Out of the blue

It jolted America out of its complacency and showed us our enemies were smarter than we thought. The author of "Sputnik" compares the days of that shocking satellite to our own.

Published December 13, 2001 10:37PM (EST)

"The vast majority of people living today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, were born after Sputnik was launched and may be unaware of the degree to which it helped shape life as we know it," Paul Dickson writes in the introduction to "Sputnik: The Shock of the Century," his fascinating new history of the 1957 Soviet satellite, the first human-made object in orbit.

The Soviets' success in the new "space race" stunned Americans like nothing since Pearl Harbor, 16 years before, and the event was often compared to Japan's devastating sneak attack, at the time and in subsequent histories. Dire predictions abounded, such as the one from Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson that soon the Soviets would be "dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses."

Reading "Sputnik" in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, it's surprising and striking to note the parallels between the two events. Dickson, the author of more than 40 books, many of them growing out of a fascination with space sparked by Sputnik, which went beeping overhead during his freshman year of college, spoke to Salon from his home in Garrett Park, Md.

The thing that kept hitting me as I was reading "Sputnik" was the similarity between the reaction to Sputnik and the reaction to Sept. 11, at least by a lot of Americans. Am I imagining things or are there real parallels there?

You're not the first person to ask this question. Yeah, as soon as you can divorce yourself from the fact that they were totally different things. Sputnik was really a scientific achievement by the Soviet Union, with some propaganda overtones, whereas this other thing was a massive crime. But if you can get outside the box on those two things, a vastly different stimulus, then some things become sort of interesting, the parallels. Our reaction -- the way we thought and the way we think, certain assumptions up to that point -- it's really interesting. As long as you make that little caveat. Not little. A big caveat.

I think I was reasonably aware of Sputnik and the reaction to it when I started the book, but what struck me as I read were some of the contextual similarities that I didn't know about. There was a looming recession, the stock market was falling. It's almost as if we were, in a lot of ways, in the same place before Sept. 11.

And then things got worse. The wheels really came off the cart in '57. Seventy thousand people died of flu that year. And of course [the school integration battle] was going on in Little Rock, which Ike, Eisenhower, was calling an insurrection. That's going on, and Sputnik, in the Third World especially, is contrasted to our people with distorted faces screaming at children going to school, and spitting on them and cursing at them. That was the context of seeing the Russians put up a satellite.

And I think the other thing to me, the thing that really replays interestingly, is that if you follow the end of '57, it starts out with the Mad Bomber, then Ed Gein, really the first sort of massive, horrible "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" kind of serial killer, comes out of that year. The year ends with the Apalachin crime thing in New York state, which is almost like they're Kiwanis or something, meeting in a resort, these gangsters. [A meeting of about 60 top syndicate bosses at the rural home of Joseph Barbara in Apalachin, N.Y., was broken up by police in November 1957, with many arrests. The national publicity that followed forced the FBI to finally admit that the mafia did, in fact, exist.]

And then of course what happens in America, the Monday after Sputnik: There's the fire in the nuclear power plant and then there's the Russians exploding an H-bomb basically using a missile, and we're really fearful of that, and it gets worse, everything that happens.

Two things really amazed me that are outside the text of the book because it was different from the narrative that I was writing about. One was when they put up Sputnik II with the dog on it. It's right about that period [in December 1957] when our Vanguard [satellite] explodes [on the launch pad] and they put up the Sputnik II, and they actually go to the U.N. and offer us money, mockingly offer us aid as a technologically backward country. That was really a devastating shot.

And then as the year goes on, the Gaither Report is leaked about fallout shelters. Americans end '57, if they paid attention to what this report is saying, learning that we have to spend $25 billion to save 50 million Americans, and it's an astonishing thought. They're actually saying that there's a likelihood of a nuclear war, which we will lose. Everything that happened to us that year, it was cacophonous.

We were smug, we were insular. We came out of an insularity in a hurry. We just couldn't believe these Russians had any intelligence at all.

Again, like now. We were well back into that insularity by Sept. 10. Why does that keep happening? Is that an inevitable cycle?

I don't know. I'm really a journalist, not a historian. I don't have that kind of fix. But there is something about us, when we go through tremendous periods of prosperity and materialism, we basically become sort of fat, dumb and happy, and we tend not to look at things. The news people, the media, was much more interested in reading about something that Bill Gates said or the latest dot-com than they were interested in really telling us what was going on in the rest of the world. People like Walter Cronkite have been out on the lecture circuit bemoaning the fact that we have basically stopped any kind of significant overseas journalism. And half the time when we go into a country we'll bribe the wrong guy to tell us what's going on.

Well we've wrestled with that at Salon. We can see page-view figures every day, and before the current crisis, when we've had foreign stories, they haven't been read. So it's a chicken and egg thing with the overseas reporting. You eventually learn your lesson as a provider of content.

Yeah, I guess it's a real dilemma. We were so dumb about the Russians [in 1957]. We didn't even listen to the Russians. Talk about the parallels of what happened with Sputnik happening right now: On Thanksgiving [this year], the Chinese said they were going to the moon. They plan to land people on the moon. And the AP picked it up. It was a formal announcement, and they've been making these announcements for some four or five years now. They're going to go into orbit, and they've already tested, so now here they come out and say, "We're going to put a colony on the moon. We're going to put Chinese people on the moon."

And it was virtually ignored. The only reason I know about it is that I've been searching this story on a weekly basis, I've been culling every source I could. We're going to wake up one day, and if they partner up with Russia to go to the moon, it's going to be another one of these things.

But we're not reporting stuff like that as well as we should. We occasionally send somebody over there. But I have two friends who are just back from China -- one's sort of a think-tank guy and the other's a guy with the Federation of American Scientists, Charlie Vick -- and these guys say, "They're going to go." They basically want to become a big boy in space. And we're not paying attention.

And we're going to be shocked when it happens.

Yeah, it's going to be another Sputnik, and everybody's going to say, "How did they get a drop on us?"

Let me get back to Ike for a minute. His message to the American people [after the Sputnik launch] was basically: "Don't worry about it." After Sept. 11, President Bush gave a call to arms, but there was a lot of "don't worry" in his message too, with his telling us to get back to our lives and all that. If it's safe to assume that Bush is not a student of the Sputnik era, then tell me, if he had read your book right before Sept. 11, what might he have learned from Eisenhower?

Eisenhower saw this bigger thing, which was to prevent nuclear war. His ability to be patient, his ability to remain calm, which was seen at the time as a weakness; even the greatest journalists, like Murrow and the rest of them, thought he was asleep, thought he was a nice fellow who played a lot of golf.

If Bush had read the book I think he would have seen that there's a heroism to patience and to calmness and to the ability to direct things in other directions. I think that some of the re-arming [after Sputnik] -- and this was not just Eisenhower but a group of people -- they saw the idea that America needed to get stronger, but the way it got stronger was not just through missiles and arms. The re-arming of America was more kids in school, more women being educated. I think there was a greater picture of re-arming, a cerebral re-arming, as opposed to a purely military one.

I would love to think that the present administration and the present Congress are starting to think that way, that we can become better because of this trauma, and that we learn things. In the Sputnik generation all these guys going back to graduate school turned their cars around and went to work for NASA. The corollary to that today might be that a lot of kids might be inspired to go into diplomacy and into conflict resolution and into the kind of security that really is defense.

You know, the money that came in after Sputnik for education, I think to a large degree funded this huge biotechnology boom. They were giving people the money to go to graduate school, they were giving kids who were probably headed to a junior college, as they called them then, some of those kids got to go to MIT.

And we got Tang out of it!

No, we didn't! We didn't. There's actually a footnote in the back that says we didn't get Tang or Velcro. Velcro was a French invention. And what was it, there was a third one. [According to the footnote, the third one was Teflon, invented in 1938.] Yeah, they used Tang, they bought it, but it was already out there. That's one of the great myths.

All the dire predictions that came out in the wake of Sputnik, quotes like Senator Mike Mansfield saying, "What is at stake is nothing less than our survival," and of course all the comparisons to Pearl Harbor. All of that certainly rang a bell reading it now. Were they overstating it then, or was that a good assessment at the time?

I think there was a certain hysteria. Even some of the scientists were making extraordinary pronouncements, and then everybody got swept into it. The politicians, LBJ saying they're going to be dropping bombs on us like kids dropping rocks off a freeway overpass. I think that was legitimate, but I think some people had another ax to grind, like Teller, who kept going on and on about Pearl Harbor, and Johnson. [Edward Teller, the "father of the H-bomb," was the associate director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 1957 and became director in 1958.] For that generation of politicians and journalists, Pearl Harbor was the most powerful metaphor of all. Ike doesn't see Sputnik as Pearl Harbor. What Ike sees as Pearl Harbor is a sneak attack with intercontinental ballistic missiles with a nuclear warhead. That's the one he's afraid of.

One last parallel, in the years leading up to Sputnik, the government kept turning down these chances to be first with the satellite, and with rocketry in general. First, the government failed to recognize the value of the work that Dr. Robert Goddard was doing with rockets before and after World War II -- which the Nazis did recognize in their development of the V-1 and V-2 rockets, which killed almost 9,000 people and damaged a million homes. Then the government ignored the findings of Project RAND, the precursor to the RAND Corporation think tank, which said that satellites would be "one of the most potent scientific tools of the 20th century" and that a U.S. satellite launch would "inflame the imagination of mankind and ... probably produce repercussions in the world comparable to the explosion of the atomic bomb." And with Sept. 11, we had what's been called the intelligence breakdown. There were signs out there that something like this was going to happen.

You're right. We could have gone up [into space] first. [Wernher] von Braun, as I point out in the book, asks five times and is turned down five times, and finally there's this broad hint that [von Braun's team in Huntsville, Ala., are] going to "have an accident" and put a satellite up in '56, and Ike sent people down from the White House to actually stop them.

The battle was raging over whether space was going to be a platform primarily for civilian, peaceful uses and for surveillance, which ultimately is a lot better than war. The Army and von Braun and [Maj. Gen. John B.] Medaris [the Army's top missile commander], and all these other people in the Air Force were fighting to make space a military platform. That's the battle that becomes fascinating, and that's why we slow down, more than anything else. We could have beaten them by years.

It is an extraordinary period. There's not a day that goes by that I don't sort of think of today, what's going on this fall, vs. what was going on that fall. Because the news didn't get better during '57, it got worse.

I guess one big difference, getting back to what you were just saying, is that there was a reason why the U.S. was hesitating, as opposed to Sept. 11, when the U.S. really was kind of sleeping.

The people were, and the press were, and the academics were sleeping [in '57]. There was a sort of a profound level of contentment and materialism. The occasional out-of-the-sky social critic would point out that our best engineers were building princess phones and tail fins, but it wasn't self-evident. It was only when the Russians started saying, "All these people care about is their color televisions. We care about the future of mankind."

I remember as a freshman in college at the time, the contrast between what was going on in Little Rock, the concept of freedom riders and all that stuff just starting to come up, and the Soviet Union, what they were doing. Ours seemed sort of medieval. The other big thing that came out of Sputnik was, because the Soviets went first, it became a race. John McCormick, speaker of the House, wrote a little tiny book about it. His argument was that by creating this space race with the Soviet Union -- over who was going to get to the moon first -- we had really created a surrogate for war, where we could really have a worldwide contest with heroics.

So if you look at the Sputnik thing as a shock and a crisis, it really is a story with a happy ending. You end up with miniaturization of electronics, satellite communication. You end up with all these other things, and you're not destroying your people, and you're not destroying somebody else -- if you marginalize Vietnam and a few things, just for the argument.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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