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America and Sputnik: Losing Face

Similar to 9/11’s impact on the role of the United States in the 21st century, did Sputnik shatter the U.S. image of invincibility during the Cold War?

August 13, 2004

Similar to 9/11's impact on the role of the United States in the 21st century, did Sputnik shatter the U.S. image of invincibility during the Cold War?

The more Americans were told by the men in Washington not to worry about Sputnik, the more they panicked.

For all its simplicity, small size and inability to do more than orbit the Earth and transmit meaningless radio blips, Sputnik’s impact on America and the world was enormous — and totally unanticipated.

To the man or woman in the street, it was vastly confusing and most threatening.

To many, the fear was purely territorial. There it was overhead — visible to the naked eye and audible to anyone with a shortwave receiver.

America had fought two world wars, protected by the breadth of oceans and the comfort of a strong Navy. A certain sense of invulnerability seemed to be an American birthright.

Ever since British troops had sacked and burned most of Washington, D.C.’s public buildings — including the Capitol and the president’s house on August 24, 1814 — the United States had done everything it could to isolate itself from foreign invasion. All subsequent generations of Americans had felt they were safe at home.

The skies over the continental United States had never been violated — during two world wars not a single enemy aircraft had penetrated mainland airspace. Now suddenly, an object controlled by a hostile power was directly overhead. The fact that Sputnik could be seen and heard was all-important to its dramatic effect.

The Soviets proved far more sophisticated in the art of public relations than the West had realized. Soviet scientists were placed in key places around the globe to maximize the impact of Sputnik.

Predictably, the Russian press tried to seize the advantage in the battle for international sway. A Pravda dispatch from New York claimed that certain U.S. senators were “showing signs of hysteria.”

Even among America’s staunchest allies, there was doubt about its ability to bounce back from the blow dealt by Sputnik. The Times of London wrote of “the demon of inferiority which, since October 4, 1957… has disturbed American well-being.”

A Gallup poll discovered that U.S. prestige had eroded in six of the seven foreign cities included in its survey. And within weeks, there was a decline in public enthusiasm for “siding with the United States” and NATO in Germany, France and Italy.

Unlikely foreign leaders began praising the Soviet Union and questioning the scientific ability of the United States. Of these, the most surprising was Spain’s Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who was making unprecedented pro-Soviet and anti-American remarks in the wake of Sputnik.

By any measure, America’s image had been damaged abroad — and the word was getting back to the United States.

Less than a week after the launch, on October 8, 1957, Radio Cairo expressed the thoughts of many in the Third World: “The planetary era rings the death knell of colonialism. The American policy of encirclement of the Soviet Union has pitifully failed.”

Historian Geoffrey C. Ward later recalled “how frightening Sputnik seemed to me as a high-school kid, especially when I got a letter from an old friend in India that simply said ‘with this news, America is finished,’ and asked plaintively, ‘What happened? How could America let this happen?’ as if we had somehow lost control.”

“In the Philippines, the restaurants, movie houses and taxicabs were renamed Sputnik. One restaurant even came up with a Sputnik sandwich, the feature of which was an olive with four protruding toothpick ‘antennae.’ More important was the diplomatic loss of face [the United States] suffered. In Hong Kong, Japan and the Philippines, there was a loss of confidence in the United States and — under the surface — a sort of secret glee that [it] had been toppled from the high horse.”

At home, media commentators, the public and many on Capitol Hill found President Eisenhower’s response to Sputnik and his reassurances on the military significance of Sputnik inadequate. Democratic senator Stuart Symington declared that the president was “paternalistically vague.”

Others were harsher. Walter Lippmann, perhaps the most influential columnist of the time, held that the president was “in a kind of partial retirement” and letting the country drift and decline.

On October 10, 1957, six days after the launch, there was a special meeting of the National Security Council, held to address the issue of the implications of Sputnik on U.S. security.

CIA director Allen Dulles began by acknowledging that the actual launching of the Earth satellite had not come as a surprise to the intelligence community. In fact, he predicted that there would be an additional six to thirteen Sputniks.

Guessing what the Russians would do next became something of a national obsession. Speculation centered on the moon. One widely published prediction held that the anniversary-minded Russians might want to mark the 40th anniversary of their Revolution on November 7, 1957, by aiming an unmanned spacecraft for the moon and marking its subsequent arrival with the detonation of an A-bomb.

Politically, Sputnik created a perception of American weakness, complacency and a “missile gap,” which led to bitter accusations, resignations of key military figures — and even contributed to the election of John F. Kennedy, who emphasized the space gap and the role of the Eisenhower-Nixon administration in creating it.

But although the Sputnik episode publicly depicted Eisenhower as passive and unconcerned, he was fiercely dedicated to averting nuclear war at a time when the threat was very real. His concern for national security took precedence over any concerns about beating the Russians into Earth orbit.

Diplomatically, Sputnik helped realign the United States and Great Britain as allies.

For a decade, ties between the two nations had weakened, partly due to the 1946 Atomic Energy Act, which had deprived the United Kingdom of American nuclear secrets.

Diplomatic relations between the two nations had weakened also partly because of the strong position that the United States had taken against the British and French during the Suez Crisis, which had been prompted by Egypt’s seizure of the Suez Canal in July 1956.

Now with the common threat of Soviet power implied by Sputnik, NATO was strengthened, guaranteeing the placement of American nuclear arms in Europe.

The satellite touched off a superpower competition that may well have acted as a surrogate contest for universal power — perhaps even a stand-in for nuclear world war.

Wernher von Braun — a German scientist employed by the U.S. Army — quickly became America’s “space star” in the aftermath of the Sputnik launch.

On October 29, 1957, von Braun gave a secret briefing to Army officials in Washington, titled “The Lessons of Sputnik,” in which he saw the event as a “national tragedy” that had done great harm to American prestige around the world. That said, he went on to make some stunning points that the brass almost certainly were not prepared to hear.

The first was that the United States was committing a grave error in not being able to appraise the research and development capabilities of a nation run by a totalitarian regime.

Next on his agenda was to point out how scattered and counterproductive American military research and development had become: “About a year ago I saw a compilation of all guided missile projects, which — at one time or another — had been activated in this country since 1945. I doubt if you will believe it, but the total figure was 119 different guided missile projects!”

Von Braun told the assembled group, which included the secretary of the Army, that Americans understood the concept of teamwork when it came to football and baseball, but not when it came to the very technology that could save the West.

National insecurity, wounded national pride, in-fighting, political grand-standing, clandestine plots and ruthless media frenzy were but a few of the things the United States had to overcome to bounce back from the blow dealt to the nation by Sputnik.

Adapted from “Sputnik: The Shock of the Century.” Copyright