New History of DARPA Reveals Wacky, Terrifying Schemes

Nina Burleigh
New History of DARPA Reveals Wacky, Terrifying Schemes

The story of science in the service of war could start just about anywhere in human history, from Persia with Alexander the Great to Egypt with Napoleon. In her book about the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. government’s defense science agency, Sharon Weinberger selects as her starting point Nagasaki and the point of view of a 6-year-old boy waking up in a city of rubble and seared flesh after the second, and (so far) last, atomic bomb ever used on Earth.  

That cataclysmic moment is indeed the right place to begin the story of DARPA, because it was that agency’s scientists who were tasked with applying their genius to a dark, new reality. “The atomic bomb had proved that knowledge was power and whatever nation had the most knowledge would have an edge in the next war,” Weinberger writes.  

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She tells of an aide to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretary of defense, who had formerly been in charge of Procter & Gamble, who wrote after his first “doomsday tour” of America’s nuclear Armageddon machine—around the time DARPA began—that he had entered a world “where horror is as much a part of the scene as manufacturing cost is in the soap business.”

One of the agency’s first jobs was to arrange putting the first U.S. rocket-launched capsule into outer space, a project hastily pulled together in order to catch up with the Soviets, who were already sending dogs aloft. The space race was “a propaganda war” and—hard to imagine today—the U.S. was losing. But NASA soon took over the space projects—even as the Defense Department was proposing moon bases—and the DARPA scientists turned to another big job in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

In Vietnam in 1950, the U.S. Embassy in Saigon didn’t have a single officer who spoke Vietnamese. What they lacked in cultural understanding, though, the Americans made up for with science. By 1961, the U.S. was moving closer to war, as the scientists’ psy-ops schemes weren’t working to deter the Viet Cong. One plan was to play on local superstitions. (In the Philippines, an American adman-turned-CIA-officer had persuaded the anti-communist government to capture a rebel, drain his blood and leave two puncture holes in his neck, to play on villagers’ fear of vampires.) DARPA men also proposed herding pro-U.S. peasants into “strategic hamlets.”

Social engineering took second place to designing new hardware and weapons. For Vietnam, DARPA men dreamed up a fuel-efficient “airborne Volkswagen,” land mines disguised as rocks, thermobaric weapons and hormone-based plant killers to defoliate communist hideouts. The chemical defoliant Agent Orange was one of the agency’s Vietnam legacies.

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The bizarre and crazy plans cooked up by DARPA’s mad scientists over the years could fill many books, and Weinberger was spoiled for choice. A physicist named Nicholas Christofilos wanted to build a planetary force field to protect America from nuclear weapons. When that didn’t prove feasible, he came up with “Project Seesaw,” which involved drilling tunnels under the continent through which particle beams could be accelerated and aimed at incoming missiles. He solved the problem of the colossal expense of drilling such tunnels by proposing to nuke the holes.

“Think of it like a suppository,” Christofilos told skeptical fellow scientists. “As it goes through the rock, it creates a perfect tube.”

An effective particle beam would also drain the entire U.S. electrical grid, so he proposed nuking another vast hole next to the Great Lakes and draining them in just 15 minutes to power vast generators. A scientist who was there for that presentation said it went over well. The scientists in the room “all nodded their head and said, ‘My God, Nick, that may work.’” Project Seesaw was never funded at the requested $300 million, but it was, Weinberger writes, the longest-lasting project the agency ever planned, still on the table the mid-’70s.

Even though they were working for the war machine, DARPA’s scientists did incidentally improve civilian technology. The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), a computer communications system for the nuclear program, was a prototype for the internet. And DARPA’s desperate efforts to distinguish between aboveground nuclear weapons tests and earthquakes led to advances and standards in seismology worldwide.

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After John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the agency looked for ways to protect future presidents. Privately, they code-named the project Operation Barn Door—as in what you close after the horse escapes. Among the ideas: create a “mirage producing system” to heat air or gas around the speaking president to foil marksmen. Also, putting a fake, bulletproof sunshade on his head, an idea, the scientists suggested, that might also require “spreading fake weather reports” to justify its use.

Notoriously, they spent tens of millions of dollars on psychics to test ESP. In this effort, they didn’t go quite as far as the Russians, who were intrigued by a theory of parapsychology that proposed a link between mothers and children in which mothers might sense an offspring’s death over long distances. The Soviets tested it using mother and baby bunnies, and, according to Weinberger, it worked so well the Soviets considered bunnies a possible communications tool for submarines.

DARPA’s greatest accomplishment was probably stealth technology for aircraft. Memories of the tests it ran out of Area 51 continue to fuel UFO lore. But the agency’s relevance was on the wane even before the end of the Cold War.

DARPA was not directly involved when President Ronald Reagan approved the Star Wars missile defense initiative. But after 9/11, the agency did help the government harvest information via the internet and satellites. After Congress voted to end that Total Information Awareness program in 2002, the effort didn’t really die; it just went to black agencies. In the government’s crafting of a total surveillance state, the legacy of DARPA “ran much deeper” than any single program, Weinberger writes.

Her book introduces a cast of men—some actual mad scientists; others the kind of government bureaucrats who differ from each other over the years only in whether they wore suit and tie, bell-bottoms and tie dye, or leisure suits—the operative word being men. The agency had been around for five decades when President Barack Obama appointed the first female director. By that time, DARPA was holding competitions for self-driving cars in the Mojave Desert and inventing a ridiculous handheld device called the “Phraselator” that U.S. warfighters could hold up to interrogate Afghans in the field. It turned out the Afghans were more likely to tell the truth to a human than a handheld device.

The relevance of the federal agency in the creation of futuristic civilian-used devices currently pales in comparison with what’s going on in the private sector, where Silicon Valley and Elon Musk have taken the lead. Ultimately, this story is a sad one: scientists in the service of a war machine who left lifetime legacies both laughable and terrifying.

The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World, by Sharon Weinberger (Knopf, 496 pages).

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