Most major defense projects of the past two decades have come in late, over-budget, or both. Worse, our biggest outlays haven’t gone for technologies that are maximally useful in conflicts against the terrorists and rogue and hapless states that smart people have long considered our biggest post-Soviet enemy.

We still spend vastly more on fighter jets suitable for scrambling against hostile air forces that don’t exist than we do on surveillance drones suitable for tracking terrorist networks that do. The biggest, grandest, military project–missile defense–has drained hundreds of billions of dollars without either working or showing the potential to defend against the weapons that future enemies will likely employ.

It’s thus helpful to hear the story of a time when the country showed the ability to quickly and smoothly create weapons and tools that mirrored national needs. A longtime New York Times reporter, now editorial page editor, Philip Taubman’s central message is that the military-industrial complex really worked for a brief period in the 1950s. We knew very little about the Soviet Union’s military strength or intentions. Infiltrating the Kremlin high command wasn’t easy and the Soviets regularly shot down the spy planes we occasionally sent hurtling over the country with cameras stuck in their bomb bays. So, we had no real sense of whether the Soviets were planning to attack us or who would win if they did.

But we came up with a solution: high atmospheric and space spying that would keep the cameras out of range of Soviet fire. The scientific and bureaucratic obstacles were fierce. But the country’s best minds achieved it, largely ahead of schedule and under budget.

The first major section of Taubman’s book describes the birth of the wildly successful U2 project. Originally conceived by a set of dreamers scattered around the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica and various American universities and companies, the project faced daunting technological problems. At the time of the U2’s creation, Soviet MiG fighter jets achieved altitudes of about 50,000 feet. So the spy plane needed to fly at about 70,000 feet: an altitude at which cameras rarely work, human blood evaporates, a lack of oxygen reduces engine thrust, and the thin air makes it harder to fly.

But the military-industrial complex solved all of those problems quickly. Thin, elongated wings helped compensate for the lack of lift, and expert pilots compensated for the lack of thrust. Special suits kept the men in the cockpit from exploding. And with the help of Polaroid inventor Edwin Land and others, the plane got a special 36-inch-lens camera that could hold more than a mile of film and take clear pictures showing objects on the ground as small as two and a half feet across.

The U2 flew only 24 missions before Francis Gary Powers was shot down in 1960; it never entered Soviet airspace again. But its career was as sweet as it was short. It proved that the missile gap was a myth, that the dreaded Soviet Bison bombers were scarce, and that we faced no imminent threat. In his memoirs, Dwight Eisenhower wrote, “U-2 information deprived Khrushchev of the most powerful weapon of the Communist conspiracy–international blackmail–usable only as long as the Soviets could exploit the ignorance and resulting fears of the Free World.”

Next, Taubman details the creation of the Corona reconnaissance satellite. Though not initially as successful budgetarily or technologically as the U2, the Corona may have proved more important and innovative in the long run. It was designed to take photographs from orbit and then eject film canisters that could withstand atmospheric reentry and literally parachute down to American recovery teams. The first years of the program were a morass of infighting, failed launches, and neglect. But from its first successful launch in 1960 to its end in 1972, Coronas photographed every Soviet ICBM complex and, Taubman writes, “created an invaluable archive of nearly every aspect of Soviet military power.”

Lastly, Taubman breezes through the innovations of the past three decades. He touches on the Blackbird, a 1970s spy plane that could get from Los Angeles to Washington in an hour and 10 minutes, and the creation of global positioning satellites. He also makes the now familiar, but still valid, point that this country’s reliance on spy satellites ultimately did a fair amount of indirect harm as well by providing such vast data that the CIA became less dependent on actual agents, which explains several of the agency’s recent debacles, such as its failure to anticipate September 11 and India’s 1998 nuclear tests.

First of all, smarter people populated Washington. The teams that worked on the U2 and the Corona were chock full of the brilliant young technologists who now work in the private sector. Mainly, they came because things just seemed to matter more then. (Having a president who had commanded the troops at D-Day didn’t hurt military recruitment either.)

Second, Taubman credits Eisenhower himself, adding to the recent wave of Ike-onification. For one, the general knew how to manage the interservice rivalries that scupper so many good military plans. He gave the U2 project to the CIA instead of the Air Force because he knew that a large bureaucracy would find a way to smother something so new and innovative. The former West Point math and engineering student also cared about science. He allowed high-level White House access to several supremely talented researchers and created the post of White House science adviser. The U2 wasn’t dreamed up in an afternoon. It had to ricochet from one study group to another, each modifying the contents and arguments for it along the way. Without scientists pressing for it in the Oval Office, it would never have made the agenda.

Third, the private-sector companies that worked on the project seemed to be more ethical. The rules were weak then. Lockheed Martin’s famed “Skunk Works,” which built the U2 and numerous other planes, faced little in the way of oversight or reporting requirements. The coalition of private- and public-sector forces that created the U2’s camera “would probably be unacceptable, if not illegal” according to today’s ethical standards, Taubman argues.

In short, Secret Empire is about an America different than we have today. Washington worked, the private sector was honest, and the president understood that science and technology could greatly enhance national security.

The military bloat and misplaced priorities of the last two decades have enabled our current president to pulverize opponents in a number of small wars. The insights of a generation ago accomplished something much more important: They helped us avoid the big one.