Larger than Life Personalities and the 1958 International Geophyiscal Year

Posted on by Dave Oliver

Yesterday an international watch company (Jaeger-LeCoultre) rolled out a new watch based on a model they had first introduced during the International Geophysical Year in 1958. In America they unveiled the collection in New York City at the Explorer’s Club on East 70th Street (the former Clark residence of Singer sewing machine fame).

Since the world’s first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus (SSN 571) made the first crossing under the North Pole that year, an event which captured world attention, and I had served on Nautilus and discussed this event in the book which will be published this fall, the invited me to speak to the watch enthusiasts gathered for the event. Linda and I thus took a round trip on the train yesterday from DC and I gave a talk based on the following —

Magnetism, Magnetic Personalities
and The 1958 International Geophysical Year

Let me quickly sketch some background in the event there are a few of you who were not blogging in the 1950’s. I will keep try to keep this to 144 characters… or so.

If you recall, during World War II, Stalin suspected that the United States and England had delayed coming to Russia’s aid until Germany had bloodied itself trying to take Moscow. Consequently Stalin erected an iron curtain of border states and divided Germany to prevent that situation from ever happening again. Those border states were to the West and South of Russia. To protect Russia on the North and East, Stalin relied upon pack ice and his hundreds of diesel submarines.

My short précis of physics involves how submarines used to navigate at sea. There was no GPS until well into the seventies and satellites weren’t reliable until even later. Therefore, to navigate underwater we relied upon gyrocompasses and stabilized them through the feedback of magnetic compasses corrected for where we believed magnetic North actually was. This works, as long as you are not close to the actual North Pole, because as all of you experts probably know, magnetic north moves, propelled by the bombardment of solar rays, in a roughly daily ellipse nearly fifty miles in diameter, and has moved laterally more than a thousand kilometers during the last century, so if you operate near the Pole, relying on magnetism is a no-no.

Okay, physics and geography lesson complete, let’s go back to the 1950’s and larger-than-life personalities.

In 1950, with the advances in rocketry, radar, and computing, several world scientists had suggested having a worldwide Geophysical Year during the eighteen months between July 1957 and December 1958.

Unfortunately for the United States, in 1955, the President’s Press Secretary, James Hagerty, had announced “that the United States intended to launch “small Earth circling satellites” as part of the United States contribution to the International Geophysical Year.” This was not to be, as the Navy, which was responsible for launching these satellites, was unable to get them off the ground.

But, the Navy was not the only Service to perform poorly, for in March of 1957, the Air Force accidentally dropped an atomic bomb on Mars Bluff, South Carolina. President Eisenhower and the people of Mars Bluff were fortunate that nuclear fission wasn’t triggered but several people were injured by the conventional explosives.

A month later unemployment in Detroit reached 20% and shortly thereafter Governor Faubus decided to resist integrating the public schools in Little Rock. President Eisenhower, the former Five Star Commanding General of the Army, was forced to nationalize the Arkansas Guard and send Army troops to patrol the high schools.

The day after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, as Commander Anderson, the Commanding Officer of USS Nautilus (SSN 571), later said in his book about traveling under the North Pole, “in Little Rock, for the first time in days, there was no headline on the front pages of the morning Arkansas Gazette or the Evening Arkansas Democrat newspapers about the tumultuous events surrounding the integration of the city’s Central High School and President Eisenhower’s (Army troop led) efforts toward that end. That story was replaced with the news of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik launch.”

To answer the Soviet technical challenge, President Eisenhower, at the urging of his senior naval aviator aide, who happened to be a personal friend of that same Commander Bill Anderson, decided that if Nautilus did a crossing under the North Pole, it would distract the world from the Soviets’ achievements (and various US failures), and emphasize that the Soviet Union did not have any nuclear submarines.

Both Anderson and Eisenhower’s senior naval aide, Pete Aurand, would wait to inform anyone in the Pentagon about the proposed North Pole passage until after the President was committed to the mission. Admiral Rickover, who was the father of nuclear submarines, and was in charge of both nuclear safety and had been Commander Anderson’s boss, would be even more of an afterthought.

President Eisenhower and his press secretary, James Hagerty, quickly perceived that this North Pole mission had the potential to swiftly make the United States appear technologically as well as militarily superior to the Soviet Union. Equally importantly to Eisenhower, there was no extra cost. The United States Navy had already set aside money for a nuclear submarine building program. Therefore highlighting a nuclear submarine success did not have the downside of implicitly endorsing a budget-busting space effort to catch up with the Soviets. Controlling military spending was consistent with President Eisenhower’s domestic and military priorities and Nautilus was a perfect asymmetric answer to Sputnik.

The President knew his political stakes were high. If the mission failed, he did not want it known. There had been enough US failures. At the same time, he wanted to exploit full credit for any success and accordingly insisted on controlling the timing of any and all announcements. He was clear that the concept and mission were to be treated as Top Secret.

With the Nautilus’s successful passage under the ice cap in the summer of 1958, the political gamble had paid off and the President announced the successful completion of the mission in the White House on August 18, 1958 (a ceremony to which Admiral Rickover was not invited).

As Commander Anderson (later to become Congressman Anderson from 6th District of Tennessee) wrote of the White House ceremony –

“I pointedly avoided talking about the strategic military impact of our transit beneath the ice. But it was obvious that Nautilus’s feat had immediately changed things in that regard.”

Time magazine made that point as well.

“In one voyage of one U.S. nuclear submarine…the Navy had…increased the power of the U.S. deterrent by laying bare the Communist empire’s northern shores to the future Polaris-missile-toting nuclear submarines…”


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