When America's economic and military power were peaking in the late 1950s, our government and military were willing to pour money into some pretty dubious ideas. Why? We could afford it. Everything gets the green light when not only is the national mood one in which the threat of the Soviet Union is the dominant concern but economic growth is averaging double-digit percentages annually. Sometimes in hindsight it appears as though we did things that had no real point just…because we could. Because why not. Because rockets and jet planes and big bombs are cool and hey we heard rumors that the Soviets are working on it and by the way did we mention the 12% GDP growth last year?
It is important to preface the following story with the context that in 1959 the U.S. was losing the Space Race and lagged behind the Soviet Union, albeit temporarily, in the development of large missiles. This was considered of extreme importance because of course every missile used to loft something heavy into space was also a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead or ten halfway around the world.
Perhaps eager to have a "Look! A success!" headline or perhaps simply for the sheer hell of it by the permissive logic of the Pentagon in those days, on today's date in 1959 the submarine USS Barbero launched a Regulus cruise missile at Jacksonville, Florida. Despite the many arguments in favor of doing so, the missile was not intended to destroy Jacksonville. Its warheads had been replaced with two mail containers filled with commemorative US Postal Service items to celebrate the first delivery of "Missile Mail." So, in case any part of this is unclear, the Navy collaborated with the Post Office to see if mail could be delivered by cruise missile.
Why? I mean. Why the hell not, right?
The Postmaster General enthused – with a straight face, apparently – that "before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail." The Pentagon, however, admitted candidly that there was no possible way to make rocket delivery of mail cost effective, with each cruise missile costing the 2017 equivalent of over a million dollars. The stamps carried by the Regulus mail had a value of four cents each. It didn't take a UNIVAC to figure out that this wasn't actually about delivering mail. A more reasonable interpretation would be that, with Sputnik and the American failure(s) to imitate its launch, the US wanted to show off that it could fire a cruise missile 1) from a submarine, and 2) with comparative accuracy over a long distance. No doubt the Post Office enjoyed the publicity and all involved, in that wholesome gee-whiz 1950s way, considered the stunt Neat-o, but other than to stimulate the American imagination and send Russian surveillance personnel to bang off a dispatch to Moscow about a cruise missile there was no real reason for doing this.
Wasteful? Sure. At the same time, it's hard to argue that Americans are happier today now that shenanigans of this type have been eliminated from the budget in favor of orienting all of the Pentagon's funds directly to killing foreigners.