I am very, very lucky. I’m lucky in so many ways. I won a lot of lotteries in life. I’m not just talking about Amazon, a certain financial lottery, for sure. I have won so many lotteries.
The man born Jeffrey Preston Jorgensen is commonly known as Jeff Bezos.
He got his middle name from his maternal grandfather, Lawrence Preston Gise. The family called him ‘Pop’ while others called him ‘Preston’. Bezos spent influential years with his grandfather. It was this patriarch who got his grandson interested in all sorts of technology, including mechanical equipment but most of all computers. And this is who Bezos credits for his success, claiming to have learned his critical business skills while visiting his retired grandfather’s ranch every summer from age four to sixteen.
Keep the following in mind when hearing claims of Jeff Bezos being self-made. Who was Lawrence Preston Gise? Jeff’s grandfather was a major government official, apparently with significant wealth, influence, and connections. He was well respected.
“Some of the top brass in the Pentagon were charged with single-handedly picking top talent for ARPA, renamed DARPA in 1972 — the “D” for “Defense” (Christian Davenport, The Space Barons), “the research and development arm of the Department of Defense that is credited with designing a communications network that could still function even if a nuclear attack demolished conventional lines of communication, ARPAnet, was the foundation of what would eventually become the Internet” (Expose the Deep State, Jeff Bezos). “Wilfred McNeil, the Pentagon’s comptroller, helped recruit top talent to help run the agency. One of his top choices was Lawrence Preston Gise, a stolid and principled former navy lieutenant commander” (Davenport).
Besides Gise being a founding member of DARPA, later on “in 1964, Congress appointed him manager of the Atomic Energy Commission’s Albuquerque operations office, where he supervised 26,000 employees in the AEC’s western region, including the Sandia, Los Alamos, and Lawrence Livermore laboratories” (Chip Bayers, The Inner Bezos). But he had previously worked for the AEC and even earlier in the military: “Born in Texas, Gise had served during World War II, and service records show he was assigned to the USS Neunzer, a destroyer, and then to various administrative jobs. He also served as an assistant director at the Atomic Energy Commission, starting in 1949, and was promoted to assistant director in 1955” (Davenport).
Gise was a creature of government, specifically of the military-industrial complex. He also oversaw government work done with private contractors. In various capacities, he was involved in numerous projects, some of them covert. For example, he was a key member in secret meetings about the development of the hydrogen bomb. This guy had immense knowledge and experience about both technology and the workings of government. He was far beyond the standard bureaucrat, as his technical skill was not only theoretical but applied, with his career having been focused on space technology and missile defense systems. When he helped raise his grandson, Jeff Bezos received the full attention in being tutored and moulded for a life of privilege and ambition. Considering that, it’s not that Bezos as a corporate tycoon sold his soul to gain position and power in government, for he didn’t need to. He inherited the social connections, the access to private and public funding, and the open doors into government. “The question is what else came with that inheritance, whether it was all, so to speak, just on the receiving end” (National Notice, Interesting to Think That it All Began With BOOKS?).
Like his grandfather, Bezos always was a creature of government. His corporatist worldview, presumably, always leaned toward corporatocracy. And Bezos is likely being honest in his moral claim of corporate patriotism, self-serving as it is, since he undoubtedly doesn’t see a difference between his own interests and those of government. As a member of the ruling elite, he takes it for granted that government is there to serve and represent those born into privilege. The Gise-Bezos family is a variant of the Bush family, in both cases wealth and power passed from one generation to the next and in both cases there was a grandfather as the original patriarch who ensured the family’s legacy.
Gise’s influence wouldn’t have been minor. Young Bezos would have heard his grandfather talk about government programs and government research and development. This would have given him an inside view along with some insider knowledge: “Pop doted, telling stories about missile defense systems and teaching him to lay pipe and castrate bulls” (Mark Liebovich, Child Prodigy, Online Pioneer). It’s unsurprising that Bezos developed a company like Amazon that has a shipping and information system of the kind one would expect from DARPA, as Bezos might have been modeling it on what he learned from listening to his grandfather. It’s even possible that with Gise’s connections, Bezos was able to hire former government workers and advisers who had experience in developing such systems. Either way, Bezos didn’t invent Amazon out of thin air. Amazon is a late product of the Cold War mindset, a distributed system built on the internet which itself was built on DARPA’s ARPANET.
“The Pentagon has been part of the Silicon Valley story all along. Defence contracts during and after World War II turned Silicon Valley from a somnolent landscape of fruit orchards into a hub of electronics production and innovations ranging from mainframes to microprocessors to the internet. The American tech economy rests on the foundations of the military-industrial complex. […]
“The military origins of modern tech gradually faded from view, but the business of war didn’t go away. The Pentagon remained the only place with the resources and the patience to fund blue-sky research that the market wasn’t quite ready for yet. Mr. Bezos knows this history well. His beloved grandfather Lawrence Preston Gise was one of the first employees of the Pentagon’s advanced research agency, Darpa. In the 1980s and 1990s, money from Darpa helped spur breakthroughs in high-speed networking, voice recognition and internet search. Today, it is funding research in artificial intelligence and machine learning, subterranean exploration and deep-space satellites, high-performance molecules and better GPS. Whether their employees realize it or not, today’s tech giants all contain some defense-industry DNA. The result is the conflicted identity we now see in Silicon Valley.”
(Margaret O’Mara, Silicon Valley Can’t Escape the Business of War)
At the National Notice blog, it is stated that, “Amazon is an internet company engaged in surveillance as a key part of its profit model and it works with the federal government and the federal government’s military and CIA.” This is in reference to Yasha Levine’s Surveillance Valley. In the blog post, part of the Amazon blurb is shared: “Levine examines the private surveillance business that powers tech-industry giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon, revealing how these companies spy on their users for profit, all while doing double duty as military and intelligence contractors. Levine shows that the military and Silicon Valley are effectively inseparable: a military-digital complex that permeates everything connected to the internet, even coopting and weaponizing the antigovernment privacy movement that sprang up in the wake of Edward Snowden.”
As a side note, not only Bezos’ grandfather but also his stepfather, who he considers his real father, was a product of the Cold War. Again from the National Notice blog, an intriguing background is detailed:
“Although Mike Bezos worked as a petroleum engineer for Exxon, what’s more interesting about him is his status as a sort of quasi-orphan by virtue of how he arrived in this country alone in 1962 at the age of 15, something that would very likely contribute to a somewhat unusual mind set. He arrived from Cuba as part of what has been reported to be a CIA-run program: “Operation Pedro Pan” or “Operation Peter Pan.” A description of the secretly operated CIA program in Counterpunch says the goal of the program was to “separate elite children from parents (a Cuban brain drain) [ultimately 14,000 Cuban children] and generate political instability,”and according to one of the CIA recruits “to wage psychological war — to destabilize the government.” Evidence reportedly shows that this was done via the CIA working deceptively with a priest and the regional Catholic hierarchy to forge documents and spread lies to convince wealthy Cuban families that Castro’s government was going to take their children away.
“A 2011 NPR retrospective on the program that the Counterpunch article cites only to criticize says that “the Pedro Pan kids have done well” and that they are “firmly opposed to any normalization of relations with the Castro regime, the regime that was responsible for breaking up their families and forcing them from their homeland.” ”
Mike Bezos was the father who raised Jeff Bezos, having given him his surname. Even though he wasn’t as well positioned as patriarch Gise, Mike Bezos did work in another in another sector closely tied to the military-industrial complex, that of oil. They obviously were doing well as a family. Bezos’ elite education began early. “His parents enrolled him in a pilot program for gifted students at Houston’s River Oaks Elementary School, 20 miles from their home. […] In 1978, Exxon transferred Miguel to Miami, where the family lived in a four-bedroom house with a pool in the affluent Palmetto district of Dade County. Jeff enrolled at Palmetto High, an incubator of high achievers. He gravitated to a group of about 10 kids from his honors classes.” (Mark Liebovich, Child Prodigy, Online Pioneer). In high school, he had the opportunity to work with the first generation of personal computers. Also at the time, he participated in the Student Science Training Program at the University of Florida and a space initiative at NASA’s Huntsville, Alabama, center. Not many high schoolers back in the 1970s had such good fortune. Bezos admitted this in an interview with Henry Blodget: “I am very, very lucky. I’m lucky in so many ways. I won a lot of lotteries in life. I’m not just talking about Amazon, a certain financial lottery, for sure. I have won so many lotteries. In life, we get a lot of rolls of the dice. One of the big rolls of the dice is who are your early role models.” One suspects Gise was more than a mere roe model. He likely played an active and maybe interventionist role in ensuring his grandson got the best opportunities and resources, quite likely sometimes pulling strings behind the scenes, by making introductions to important people, etc.
Those connections and that influence would have followed Bezos into adulthood, such as entering Princeton, “the only school he wanted to attend” (Mark Liebovich, Child Prodigy, Online Pioneer). While there, he “had first used the Internet in 1985, in a Princeton astrophysics class.” He “was a member of Phi Beta Kappa,” “was also elected to Tau Beta Pi and was the president of the Princeton chapter of the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space” (Wikipedia), picking up further social connections along the way. Graduating from Princeton then gave him numerous job opportunities with high level tech and financial businesses, his grandfather’s reputation surely having opened up some doors as well: “he was offered jobs at Intel, Bell Labs, and Andersen Consulting, among others.”
Come on, self-made man, really? “Jeff Bezos, now the richest man in modern history, began with a $US100,000 “investment” in 1995 from his parents after leaving “a cushy gig on Wall Street”, where he served as vice-president of D. E. Shaw & Co, to pursue Amazon,” as Roqayah Chamseddine points out. The Washington Post claims the amount his parents gave him was much higher: “The company was launched in 1994 with a $300,000 investment from his parents and loans from his own bank account,” along with raising “$1 million from 20 local investors” (Mark Liebovich, Child Prodigy, Online Pioneer). The background to Bezos success is explained well by that Liebovich article from the Washington Post written long before he bought the paper:
“Among the leaders of the New Economy, Bezos offers perhaps the starkest contrast with the up-from-nothing titans of the Industrial Age. Where many of his corporate forebears had firsthand experience with poverty, Bezos is the child of affluent, suburban comfort and a close-knit family. From within this world view, his competitive drive stems more from his joy in the test than from an appreciation of want or failure.
“Since super-achievers often cluster, Amazon, like many high-tech firms, tends to recruit managers from a New Economy version of the old boys’ network. Many of them graduated from the same schools and worked together at the same companies. Recent hire Jonathan Leblang graduated from Palmetto High with Bezos. Risher attended Princeton with Bezos and was a member of the same eating club, where he recalls Bezos was a ferocious player of beer pong. Risher, like several Amazon managers, came from Microsoft Corp., a company Bezos studies closely and admires for its rigorous hiring practices.”
It sure is a lot easier to bootstrap yourself into the success of billionaire status when you’re born on third base with a silver spoon securely shoved up your ass. That isn’t to say he didn’t work hard. It’s clear that he learned work ethic from his grandfather. But he also inherited immense privilege with opportunities and resources freely and abundantly given at every point in his life. When he almost bankrupted Amazon in its early years, while making no profit, he still was able to secure billions of dollars in bank loans to pull his business from the brink. It partly reminds one of Donald Trump’s business strategy of losing lots of money while always having access to more money. And like Trump, Bezos demonstrates how money leads to more money (as a side note, the explanation for their mutual disgust is that they are two of the most powerful plutocrats vying for American power). It would be nice to be born into such financial security and comforting luxury. No doubt that breeds a confidence of expectation and entitlement.
Bezos became the richest man in the world by running an oligopolistic transnational corporation that dominates and drives others out of business by needing to make no profit, by controlling the largest online market platform that most small-to-medium-sized competitors are forced to use, by years of evading payment of taxes, by being directly tied into the biggest spending parts of big government, and by having many of his employees on welfare: “If a money-losing government-backed organization is providing a service at a price below private competitors, this is the very definition of a subsidy” (James Freeman, Trump, Bezos and the Amazon Subsidy). Amazon isn’t being operated like a normal business and, one might speculate, it isn’t being operated as a business at all. Even after recently losing upwards of $14 billion dollars, a CNBC article stated that, “Still, the company expects to see growth for its high-margin cloud and advertising businesses.” That is to say that will continue making plenty of money selling their customer’s data and in doing business with the CIA, NSA, and DOD. It’s one of the wealthiest and most powerful organizations in the world serving powerful interests, not all of them necessarily out in the open.
As some have indicated, Amazon is more akin to the business model of social media giants such as Facebook. Amazon has never made much money through selling products to customers and instead through selling the information gathered on customers, initially sold to advertisers and other interested parties but one suspects that other buyers are now seeking access, assuming those others didn’t always have access. It would be easy for a single person, maybe Bezos himself, to put a back door into Amazon’s computer system. The government, as we know from leaks, already has back doors into diverse technology and has made use of that ability. As Amazon and government become further entangled, the results are so predictable as to be inevitable.
This is what was so worrisome about Bezos buying the Washington Post. And those worries were confirmed when that newspaper began using unnamed government sources, often to defend government views and promote government agendas, in particular that of the CIA. There is a long history behind such dealings, though:
“Amazon‘s decision is troubling. But would it suggest a real shift? Former Post publisher Katharine Graham gave a speech in 1988 at the CIA headquarters, where she reportedly said this: “We live in a dirty and dangerous world. There are some things that the general public does not need to know and shouldn’t. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.” ” (Peter Hart, Amazon, WikiLeaks, the Washington Post and the CIA)
The days are long gone when the Washington Post challenged corrupt power in publishing the Pentagon Papers, although there was more going on in that historical event and the mainstream media relationship to it (see National Post’s Good Reason The New Pentagon Papers Movie Was About “The Post,” NOT The New York Times). For many decades, it has been a propaganda rag (e.g., running almost a piece per hour attacking Bernie Sanders in the day before his debate with Hillary Clinton and so helped to manipulatively shape public opinion, this having happened prior to Bezos’ buying WaPo). Then again, there is a long history behind the link between media and government, most especially the Washington Post.
“Amazon should be a walking poster-child advertisement for antitrust litigation and legislation. Instead, Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, the newspaper for the national capital where such issues should be discussed and where the careers and day to day lives of the all the legislators and government officials responsible for the enforcement such antitrust measures are reported on.
“The Washington Post has always had a special role in influencing the nation. We are pretty sure it was Peter Dale Scott, credited with coining the term the “deep state,” who in one of his interviews said that the Washington Post along with the New York Times and the LA Times was a preferred outlet by the CIA when it wanted to get its stories out to the public (often without telltale fingerprints). Whether that’s exactly the case, the Washington Post has certainly played an important role historically for the CIA in this regard.”
Going further back, into the 19th century, you can find examples of the Washington Post beating the war drum of imperialism. Here is from a Washington Post editorial prior to the Spanish-American War: “A new consciousness seems to have come upon us — the consciousness of strength — and with it a new appetite, the yearning to show our strength. . . . Ambition, interest, land hunger, pride, the mere joy of fighting, whatever it may be, we are animated by a new sensation. We are face to face with a strange destiny. The taste of Empire is in the mouth of the people even as the taste of blood in the jungle. It means an imperial policy, the Republic, renascent, taking her place with the armed nations.” In response, Howard Zinn wrote that, “Was that taste in the mouth of the people through some instinctive lust for aggression or some urgent self-interest? Or was it a taste (if indeed it existed) created, encouraged, advertised, and exaggerated by the millionaire press, the military, the government, the eager-to-please scholars of the time?” (Chapter 12, A People’s History of the United States)
It sure sounds like the beating of the war drum. Not a dispassionate reporting on a bloodthirsty public but an advocacy for American imperialism. Maybe the Washington Post and other big media companies have always played a propagandistic role for the powers that be. But the creation of the CIA no doubt upped the game. The WaPo has never been a newspaper overly concerned with vaunted ideals of democracy. As with many legacy media, it has sold a particular vision of American global power, what today we think of as the marriage of neoliberlaism and neoconservatism. It’s clearly been that way far beyond recent corruption of power, as it appears to baked into the American system. But that isn’t to downplay how Bezos has brought this corruption to a whole new level. He kicked Wikileaks off of Amazon servers apparently at the behest of the CIA or else to suck up to his prospective business partners in government. If the United States wasn’t yet quite fully a corporatocracy, it certainly is now. Amazon has essentially become an arm of the government with the WaPo as a committed propaganda operation.
By the way, the Washington Post doesn’t inform its readers of its connection to the CIA. No one bothered (or maybe was allowed) to mention this CIA background in the Wikipedia articles for Washington Post and Amazon nor does one find any reference to DARPA on Bezos’ Wikipedia page.. It’s not only the CIA, by the way. Bezos is doing business with numerous sectors of the government, from the NSA to the Department of Defense. These often no-bid contracts over the coming decade or so could easily add up in the hundreds of billions of dollars. The crony deal requiring the government to use Amazon as its primary source of online purchases alone will be, according to Vanity Fair, “some $53 billion every year.” That isn’t all profit, of course, as there are operating costs as well. Still, those are large sums of taxpayer money exchanging hands.
Bezos declared that he wouldn’t be ‘intimidated’ by critics. I take that as his saying he won’t be intimidated by free market values, democratic demands, public outrage, moral norms, and basic human decency. He has shown his opposition to even the most basic of democratic institutions such as public schools. Bezos is a neoliberal cast from the mould of the monopolistic Robber Barons and, as with the Golden Age, his big biz corporatism is tightly interwoven with big government corporatocracy, specifically the neocon military-industrial-complex. Here is how I put it in a previous post:
Nick Hanauer, a wealthy businessman and early investor in Amazon, has warned about the pitchforks coming for the plutocrats. He makes this warning because, as with Adam Smith, he knows inequality is bad for any hope of a free society and free economy. And Hanauer is talking not only to Trump-like Republicans but also to major Democratic political operators such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. “They’re super exploitive—just unacceptable,” Hanauer says. “What I can guarantee you is that Jeff Bezos is not going to change those things in the absence of somebody putting essentially a gun to his head and forcing him to do it.”
It’s ironic that President Dwight Eisenhower who warned of the military-industrial complex was the same man who helped build it. DARPA came out of Eisenhower’s administration and, as military men, Eisenhower and Gise probably knew each other. For all of Eisenhower’s warnings, the military-industrial complex is now far worse. Earlier last century, there was no equivalent to transnational tech giants, although tech giants working with authoritarian governments (Amazon with Saudi Arabia, Google with China, etc) is perfectly in line with old school fascism (from the banana republics to the Bush family making their wealth from Nazis). It’s a new and improved more of the same. Bezos likes to feel superior in his despising mediocrity, considering himself a genius and flattering himself in surrounding himself with a supposed meritocratic intelligentsia. But what occurs to me is how mediocre is his vision of society and humanity. Heartless hyper-competitive tycoons like him have been dime a dozen for centuries and it always leads to the same sad results.
Ask yourself this. If Jeff Bezos was a government agent or spymaster used to recruit agents (as has been the case with professors in the kind of Ivy League schools that Bezos attended)… If the Amazon corporation was a front group for a United States intelligence agency… And, to take this further, if the CIA or NSA had become an independent and autonomous rogue transnational governing body with the United States merely acting as a headquarters or primary client state… If any of this or some similar nefarious conspiracies were true, how would you know? Simply put, you wouldn’t know. Everything would appear exactly the same. That is how all successful conspiracies operate and most conspiracies are never discovered, especially not in the short term. It wouldn’t require many people to even know of the conspiracy, maybe only being necessary to have a single key figure such as Bezos himself. Certainly, considering his company’s deal with the CIA, there is much about that deal that even his top management doesn’t know. The significance of this isn’t lost on the National Notice, in that it isn’t only the influence the government has in picking winners and losers in the market but how in turn the biggest winners influence government, a bit of a chicken or egg scenario — more from the earlier quoted post:
“The other end of the spectrum of how the government is a presence injecting itself into the picking of winners and losers in the market place is the big company end. And obviously, Amazon is now a really big company. (For instance, circa 2014 Amazon was reportedly providing the CIA with cloud computing services pursuant to a $600 million contract.)
“When the companies that the United States relies on to do its intelligence work are really huge, when those companies have most of the available experts with security clearances working for them (at higher salaries than individuals working for the government), when those companies have most of the collected data and most of the systems that are up and running that the government has grown dependent on them for, plus when those companies have huge government derived income streams that they can recycle into lobbying for the big shares of secret government budgets that they are allowed to know and can talk about, but that the public isn’t allowed to find out about, there is a question of who is running the show. This question about contracting out is one that Tim Shorrock delves into and contemplates at length in his book mulling it over from many different perspectives. Finally, while government officials may or may not lose the upper hand, government officials can nevertheless direct huge influence about who amongst these big companies will be the winners or losers in the market.
“The implications of huge private corporations having so much power in the Intelligence Community are more pronounced given that, when individuals work for such private corporations, unlike the individuals who work directly for government, loyalties run in the direction of making profit. By corporate law definition, that means profit first, not patriotism. Furthermore, loyalties can be bought or sold. And private corporations pursuing private profit are becoming increasingly multi-national in character and thus untethered from the patriotisms of any particular nations, including ours, that may hire them. Hiring out to other private firms or interests (not nations) as they are allowed to do, they may be acting with no national patriotism at all.”
This is the very reason that the American founders, out of terror of imperial and corporate power, ensured not only division of power within government but division of power to separate government and business. They took seriously how conspiracies easily happen when cronyism and corruption is allowed free reign of oligarchic rule. This is also why many of the founders feared standing armies, as they no doubt would have feared even more the modern intelligence agency that, in acting in secret, is entirely lacking in transparency and accountability. They never intended that either the government or corporations would ever gain so much power. And about corporations in particular, they went to immense efforts to curtail their role in society, never having conflated a corporation with a private business, much less with legal personhood — a government corporate charter required an organization to serve the public good toward a narrow and short term purpose (building a bridge, establishing a hospital, etc) that lasted no longer than a single generation and that disallowed any involvement in politics.
A mega-corporation such as Amazon betrays everything the American Revolution was fought for, everything this country was founded upon. Well, not quite everything. Slavery or indentured servitude would fit well into neo-feudal neoliberalism. In fact, these transnationals are often dependent on quasi-slavery work conditions in places like China where employees are locked in guarded factories so that they can’t escape or kill themselves. This brave new world is what Jeff Bezos, more than anyone else, is bringing into reality. It’s the new American Dream. If you want to get a sense of what an authoritarian America would look like, all you have to do is watch the Amazon-produced show, The Man in the High Castle, that portrays an alternative history where the Nazis won. Considering the Nazi-funded Bush family helped so many Nazi war criminals into the country where for decades they worked for the government, who is to say that the Nazis in a broader sense didn’t win. The tech giant tycoons are just a new generation, a friendlier face of an old brutal force.
The rise of fascism once tore apart the world and it will do the same again.
* * *
by Expose the Deep State
Bezos’s maternal grandfather, Lawrence Preston Gise was one of the founding members the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research and development arm of the Department of Defense that is credited with designing a communications network that could still function even if a nuclear attack demolished conventional lines of communication, ARPAnet, was the foundation of what would eventually become the Internet. Gise later became regional director of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in Albuquerque. As a child Jeff Bezos spent summers working at his grandfather’s ranch in Texas, which is where possible CIA Kid accusations come from.
The Inner Bezos
by Chip Bayers
Lawrence Preston “Pop” Gise had held jobs that a young boy couldn’t help but find cool. Gise worked on space technology and missile defense systems at Darpa in the late 1950s; in 1964, Congress appointed him manager of the Atomic Energy Commission’s Albuquerque operations office, where he supervised 26,000 employees in the AEC’s western region, including the Sandia, Los Alamos, and Lawrence Livermore laboratories. He retired to his southwest Texas spread in 1968, and he doted on Jeff from the time his grandson was an infant. “Mr. Gise was a towering figure in Jeff’s life,” says Weinstein.
Bezos’s maternal grandfather was Lawrence Preston Gise, a regional director of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in Albuquerque. Before joining the AEC, Gise had worked for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research and development arm of the Department of Defense that was created in 1958 as the first response by the US government to the Russian launching of Sputnik I, the first artificial Earth satellite in 1957. Intended to be the counterbalance to military thinking in research and development, DARPA was formed, according to its official mission statement, to assure that the US maintains a lead in applying technology for military capabilities and to prevent other technological surprises from her adversaries. In 1970, DARPA’s engineers created a model for a communications network for the military that could still function even if a nuclear attack demolished conventional lines of communication: ARPAnet, was the foundation of what would eventually become the Internet. Gise retired early to the ranch, where Bezos spent many summers as a youth, working with him.
The Space Barons
by Christian Davenport
Eisenhower’s answer to the reporter’s pointed question was, in essence, that the country was working on it. The real response to the Soviets would come a few months later, when during his 1958 State of the Union address, he talked about the creation of a new agency within the Defense Department that would have “single control in some of our most advanced development projects.” This agency would be in charge of “anti-missile and satellite technology” at a time when “some of the important new weapons which technology has produced do not fit into any existing service pattern.”
The Soviets’ launch of Sputnik opened a new frontier — space — one that “creates new difficulties, reminiscent of those attending the advent of the airplane a half century ago,” he said.
The new organization would be called the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). Born from what the secretive agency now calls the “traumatic experience of technological surprise,” ARPA would be a sort of elite special force within the Pentagon made of its best and brightest scientists and engineers. But because it would transcend the traditional services — the army, navy, air force — many in the defense establishment looked askance at it.
Eisenhower didn’t care. To keep up with the Soviets, the nation needed to move past “harmful service rivalries,” he said.
Some of the top brass in the Pentagon were charged with single-handedly picking top talent for ARPA, renamed DARPA in 1972 — the “D” for “Defense.” Successful candidates would have to not only be smart and efficient, but they’d also have to be morally strong and confident, able to stand up to generals and admirals that might resent their very presence and consider them outsiders.
They were encouraged to push boundaries, and create new, futuristic technologies that aimed at keeping the nation several steps ahead.
“In the 1960s you could do really any damn thing you wanted, as long as it wasn’t against the law or immoral,” Charles Herzfeld, who directed ARPA from 1965 to 1967, told the Los Angeles Times.
Wilfred McNeil, the Pentagon’s comptroller, helped recruit top talent to help run the agency. One of his top choices was Lawrence Preston Gise, a stolid and principled former navy lieutenant commander. Born in Texas, Gise had served during World War II, and service records show he was assigned to the USS Neunzer, a destroyer, and then to various administrative jobs. He also served as an assistant director at the Atomic Energy Commission, starting in 1949, and was promoted to assistant director in 1955.
By the height of the Cold War, Gise found himself in the middle of an agency that was developing the hydrogen bomb. As a young employee, he had participated in a secret meeting in 1950 to discuss the development of the bomb with some of the agency’s top officials, including then-chairman Gordon Dean.
Gise was intrigued by the possibilities of ARPA, and what it represented at the dawn of the Space Age. But he was also aware that political pressure was mounting against its formation. With a family to support, he hedged his bets, making sure he would have a landing spot, just in case this experimental agency didn’t work out.
“So the agency was controversial even before it was formed,” Gise said in a 1975 history of ARPA. “My deal with McNeil was I would come over and handle the admistrative side of the business with the assurance that if the agency went up in blue smoke that he would absorb me in his immediate office, and he had a job set up for that purpose. But it was that tenuous back in those days.”
Gise was well respected by the agency’s director, Roy Johnson, who had left a high-paying job as an executive at General Electric for the post at ARPA. His goal was to ensure the country caught up and passed the Soviets, focusing much of his energy on space.
“Johnson believed that he had personally been given unlimited authority by the Secretary to produce results,” according to the ARPA history. “He really thought that he was supposed to be the czar of the space program…. Johnson perceived that ARPA’s job was to put up satellites. The space program became his principal interest.”
After three years at ARPA, Gise was lured back to the Atomic Energy Commission, which offered him a job in top management. But he continued to work alongside the agency, collaborating on an endeavor known as the Vela Project, which was designed to detect nuclear explosions from space through a high-altitude satellite system. In a message to his colleagues, Gise reported that “ARPA is implementing on a very urgent basis a program to establish its capability for detection of Argus effects” — an apparent reference to Operation Argus, three high-altitude nuclear test explosions over the South Atlantic Ocean in 1958.
Gise would continue to serve at the Atomic Energy Commission until 1968, when he wanted to close a factory that politicians wanted to keep open. The politicians prevailed, and Gise retired to his ranch in South Texas.
He was young, just fifty-three years old. But he was looking forward to life on the ranch. Plus, he had a young grandson to tend to, a remarkable little boy with big ears and a wide smile, who shred his middle name:
Jeffrey Preston Bezos
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