|THE SPACE RACE REVISITED|
October 2, 1997
Forty years ago this week, the United States lost one of the battles of the Cold War. In a move that left America feeling uneasy, the Soviet Union successfully launched the first man-made satellite. Following a background report by Phil Ponce, the NewsHour's regular historians discuss the significance of the event.
PHIL PONCE: Now, a look back at Sputnik with NewsHour regulars: Presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, journalist and author Haynes Johnson. They're joined by Keith Benson and historian of American Science, an executive secretary of a History of Science Society. Haynes, do you remember when Sputnik was actually launched?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Presidential Historian: I sure do. I was a reporter in Washington for five weeks. And the great wisdom the newspaper assigned me as a young reporter to do a series on what's wrong with high schools. And I was not--I'm not an education reporter or a science reporter, but this whole idea I think that was sort of a blur in my mind but the vividness with which there was a panic had set in; that the Russians were ahead of this. It was not about space exploration or even science--it was a Cold War, and we no longer had the bomb. We no longer had the hydrogen bomb, and all of a sudden we, the American winners, were being--encircled the Earth by these huge Communist--and it was a frightening sort of--and the country went through a panic.
|The Ping of insecurity.|
PHIL PONCE: And personally you felt the same kind of fear, the same kind of panic.
HAYNES JOHNSON: I don't know if I felt the same kind of fear, being so courageous as I was. But there was this sense that we were behind, and I think it's hard for people watching now who don't remember the Cold War how vicious it was and how fearsome it was. And there was that period, so here comes this prospect of the bomb, missiles, and the Russians are ahead of us, and we're behind. That's what I remember.
PHIL PONCE: Doris, your reaction to it at the time.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: I was a sophomore in high school. And I was actually at my boyfriend's house when the news came over the television that this thing had been launched. And I remember the announcer saying, "Listen now." There was a ping sound that it made. "Listen now for the sound that forever separates the old from the new." So we wanted to see it. We wanted to hear it. I could never hear the ping but I was hoping I could see it. They told you if you went out at a certain time over the East Coast you could actually see it. It was as bright as the dimmest star in the Big Dipper. So we took a blanket, and we went to a park nearby. And it was a very romantic setting, and we started to look for Sputnik. And then my boyfriend reached over and kissed me. And it was sort of one of the first time that it had ever happened so I didn't give Sputnik another thought.
But then what happened--even more embarrassing--about a dozen years later--I was with President Johnson on the ranch and we were walking down the dirt road in front of his house, and he recalled for me--it was on another anniversary--what it was like for him when he looked up into the Texas sky and for the first time his friendly Texas sky looked menacing because Sputnik had happened, and he immediately went into action, as Lyndon Johnson could. He said, "Control of the Moon or control of the space is going to mean you can change the tides; the droughts will happen. We have got to beat the Soviets." So he was responsible, in part, for NASA and for the NDEA being formed. And then he tells us all this stuff.
PHIL PONCE: The NDEA.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: The National Defense Education Act. So he tells me all these great things that he did, and then he turned to me and he said, "And what do you remember? Where were you?". I was so embarrassed. The last thing that I could tell him that was with a boyfriend--so I just changed the subject.
|Sputnik: An historical benchmark?|
PHIL PONCE: Michael, was Sputnik an historical marker? Did it indicate the end of an era and the beginning of a new one?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: It did. It was the start of the space age really, this age in which Americans had a lot of faith and technology. But it was also the first big moment of national self doubt after World War II. Here we were, the only great power left at the end of World War II. We had the bomb. We had this robust economy; we had post war prosperity. We were beating the Russians when all of a sudden fall of 1957 the Sputnik, the satellite, comes racing across the sky and Americans thought that this was a sign that the Soviets were surpassing us. The fascinating thing is that it was sort of a one of the con jobs of the century because that was a moment we now know the Soviet military was woefully behind us; the economy was creeping; but Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Leader, understood a lot better than Dwight Eisenhower did, but he was able to be the first to launch a satellite into outer space. It would panic the Americans; it would give them a great deal of pessimism and worry, cripple us at least psychologically, and also say to Third World peoples around the world we, the Soviets, are the rising power; the Americans can't even equal this feat. And the other fascinating thing is that a lot of Americans felt that the Soviet ability to put that satellite up meant that the Soviets could drop atomic and nuclear weapons on American territory; that couldn't have been further from the truth. Actually, America had never been stronger and was way ahead of the Soviets.
|Science reacts to the dawn of the Space Age.|
PHIL PONCE: Within the scientific community, Mr. Benson, what was the reaction?
KEITH BENSON, History of Science Society: I think that the real reaction of many scientists was that this was an opportunity for them to exert their expertise once again, as they did during the Second World War. And certainly, if you look at most of the scientific societies, the AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute for Biological Sciences, all of these societies very eagerly took up the challenge and stated that what they could do was to reinvigorate American education to, in fact, counter the problems that many of the educators were pointing to in our educational system as in terms of lacking science.
PHIL PONCE: So are you saying that within the scientific community there wasn't the same sense of dread, panic, and fear that might have existed in the public at large?
KEITH BENSON: Yes. I think that many of the scientists felt, again, this was an opportunity. And certainly if you look at some of the committees that came out, some of the reports, the funding that came out of it that was really--it was an unparalleled opportunity.
PHIL PONCE: How long did it take for this panic to subside and how probable was it?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I think one of the things that happened was that as long as that sound was being emitted, which was, I think, the three weeks, that ping, it was a constant irritant. They thought that they're out there; and this is our sky and they're there; and then people began to relax and just at that moment the Soviets launched another one, which had a dog in it, and that seemed even more embarrassing because that meant that they're going to get to the Moon first, or they were going to have a man in space first before us, so then the panic started all over again.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But it really created the atmosphere of the late 1950's at a time when our economy was so strong, which we were really beating the world. Instead, from 1957 until the campaign of 1960, the atmosphere was one of we Americans maybe have this strong economic machinery but we're wasting it cranking out Edsels and Cadillacs with tail fins.
PHIL PONCE: In fact, the Edsel came out that year.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely. The Edsel, this Ford Motor Company car which was luxurious but a great failure. And there was a feeling that we had gotten soft and enmeshed in material goods. And the interesting thing is that John Kennedy was able to use this critique in the campaign of 1960 largely to beat Dwight Eisenhower's Vice President Richard Nixon.
|The politics of the Cold War.|
PHIL PONCE: Haynes.
HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: The politics of it, what Michael and Keith were saying and Doris too, the money, it was a blank check from that point on. America was like World War II. The Manhattan Project was the first great project we put together all the resources of the country, scientifically, technologically, militarily, and economically to create the atomic bomb. Now after the war it's a blank check from then on--$11 ˝ trillion worth, the Cold War. And at the time that we were perceived to be weak, as Michael was saying, we were never stronger, but it certainly sped off this huge unleashing of the space age, going to the Moon, Kennedy, all those things, even changed the language, the go-go years--a-okay--all these things became a part of the American--movies and so on.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: You know, it's interesting. I mean, Eisenhower at the beginning didn't want to play in this game. I mean, he said that I don't want to get involved in this outer space basketball game, and he thought it was much more important to develop missiles, real weapons, than it was to participate in this, but his public esteem started falling and falling, so he had--
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Twenty-two points.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Is that right, 22 points? The stock market felt. There was something that had to be done to shore up the American people, so he entered the game.
|America's standing after Sputnik.|
PHIL PONCE: Aside from perceptions within the country, what was the perception outside of the United States as far as the United States' prestige and whether or not the United States really had fallen apart, and was the United States still a reliable partner?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I think that was the worry that developing nations--part of the Cold War was that whole competition for developing nations, and they would see that socialism had produced a great triumph that democracy was unable to produce. That was--
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: One of John Kennedy's big weapons in 1960 was there was a U.S. Information Agency poll of countries around the world, who was going to win the Cold War, the U.S. or the Soviet Union? By rights, the U.S. should have won hugely. Instead, country after country would say, we think the Soviets are a rising sun. Kennedy was able to use this to great advantage.
HAYNES JOHNSON: And when you talk about the missile gap that existed between--there wasn't a missile gap.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Non-existent.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Non-existent, but also— also the United States and its government began fomenting a great deal of secret operations to fight the Communists on one level for the hearts and minds of the third emerging world and also that emblem of scientific proficiency was something we wanted to capture back. And so you had these two things simultaneously going on.
|Strong education for a strong defense.|
PHIL PONCE: One of the things the country did to try to capture that back was change the curriculum. Was this the first time that there had been a link between education and the national defense?
KEITH BENSON: Well, it was the first overt time certainly. I mean, we went through three major studies of curriculum in physics, chemistry, and biology in 1957 and ‘58 as a direct response to the Sputnik, changed dramatically the way we taught those sciences, but even more importantly, I think, is that, well, Kennedy later on emphasized the space race, was this huge build-up of the scientific infrastructure of this country not only for educating K through 12 but university students, post-doctoral programs, and so on the piggyback of the space race was this--probably the best scientific community in the world developed out of that. And it was just--it was remarkable in that 10-year period.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I might say also that when Dwight Eisenhower left office in January 1961, he delivered this famous warning against the excesses of the military industrial complex. An early draft of the speech actually said the military industrial scientific complex--he was very worried that the reaction to Sputnik had sent things into a very wrong direction.
PHIL PONCE: Did the Soviets have an idea of just what kind of a public relations coup this would be for them and what was the result of that?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Sure they did, of course. Khrushchev--if you remember, two years later, from ‘57 when the Sputnik went up--two years later Nikita Khrushchev comes here to the United States, travels all over, goes to the United Nations, takes off his shoe and pounds and says, we're going to bury you, and there was the idea we were the emerging--or we, the Soviet Union--had this scientific capacity now with our big missiles that they relied on in World War II anyhow. The Russians always had big guns, ponderous things, and now they had missiles.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: And what was extraordinary for Russia was they had only 10 years before, 12 years before, come out of World War II decimated with millions of people lost, their industrial establishment undone, and here they were able to come back to beat us at this moment, and it was said that their system, unlike ours, their kids went to school longer, they had longer hours than us, and we were celebrating life adjustment. This was the end of progressive education in America. It got much more disciplined after this.
|A stronger rocket.|
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Benson, one of the things about Sputnik was its weight. It weighed 184 pounds. Why was that significant at the time?
KEITH BENSON: Well, it certainly showed that they had very strong rockets and--
PHIL PONCE: Stronger rockets than the U.S. had?
KEITH BENSON: Stronger than the U.S. We had--you're talking about minuscule satellites at that time and 184 pounds was--orders of magnitude larger than we were thinking and so certainly in the minds of many Americans, especially the public, the idea of these bombs raining down from space were--was a terrifying thought, and it was a very terrifying moment for the American public that way.
HAYNES JOHNSON: One other thing, if you remember the Russians and they got the hydrogen bomb, not just the atomic bomb, and then they started off these tests for these huge rockets, and everybody was aware that the linkage between the capacity to put up manned space with these big rockets also carried the capacity to destroy the world, and that was the fear.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: And, remember, this was a generation of kids like myself who were hiding under desks at school continually as if the flimsy desk was going to protect you from the hydrogen bomb, but somehow those bomb scares and shelters were being built, so that this seemed like a moment when we really were in danger once more.
PHIL PONCE: So Sputnik became kind of a part of that whole package of air raid shelters, of going down to the basement, duck and cover.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And people feeling very insecure, which for most of the 1950's we really did not. This was a period that launched into the period that culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis. I can remember as a child growing up in Northern Illinois being told not to eat the snow because radioactivity had been put in it by the Russians, and we really thought that there was a very grave danger of that--
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: And did you eat the snow?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Of course we did. We were six and seven year olds. Fortunately, it doesn't seem to have hurt me since then, but this was a period of great insecurity and the great irony is that in many ways it is the moment when Americans should have been actually feeling most secure.
PHIL PONCE: Was there an event that finally made the country feel, ah ha, we're back?
HAYNES JOHNSON: When John Glenn--when we put men actually circling the globe--and all of a sudden from that point on the country was--in the space program and the Kennedy going to the Moon and it really did--it may have been the biggest con job in history but it also engaged the energies of the country.
PHIL PONCE: Do you agree with that?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, without question. I mean, it shows what would happen when common purpose is mobilizing people toward a common goal. I mean, it's an extraordinary feat to go from that failure in Sputnik to having a man on the Moon in 1969.
PHIL PONCE: Michael.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: No one could doubt American will, but the mood launching was to some extent like Sputnik. It was wonderful that we did it, but it was a rather hollow achievement because it didn't bring us very much.
PHIL PONCE: And with that I think you all for your reflections on the Sputnik.