July 18, 2017

DARPA: inventors of Agent Orange, the M16, GPS, and the Internet

DARPAThe Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World, by Sharon Weinberger

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Many of the products of the Pentagon’s in-house research facility, DARPA, are widely known. The Internet. GPS. The M16 rifle. Agent Orange. Stealth aircraft. What is less widely known and understood is the story of the scores of scientists, engineers, and bureaucrats who sired these and many other innovations over the nearly 60-year history of the agency. Now, journalist Sharon Weinberger has brought that history to light in a captivating account, The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World, her third book about America’s defense establishment.  

What is most distinctive about Weinberger’s study of DARPA is the wealth of information and insight she gained from interviews with dozens of current and former employees of the agency as well as with those who observed it in action over the years. Prominent among her interviewees were many of the men (and a couple of women) who served as DARPA’s directors. In the process, and in extensive archival research, Weinberger turned up a great deal of information about the agency in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s that has been ignored or even suppressed for many years.

DARPA’s shifting mission

DARPA’s mission has shifted sharply over the years. At its inception in 1958 and for a short while afterward, DARPA was the nation’s first space agency. DARPA’s focus quickly shifted to missile defense. “By 1961,” Weinberger writes, “ARPA was spending about $100 million per year, or half of its entire budget, on missile defense.” The Cuban Missile Crisis and President Kennedy’s subsequent emphasis on achieving a nuclear test ban accelerated the process. Along the way, this research “modernized the field of seismology” in the agency’s effort to detect underground nuclear tests. Around the same time, the agency became involved in counterinsurgency in Vietnam (and later in many other countries). The counterinsurgency work involved social science research as well as the development of new weapons such as the M16. DARPA’s most famous product, the Internet (originally ARPANET), was an easily ignored, low-priority project in the face of the billions spent on the war. During the 1970s, the agency turned its attention to what the Pentagon and the White House deemed the country’s gravest threat: the potential of a Soviet invasion of West Germany with a massive tank attack that could not be stopped with nuclear weapons alone. Within less than two decades, that threat evaporated. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union shocked DARPA’s leadership, as it did everyone else in the US government. The agency only gradually found its way forward with a primary focus on precision weaponry and the electronic battlefield. In Weinberger’s opinion, DARPA’s work today is aimed at much lesser problems than it has tackled in the past. It’s much more focused on solving specific problems posed by Pentagon brass rather than delving into genuine scientific research, which had been the case in earlier decades.

“Today,” Weinberger writes in her conclusion, “the agency’s past investments populate the battlefield: The Predator . . . Stealth aircraft . . . Networked computers . . . precision weapons . . .” But it’s unlikely anything as disruptive as the Internet is ever likely to come again from DARPA.

Revealing DARPA’s many huge failures

The history of DARPA in its early years in The Imagineers of War is especially strong. By burrowing into obscure declassified documents and interviewing many of those who were active in the agency’s first years, Weinberger uncovered the seminal role of William Godel. It was Godel who “managed to use the power vacuum at ARPA [following the loss of space programs to NASA] to carve out a new role for the agency in Vietnam.” Following the lead of the British in Malaya, where many of the tools of counterinsurgency were first developed, Godel built what ultimately became a multi-billion-dollar program in Vietnam. His aim was to make it unnecessary for the US to commit troops to the war, and in that he obviously failed miserably. It was Godel who promoted the notorious strategic hamlets and introduced Agent Orange and other defoliants as well as the combat rifle that came to be known as the M16. Because much of his work was clandestine and involved cash payments to undercover agents, Godel became enmeshed in an investigation into his program’s financial reporting and later spent several years in prison as a result of a colleague’s misappropriation of funds. Probably because of this intensely embarrassing chapter in DARPA’s history, and his later turn to gunrunning in Southeast Asia, Godel’s role has been deeply buried. There is not even a Wikipedia page for him.

William Godel was by no means the only DARPA executive to darken the agency’s history with outsize failures. Others squandered billions of dollars in sometimes lunatic schemes, such as a plan to explode nuclear weapons in the Van Allen belt in the upper atmosphere in hopes of destroying intercontinental missiles launched from Russia. The agency spent almost $2 billion in a failed effort to develop a prototype of a “space plane” that would travel at Mach 25 (“one of DARPA’s costliest failures”). Another embarrassing episode involved extensive research into mind control. An even bigger embarrassment loomed as a possibility in 1983 when Ronald Reagan announced his plan for the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”). Luckily for the agency, the work was shifted to a new Pentagon department that eventually blew a total of $30 billion on an effort that scientists had almost universally said was impossible with contemporary or foreseeable technology.

An earlier history of DARPA

In December 2015, I reviewed a then-new book, The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top-Secret Military Research Agency, by Annie Jacobsen. Jacobsen is the author of three other studies of the Pentagon: Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America, Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base, and, most recently, Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis. All four books were published by prestigious mainstream firms. I’ve cited all these titles to convey a clear sense that Annie Jacobsen is an accomplished and trustworthy source of information about the Pentagon. She has spent years researching the American military, with a focus on its activities in research and development. But it’s clear to me that Sharon Weinberger’s more recent study, The Imagineers of War, does an even better job of laying bare the truth about DARPA’s checkered history.

For a humorous take on a closely related subject by humorist Mary Roach, go to A journalist looks at military science.


Mal Warwick