Politics & Policy

A Sputnik Moment?

Who does the president think he is kidding?

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.

In fact, by 1960, the U.S. led the Soviets in every aspect of nuclear weapons and delivery technology, especially in submarine-launched missiles. Instead of listening to the president’s reassurances, the media chose to believe Khrushchev’s claim that missiles were coming off the Soviet assembly lines “like sausages.” In the 1960 election, John F. Kennedy promised to close the missile gap. He taunted Richard Nixon, saying, “I think that color television is not as important as rocket thrust.” Given the briefings he had received, he knew that the U.S. was ahead in both television and rockets, but he could not let the truth get in the way of a good political jab at Nixon. At least one biography claims that as president, JFK said, “Who ever believed in the missile gap anyway?” 

When the Kennedy administration exposed the Soviet bluff, Khrushchev’s response was to deploy almost all of his medium- and intermediate-range missiles to Cuba. Having relied on the illusion of the missile gap for so long, the Soviet leader thought he had to make a desperate gamble in order to restore his lost prestige. If, beginning in 1957, the Democrats had clearly and explicitly said that Eisenhower’s sober assessment of the balance of forces between the two superpowers was largely correct, the world might have been spared that near catastrophe. 

The Democrats did seize the “Sputnik Moment” to expand the federal government’s role in education. Eisenhower conceded that there was a national emergency that justified temporarily spending federal dollars on science and math instruction, and thanks to his support, the National Defense Education Act passed Congress in August 1958. The act allocated $1 billion over four years. But Eisenhower feared the impact this money would have. He wrote, “the process of taking money away from citizens to return it to localities for special (educational) purposes implies a centralization of wisdom in Washington that certainly does not necessarily exist.”

The Nation, then as now the principal voice of the Left, wanted more, but noted that “the bill does at least crack the ice of resistance to federal aid to education.” How right they were; there is nothing quite so immortal as temporary government spending. In spite of all the racial injustices that thrived in late-1950s America, its overall educational standards are now to be found only in places such as Singapore and South Korea. Study after study shows that our educational system results in “A Nation at Risk,” the federal government’s investment grows, and the system keeps failing. 

President Obama’s call for 10,000 new science, technology, engineering, and math teachers will probably result, if enacted, in the hiring of a new cohort of propagandists for whatever scare the environmentalists have cooked up this month. If America were going to hire 10,000 math and science teachers of the quality we had in 1958, it might be worth it. Now, however, teachers who’ve been trained to believe in the “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” and whose vision of America owes more to Howard Zinn than to Samuel Eliot Morison are going to be no more competent at teaching molecular biology than they are at teaching why the Battle of Midway is important. 

In addition, the president did not address the broad failure of America’s engineering schools to adapt to the complexities of today’s high-performance technology. Only a few mavericks understand that the old design habits of systems engineers that worked so well on the Apollo program are ill suited to the needs of today’s projects. Our universities, corporations, and entrepreneurs need to rethink the way engineers are trained. No amount of federal money can substitute for this lack of leadership.

When President Obama said that “we didn’t know how we’d beat them to the moon,” and that “the science wasn’t there yet,” he was misinformed. German Walter Holman worked out the basic mathematics of getting to the moon in 1916. In America, Robert Goddard published the basic principles of liquid-engine rockets in 1920, though his argument was controversial at the time. (The New York Times editorial page said he “seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in our high schools.” On July 20, 1969, as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, the paper published a correction.)

The “Sputnik Moment” was a very real moment in American history. It just doesn’t mean what President Obama thinks it does.

— Taylor Dinerman is a senior editor at the Hudson Institute’s New York branch and co-author of the forthcoming Towards a Theory of Spacepower: Selected Essays, from National Defense University Press.


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