- Historic Sites
FORTY YEARS AGO THIS MONTH the Soviet Union orbited a “man-made moon” whose derisive chirp persuaded Americans they’d already lost a race that had barely begun
October 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 6
While the Navy worked to meet the IGY goal, von Braun’s Army team launched a four-stage rocket on September 20, 1956. It reached a speed of 13,000 miles per hour and a record-setting altitude of 682 miles. The last stage might have been capable of achieving orbit, but because the Navy was in charge of satellites, the nose cone was filled with sand.
To Eisenhower and one faction of his allies, Sputnik was noise signifying nothing. The President said, “We never considered ourselves to be in a race.” The White House adviser Sherman Adams declared that the United States had no interest in “an outer-space basketball game.” In The New Republic Richard Strout dryly saw a parallel to Ike’s above-the-fray re-election campaign of 1956: “Mr. Eisenhower appeared prepared to treat the satellite as though it were Adlai Stevenson.”
But some politicians took to badmouthing one another. A few Republicans, including Ike’s Vice President, Richard M. Nixon, blamed Harry S. Truman, by then nearly five years out of office. Truman responded by writing a long article blaming Eisenhower and lamenting this “sorry chapter in the story of our defense.” Distributed by the North American Newspaper Alliance, the article made its way to the front page of The New York Times . Evoking the memory of the “atomic spy couple,” Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, U.S. News & World Report suggested that skulduggery explained the Soviet feat: “Did Russia Steal Satellite Secret from U.S.?”
Still others contended that the Soviets’ lead in space reflected a deteriorating American spirit. Peace and prosperity, according to this line of argument, had produced an indolent selfsatisfaction. “Our goal has become a life of amiable sloth,” wrote the journalist Thomas Griffith. To the sharptongued playwright and Republican loyalist Clare Boothe Luce, Sputnik ’s beeps represented “an intercontinental outer-space raspberry aimed at American pretensions of superiority. Sputnik , then, might serve as a warning shot that would force “bland, gray-suited” America to contemplate national interest instead of self-interest. “We needed Sputnik ,” Adlai Stevenson said, calling the satellite “sure proof that God has not despaired of us.”
Vice President Nixon recognized that the White House efforts to shrug off Sputnik were failing miserably. He deemed Adams’s basketball remark “wrong in substance and disastrous in terms of public opinion.” In a San Francisco speech the Vice President staked out his own ground, saying that “we could make no greater mistake than to brush off this event as a scientific stunt of more significance to the man in the moon than to men on earth.” Privately Nixon urged Eisenhower to say that money was no object in the contest of freedom against slavery. Ignoring the advice, Ike instead cautioned against any “hasty and extraordinary effort under the impetus of sudden fear.”
Nixon wasn’t the only Republican up in arms. In early November a panel of defense experts delivered its previously commissioned report to Ike’s National Security Council. The work of such Establishment bulwarks as John McCloy and Paul Nitze, the report argued that the United States could be “critically vulnerable” to a missile attack by the end of 1959, with likely casualties of up to 50 percent. Even if the Soviets chose not to wage cataclysmic war, the report suggested, they could conquer space, maybe militarize the moon. The panel’s bottom line: Continued American security required major increases in the military budget, to be achieved by deficit spending. Called the Gaither Report (after the group’s chair, the Ford Foundation’s head, H. Rowan Gaither, Jr.), the document was leaked to The New York Times and the Washington Post . In his magisterial memoir Danger and Survival , McGeorge Bundy writes that Ike came to feel he’d been hit by a “double barrelled shock”— Sputnik and Gaither.