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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
But the U-2 information was top secret. The Gaither Report authors didn’t know about it. either did a thirty-four-year-old Harvard professor named Henry Kissinger, author of a sky-is-falling report for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund that was heavily publicized in arly 1958, as brother Nelson positioned himself for 1960 presidential politics (when Nelson appeared on “Today” on NBC, Dave Garroway offered to send a free copy of the report to nyone who requested it. More than two hundred thousand people asked). Ike couldn’t reveal the U-2 flights without disclosing American violations of Soviet airspace; at the altitudes at which the U-2s were flying, international law was very clear. This could jeopardize his attempts to achieve accommodation with Khrushchev over such flash points as Berlin and nuclear testing. (It later turned out that the Soviets already knew of the U-2 overflights but didn’t have the missiles to shoot them down—yet.) Ike also didn’t want to push the Soviets to escalate their military spending, as any revelation of American superiority would likely do. So mostly he tried to persuade the public to trust him on he basis of his own military record.
Historians tend to give Eisenhower high marks for Sputnik. In Stephen Ambrose’s view, Ike’s calm response to the Soviet satellite was “one of his finest hours,” saving his country countless billions of dollars. In his book Grand Expectations, James Patterson agrees, noting that Ike presided over major gains in the U.S. nuclear capacity and did so quietly enough to allay Soviet fears.
Through it all remained bafflingly calm—because he knew that Sputnik actually represented some good news.
Historians, though, do fault Ike for failing to grasp the public relations implications of Sputnik. The National Security Council recommended a greater emphasis on space-related projects “which, while having scientific or military value, are designed to achieve a favorable worldwide psychological impact,” but Eisenhower responded coolly. As he later said, “I don’t believe in spectaculars.” When von Braun’s Army team successfully launched the first American satellite (which weighed just thirty-one pounds) on January 31, 1958, Eisenhower downplayed what others were portraying as a great American triumph. Ike instructed his aides, “Let’s not make too great a hullabaloo over this.”
History’s verdict on Ike came slowly. Even after the U-2 flights became known, the Alsop brothers, columnists Joseph and Stewart, argued that because the photography was limited, it was not all that trustworthy. U-2 spy photography, they said, was confined to major Soviet railroad lines that would service ICBM launch complexes and thus skipped large parts of the Soviet land expanse. Later, by the time John Kennedy was in the Oval Office—propelled to some extent by all the talk of the space and missile gaps—U.S. spy satellites covered all of the Soviet Union. These photos, in the summer of 1961, confirmed that there was indeed a missile gap all along—in America’s favor. Mac Bundy, a key player in the Kennedy White House, recalls the Soviet missile threat being steadily de-escalated from hundreds of ICBMs during the late 1950s to around thirtyfive by the mid-1960s. The Alsops eventually confessed their error.
Such was the selfdefeating effect of Soviet secrecy: In the absence of facts about Russian ICBMs, many Americans responded out of fear. By the late 1960s the American nuclear triad ensured invulnerability, reliability, and massive retaliatory capacity. By the 1990s the Communist state had collapsed, amid evidence that the Soviets had spent themselves into poverty trying to keep up in all the various races.