Democrats should be careful when they invoke Sputnik. Their party’s response to the Soviet Union’s achievement may have helped win them three elections, in 1958, 1960, and 1962, but it also helped bring about the Cuban missile crisis and durably poisoned the political atmosphere around national-security issues.
After Sputnik was launched on Oct. 4, 1957, President Eisenhower reacted calmly; he knew that by not complaining about the overflight of U.S. territory by the Soviet spacecraft, he was setting a precedent. He understood the significance of Sputnik in large part because in 1953, almost immediately after taking office, he had ordered work to begin on America’s first spy satellite, the WS-117. As the Russians were basking in the glow of their space triumph, Deputy Secretary of Defense Donald Quarles said that the Soviets “might have done us a good turn unintentionally, in establishing the concept of international freedom of space.” Three years later, when the first U.S. spy satellites successfully delivered pictures from deep inside the USSR, no one in Moscow denounced the Americans for violations of the sacred airspace of Mother Russia. The U.S. no longer needed to fly U-2 missions in order to look inside their borders.
It is hard to imagine today what a huge advantage totalitarian states had in the pre-Sputnik era. They were closed societies, allowing the rest of the world to see only a carefully molded image of military strength, political regimentation, and economic success. They were aided in this by Western intellectuals, journalists, and celebrities such as George Bernard Shaw, Walter Duranty, and Charles Lindbergh. From Hitler’s march into the Rhineland in 1936 to the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, Western governments had to estimate the strength of their enemies in a fog of ignorance. Spy satellites dispersed that fog. Totalitarian power became a lot less total.
From a strategic point of view, Sputnik was a Soviet blunder of the first magnitude. If the Americans had gone first, it would have given Russia a chance to demonize all space operations as imperialist aggression in the heavens. Every U.S. satellite launch would have been denounced as a crime against humanity. The U.S. space program in both its civil and military aspects would have been crippled.
But from a propaganda point of view, Sputnik was a triumph, and in this they were aided and abetted by America’s Democrats. President Eisenhower later wrote that “in the weeks and months after Sputnik, many Americans seemed to be seized with a sudden worry that our defenses had crumbled, but also with an equally unjustified alarm that our entire educational system was defective.” The Democrats would not let a good crisis go to waste.
Sen. Stuart Symington (D., Ct.) was one of those who accused the Eisenhower administration of being in a “state of complacency not justified by the facts.” He claimed that by 1962, Russia would have 3,000 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Official U.S. intelligence estimates gave that number as 500; the recently published third volume of Boris Chertok’s memoir Rockets and People: Hot Days of the Cold War claims that in 1962, “the US had 5,000 units of nuclear weaponry supported by delivery systems (to strike the territory of the USSR) against the USSR’s 300 units.”
Yet the Democrats launched an unceasing campaign on the theme of a missile gap. Accusing Eisenhower, of all people, of failing to understand a vital military question would seem ridiculous. But thanks to Sputnik, to the need to keep America’s spy-satellite program secret, and to the partisans in the media, they convinced a lot of voters that the Republicans had neglected the defense of the nation in favor of budgetary restraint. This after eight years in which more than 10 percent of GDP had been devoted to defense, and in an era when the U.S. still had a largely conscript force.