EDITOR’S NOTE: 2005 marks the fiftieth anniversary of National Review. In celebration, NRO will be digging into the NR archives throughout the year. This piece by Whittaker Chambers appeared in the November 2, 1957, issue of NR.
TV utilized a break in a Braves-Yankees broadcast to amplify the first, skeptical announcement of a day or so before that Sputnik really was up there. Listening to the somewhat breathless confirmation (“it says: ‘Beep! Beep!’”) I laughed. Neighbors, who happened to be present, asked why. I could only answer: “I find the end of the world extremely funny.” “What’s funny about that?” one asked. What could I answer: that men always defy with laughter what they can do absolutely nothing else about? Beyond that, any explanation I attempted would have been as puzzling as my reaction seemed.
As soon as my wife and I were alone, I said: “They still do not see the point. The satellite is not the first point. The first point is the rocket that must have launched it.” Of course, the scientists and the military chiefs grasped this obvious implication at once. But it took three or four days for anybody to say so, in my hearing.
In short, the struggle for space has been joined: But this was only the immediate, military meaning. Widen it with this datum: the satellite passed over Washington, sixty miles away. One minute later, it passed over New York. We have entered a new dimension. Like Goethe after the battle of Valmy, we can note in our journals: “From this day and from this place, begins a new epoch in the history of the world; and you can say that you were there.”
There is a wonderful passage in the Journal of the Goncourt Brothers, wonderful, in part, for its date, which cannot be later than 1896. I shall not be able to quote it exactly from memory, but it goes much like this: “We have just been at the Academy, where a scientist explained the atom to us. As we came away, we had the impression that the good God was about to say to mankind, as the user says at four o’clock at the Louvre: ‘Closing time, gentlemen,’” None of us supposes that this moon means closing time. None of us can fail to see, either, that closing time is a distinct possibility. Again, the point is not that we do not yet have the ICBM fully developed; we will. The point is that the new weapons are, of their nature, foreclosing weapons, and, whether or not they are all presently in our hands, too, they are in the hands of others over whom we have no control. That is what I meant by “end of the world.” Only those who do not know, or who do not permit their minds to know, the annihilative power of the new weapons, will find anything excessive in the statement. “Nine H-Bombs dropped with proper pattern of dispersal” was a figure given me, three or so years ago, as the number required to dispose of “everything East of the Mississippi River.” Whether the figure is accurate to a bomb or a square mile is indifferent. Any proximation of it speaks for itself.
Whatever else Sputnik is or means, the handwriting that it traces on our sky writes against that attitude the word: Challenge. It means that, for the first time, men are looking back from outside, upon those “vast edges drear and naked shingles of the world” which Arnold reached in imagination. In imagination which is the creative beginning of everything (God Himself had first to imagine the world), the one indispensable faculty that has brought man bursting into space from that primitive point of time he shamblingly set out from. That breakthrough (all political considerations apart) touched us with a little of the chill of interstellar space, and perhaps a foreboding chill of destiny–a word too big with uncharitable meanings to be anything but distasteful to our frame of mind. For it is inconceivable that what happens henceforth in, and in consequence of, space, will not also be decisive for what happens on the earth beneath. In short, Sputnik has put what was useful and effective in method and dissection once more at the service of the imagination. It is the war of imagination that, first of all, we lost. It is in terms of imagination that the Russians chiefly won something. The issue has only been joined. Nothing is final yet. But it is joined in space, and it is at that cold height that henceforth we will go forward, or go nowhere. There is no turning back.
Before this illimitable prospect, humility of mind might seem the beginning of reality of mind. As starter, we might first disabuse ourselves of that comforting, but, in the end, self-defeating, notion that Russian science, or even the Communist mind in general, hands from treetops by its tail.