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Review: Eisenhower’s Sputnik Moment


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Eisenhower's Sputnik Moment: The Race for Space and World Prestige
by Yanek Mieczkowski
Cornell University Press, 2013
hardcover, 368 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-8014-5150-8
US$35

The historical reputations of former presidents rise and fall over the years, as new information comes to light and existing knowledge is reevaluated in new contexts. Dwight D. Eisenhower is certainly no exception. During much of his presidency, he was regarded as something of a lightweight: a part-time president more comfortable on the golf course that dealing with Cold War tensions. More recently, though, Eisenhower’s reputation has undergone some degree of rehabilitation, with many seeing him as a much more insightful, strategic thinker who successfully led the country though a dangerous era.

Mieczkowski makes the argument that Eisenhower was not caught napping by Sputnik. Instead, he simply placed a different, and lower, priority on building and launching the first satellite.

That rehabilitation also extends to space. It was, after all, on Eisenhower’s watch that the Soviet Union surprised the world with the launch of its first satellite, Sputnik, on October 4, 1957. The shock that Americans felt of having been beaten by what they had dismissed as a technologically backward nation rippled through politics, the media, and society; to this day we use “Sputnik moments” to refer to surprising, shocking developments. The Eisenhower Administration was criticized for allowing the US to fall behind the Soviet Union in space, as Sputnik ignited a space race between the two countries.

But in Eisenhower's Sputnik Moment, historian Yanek Mieczkowski makes the argument that Eisenhower was not caught napping by Sputnik. Instead, he simply placed a different, and lower, priority on building and launching the first satellite versus other demands on the government, while seeking to rein in spending in general. While publicly criticized for a slow pace of space development, including launching satellites and developing more powerful launch vehicles, Eisenhower focused attention on missile and reconnaissance satellite technologies that arguably paid far greater national security dividends down the road.

Mieczkowski writes that there was little public “panic” in the immediate wake of Sputnik; the launch even failed to make the front page of a Milwaukee newspaper, as the Milwaukee Braves’ appearance in the World Series took precedence. However, media in general continued to play up the perception that the US was falling behind the Soviets—bad news sells better than good, Mieczkowski notes—even after American space efforts started to outpace the Russians in both the quantity and quality of satellites launched. That perception was exacerbated by the administration’s poor media relations, particularly in the days and weeks after Sputnik. The Eisenhower administration, he writes, was “the least media-savvy since Herbert Hoover’s glum regime.”

Politicians, of course, also seized on Sputnik to criticize Eisenhower and seek to accelerate the US space program. Leading the way was Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, who saw space as an issue that could be used against Republicans at a time when the GOP had the upper hand on most issues. Others followed suit, including Sen. John F. Kennedy (although, Mieczkowski writes, Kennedy was somewhat indifferent to space, and his push for a race to the Moon after becoming president may have been motivated more by his competitive drives.) And even within Eisenhower’s own administration, Vice President Richard Nixon was seeking a more ambitious space program to support his planned presidential run in 1960.

“Eisenhower would likely have scoffed” at those who bemoaned the retirement of the Space Shuttle and NASA’s current reliance on Russian Soyuz vehicles to get to the space station, Mieczkowski writes.

Eisenhower, though all of this media- and political-generated panic about Sputnik and a loss of American prestige, remained calm. He was less concerned about being beaten than losing focus on what he deemed to be priorities. “He discriminated between missiles for defense and rockets for space,” Mieczkowski writes, “and the former took priority.” Eisenhower’s investments in intermediate and intercontinental ballistic missiles bore fruit with several programs, including the Polaris sub-launched missile and the Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman ICBMs; he also backed the development of the first reconnaissance satellites. He supported more gradual investments in space, focusing on a few programs rather than rushing to be the first in everything.

In the near term, that approach made Eisenhower, and the US, look like it was falling behind the Soviet Union, which continued to rack up a series of firsts in spaceflight after Sputnik. Kennedy abandoned it, going full speed ahead on a race to the Moon that the US won with Apollo. (Eisenhower, in retirement, opposed Kennedy’s plans.) That was a public relations victory for America, but it was a program that could not be sustained, and NASA had struggled with the aftermath from Apollo for decades. “Eisenhower would likely have scoffed” at those who bemoaned the retirement of the Space Shuttle and NASA’s current reliance on Russian Soyuz vehicles to get to the space station, Mieczkowski writes. There were then, and now, more important things to devote resources on. The challenge Eisenhower faced—and did not completely successfully manage, as the book argues—was communicating those priorities at a time when influential elements of society were agitated by the launch of a simple satellite.


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