Sputnik

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IT WASN’T THE BEST OF TIMES, BUT IT WASN’T THE worst of times either. Although a mild recession had cooled down the post-Korean War economy, many families were living comfortable lives in the autumn of 1957. There were 170 million Americans now, and more of them had taken a vacation that summer than ever before, just like the swells out in Southampton.

To be sure, there was turbulence in the air. Three years after Brown v. Board of Education had struck down school segregation, the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, defied a federal judge’s integration order. Reluctantly, President Dwight D. Eisenhower dispatched the 101st Airborne to enforce the Constitution at Little Rock’s Central High School. Slowly, though, the walls of segregation were falling. In July of that long-ago summer, Althea Gibson of Harlem, U.S.A., scored a first. A decade after Jackie Robinson had broken the baseball color line, Gibson won the Wimbledon tennis singles championship and curtsied to the Queen of England.

No Americans were fighting abroad in 1957, though tens of thousands of GIs were deployed in Cold War hot spots from divided Berlin to the Korean demilitarized zone. The Americans and the Russians were methodically testing bigger and “dirtier” (more radioactive fallout) nuclear bombs while perfecting intercontinental missile systems to deliver them. But Nikita Khrushchev, the new Number One Red (as the newspapers referred to him), was talking peaceful competition between socialism and the Free World (as the same papers referred to our side), and summitry, not shooting, seemed to be the prospect between the United States and the U.S.S.R.

Everything in fact appeared to be converging on a broad consensual middle, a prospect that evoked varying responses. What enthusiasts touted as serene abundance (the Republicans had just produced a film called These Peaceful and Prosperous Years ), critics scorned as soulless conformity and complacency—from Holden Caulfield’s contempt for “phonies” to The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit’s self-doubt.

Then, early in the evening of October 4, the sky seemed to fall, literally, on the American edifice. At 6:30 P.M. EST the Associated Press moved a bulletin: Moscow Radio had announced that “the Soviet Union has launched an earth satellite.” Later in the evening NBC interrupted regular programming to give more details of the “man-made moon” and to play its high-pitched radio signal “as recorded by RCA engineers.” The next morning’s New York Times and Washington Post both gave three-line eight-column banners to the feat, the kind of headline reserved for a Pearl Harbor or a D-Day. The editors of Newsweek scrapped their planned feature on Detroit’s new line of cars (trashing 1,309,990 cover copies—twenty tons of paper). The new cover showed an artist’s conception of the Soviet satellite Sputnik (Russian for “fellow traveler”). Inside, the weekly explained “The Red Conquest, “The Meaning to the World,” and, ominously, “Why We Are Lagging.”

OVERNIGHT THE self-assured center began coming apart. Inventive, free enterprise America, home of Edison and the Wright brothers, Levittown and “modern laborsaving kitchen appliances,” was being overtaken—surpassed?—by a backward, totalitarian, Communist nation. And the shock to can-do pride was the least of it. A missile gap apparently yawned, with the Soviets pulling decisively ahead in the ultimate nuclear weapons, ICBMs. Democrats in Congress charged that amiable Ike’s mid-register budgetary caution had jeopardized U.S. military prowess. It seemed that the energetic five-star architect of victory in the Big War had turned into a Burning Tree Country Club slacker (one cartoonist showed Sputnik whizzing past a golf ball), a myopic Pangloss, a President Magoo.

Sen. Stuart Symington of Missouri, a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 1960, demanded that the President call a special session of Congress to address the Sputnik crisis. Ike refused; he even declined to deliver a televised speech addressing the nation’s apprehensions, so as not to appear “alarmist.” Instead he chose to hold a news conference on October 9, five days after the Soviet announcement. It was, in the view of Eisenhower’s biographer Stephen Ambrose, one of the most hostile Q&A sessions of Ike’s Presidency. Elsenhower repeatedly maintained that Sputnik was in essence meaningless. “As far as the satellite itself is concerned,” he said, “that does not raise my apprehenions, not one iota.”