarters. Confessions, 7.
12 “Both men immediately appreciated…” Details relating to “Considerations on the Wilson Memorandum,” including quotes from the text of the document itself: Drafts of Anderson’s account in JAP, Box # 317. Second-Class Power, 156-157.
14“…‘journalistic self-preservation.’” Drafts of Anderson’s account of this episode in JAP, Box # 317. Pearson appears to have edited this observation out of the final account published in Second-Class Power, 156-157.
14 “Anderson brought…” Details of Anderson’s experience of the Pentagon. Drafts of Anderson’s account, JAP, Box # 317. Drew Pearson, “Secretary Wilson Ordered Court Martial of Col. Nickerson on Basis of Secret Document Received by the Merry-Go-Round,”March 11, 1957, available in JAP, Box # 23. Second-Class Power, 157.
15 “When Pearson returned from the Arctic…” Drew Pearson, “Secretary Wilson Ordered Court Martial of Col. Nickerson on Basis of Secret Document Received by the Merry-Go-Round,”March 11, 1957, available in JAP, Box # 23.
16 “Meanwhile, unknown to Pearson…” Draft of Anderson’s account, JAP, Box # 317.
16 “Across town, yet another copy…” Reaching, 210-211. Address of Missile & Rockets’ offices in Jack Anderson’s FBI File, JAP Box # 451.
16 “In 1949…” Frederick C. Durant, III, Introduction to Reaching, 12-13.
17 “‘Considerations on the Wilson Memorandum’ arrived…” Reaching, 212-213.
18 “Just days earlier…” Countdown, 126-128.