Eisenhower's Sputnik Moment

Eisenhower's Sputnik Moment: The Race for Space and World Prestige

Yanek Mieczkowski
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Eisenhower's Sputnik Moment
    Book Description:

    In a critical Cold War moment, Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidency suddenly changed when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite. What Ike called "a small ball" became a source of Russian pride and propaganda, and it wounded him politically, as critics charged that he responded sluggishly to the challenge of space exploration. Yet Eisenhower refused to panic after Sputnik-and he did more than just stay calm. He helped to guide the United States into the Space Age, even though Americans have given greater credit to John F. Kennedy for that achievement.

    In Eisenhower's Sputnik Moment, Yanek Mieczkowski examines the early history of America's space program, reassessing Eisenhower's leadership. He details how Eisenhower approved breakthrough satellites, supported a new civilian space agency, signed a landmark science education law, and fostered improved relations with scientists. These feats made Eisenhower's post-Sputnik years not the flop that critics alleged but a time of remarkable progress, even as he endured the setbacks of recession, medical illness, and a humiliating first U.S. attempt to launch a satellite. Eisenhower's principled stands enabled him to resist intense pressure to boost federal spending, and he instead pursued his priorities-a balanced budget, prosperous economy, and sturdy national defense. Yet Sputnik also altered the world's power dynamics, sweeping Eisenhower in directions that were new, even alien, to him, and he misjudged the importance of space in the Cold War's "prestige race." By contrast, Kennedy capitalized on the issue in the 1960 election, and after taking office he urged a manned mission to the moon, leaving Eisenhower to grumble over the young president's aggressive approach.

    Offering a fast-paced account of this Cold War episode, Mieczkowski demonstrates that Eisenhower built an impressive record in space and on earth, all the while offering warnings about America's stature and strengths that still hold true today.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6793-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Acronyms and Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    “Now, so far as the satellite itself is concerned, that does not raise my apprehensions, not one iota.”

    President Dwight D. Eisenhower sounded calm at an October 9, 1957, news conference, five days after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite. When a reporter asked about national security concerns “with the Russian satellite whirling about the world,” Eisenhower tried to dispel any notion that the new object in the heavens should cause alarm. He insisted that a satellite represented a scientific development, not a military threat.

    The satellite might have genuinely caused him no fear; or he might...

  5. Part One: Sputnik

    • Chapter 1 What Was the Sputnik “Panic”?
      (pp. 11-33)

      Eisenhower enjoyed his home in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In 1950, when he and his wife, Mamie, had purchased the property, a bucolic piece of land that was once part of the Civil War battlefield, they had planned to retire there. They remodeled the house, and the residence assumed greater importance after the president’s 1955 heart attack, when doctors advised Eisenhower to avoid the high altitude of the First Lady’s home state, Colorado, where they had liked to vacation. So the couple began to use their Gettysburg house and 496-acre farm as a getaway, going there almost every weekend. It was just...

    • Chapter 2 “The Most Fateful Decision of His Presidency”
      (pp. 34-57)

      Until 1948, Eisenhower had spent his entire adult life in the U.S. Army. Ready to leave and begin a civilian career, he toyed with the idea of teaching college history. His high school yearbook had predicted that he would become a Yale University history professor, and he certainly had witnessed history firsthand during World War II.

      Instead of teaching at a college, though, Eisenhower became a university president, assuming the top spot at Columbia University in 1948. It was an odd match. Eisenhower had no doctorate and made no pretensions of being an academician. (He even joked that Columbia hired...

    • Chapter 3 Eisenhower’s Reaction to Sputnik
      (pp. 58-70)

      Eisenhower believed that the worst mistakes came during panics. “Don’t make any mistakes in a hurry” was one of his favorite maxims. In 1955, he tried to tamp down tensions when a war scare rattled Asia, as China conducted bombing raids on the islands of Quemoy and Matsu. Eisenhower told reporters, “I have one great belief: nobody in war or anywhere else ever made a good decision if he was frightened to death. You have to look facts in the face, but you have to have the stamina to do it without just going hysterical.”¹

      A man of discipline and...

    • Chapter 4 Eisenhower’s Principles
      (pp. 71-92)

      In 1948, at age fifty-eight, Eisenhower took up painting. British prime minister Winston Churchill had encouraged him to try it, and Eisenhower got his chance one day when an artist came to paint Mamie’s portrait. The painter was about to throw away a canvas when Eisenhower salvaged it and decided to dabble himself. He was hooked. “For me the real benefit is the fact that [painting] gives me an excuse to be absolutely alone and interferes not at all with what I am pleased to call my ‘contemplative powers,’ ” he once explained. At the White House, Eisenhower had a...

  6. Part Two: Setbacks

    • Chapter 5 Cheerleader-in-Chief
      (pp. 95-111)

      Eisenhower had always been an optimist. West Point classmates called him “Sunny Jim” (after a popular cartoon character of the era), and at the military academy he showed his ability to rebound from a devastating setback. The center of his college life was football, and he played with decent ability and fanatical energy. But in the fall of 1912, during his first year on Army’s varsity squad, he twisted his knee in a game. His football career was finished, and for a time, Ike found no consolation. His grades slipped, and he racked up demerit points. He wrote, “Seems like...

    • Chapter 6 “Gloom, Gloom, Gloom”
      (pp. 112-125)

      On September 24, 1955, while vacationing in Colorado, Eisenhower suffered a heart attack. For the next two months, he remained in Denver, recuperating at an Army hospital, before he finally returned to Washington to resume his presidential duties.

      Eisenhower was susceptible to stress-related illnesses, and worse, he held the world’s most difficult position. “No man on earth knows what this job is all about,” he said. “It’s pound, pound, pound. Not only is your intellectual capacity taxed to the utmost, but your physical stamina.” After the heart attack, doctors ordered the president to modify his diet, avoid fats, and take...

    • Chapter 7 Space Highs, Economic Lows
      (pp. 126-133)

      During Eisenhower’s first term, the worst economic news was a recession that struck in 1953, as the economy adjusted to the Korean War’s end. The downturn was mild, with unemployment peaking at 5.5 percent, yet some voices urged dramatic action. David McDonald, head of the U.S. Steel Workers, recommended a $4 billion tax cut and a massive infusion of federal spending, including a $5 billion public works program.¹

      Eisenhower gave a restrained response. At first, he declined to propose tax cuts, finally doing so in August 1954, once the economy was already recovering. Raymond Saulnier recalled, “He was always very...

    • Chapter 8 Eisenhower’s Rival
      (pp. 134-144)

      In 1950s Washington, Lyndon Johnson’s political star rose like a rocket. As Senate majority leader, he had welded together two bickering factions of the Democratic Party, the Northern liberals and Southern conservatives, and in 1957, he kept the two wings from splitting over the hotly debated Civil Rights Act. It was good policy and, for Johnson, good politics, as the act allowed him to gain more heft as a presidential aspirant.¹

      Eisenhower had reservations. In private, he heaped harsh words on Johnson, calling him “superficial and opportunistic,” “the most tricky and unreliable politician in Congress,” a man who “was not...

    • Chapter 9 “Radical Moves”
      (pp. 145-164)

      Sputnik riveted attention on the importance of brains to a nation, and with that the federal government’s role in promoting education. On that score, Eisenhower’s contribution was unanticipated, for he believed that education was outside the federal government’s purview. But as he once observed, when he detected a need for change, he made “radical moves.”¹

      As a rule, Eisenhower favored only gradual change, once remarking that facts did not change rapidly, and thus neither did strategies or plans. But he was open to new approaches to policy, even if not truly radical. HEW secretary Arthur Flemming recalled, “He was the...

    • Chapter 10 Order from Chaos
      (pp. 165-175)

      Eisenhower demanded punctuality, ran the White House with military precision, and told staff to work in clearly defined channels, bristling if anyone threw him a policy curveball. “I don’t want people springing things on me!” he exclaimed whenever it happened. William Ewald called Eisenhower “an organization man.” He could structure an organization, Ewald said, “whether it was a squad, army, set of invading armies or the executive branch of government. . . . This was always his concern: How do you hold this crowd of people together, whatever the size of the crowd, and get them rolling forword toward some...

    • Chapter 11 Defeat and a SCORE
      (pp. 176-183)

      The year 1958 proved an active one for legislation. In August, the president signed the Defense Reorganization Act, legislation that he believed would lead to a more efficient Pentagon and reduce interservice rivalries. The new law increased the defense secretary’s and Joint Chiefs of Staff’s authority while preserving the individual services’ independence. It also created a new post, the director of defense research and engineering, who would oversee all Defense Department research and engineering; Herbert York of the ARPA filled the post. Although Eisenhower invested much personal time and effort in overcoming congressional resistance to his proposed reorganization, the end...

    • Chapter 12 Priorities and Prestige
      (pp. 184-200)

      Throughout his life, Eisenhower seemed to command respect, and he realized that respect translated into power. He learned this lesson early. As a small boy, when he tried to enter a barn on his uncle’s farm, a goose chased him away. Only by brandishing a broomstick could he make the animal back down. The incident taught him that adversaries respected strength, and an episode at school reinforced the idea. A bully attached a bolt to a rope and, threatening to swing the weapon, challenged other children to defy him. Young Eisenhower jumped out and disarmed the bully. Thereafter, classmates regarded...

  7. Part Three: Space

    • Chapter 13 Satellites, Saturn, Spacemen
      (pp. 203-222)

      In July 1959, Eisenhower conferred with Richard Nixon before the vice president left for the Soviet Union to open an American exhibition at Moscow’s Sokolniki Park. The president gave careful instructions not to negotiate a summit meeting between himself and Nikita Khrushchev. Nixon should be “positive” and speak “plainly” in his dialogue with the Soviet leader, Eisenhower counseled, but his visit should be mostly symbolic.

      What ensued became a classic Cold War confrontation. On July 24, after verbally sparring with Khrushchev at the Kremlin, Nixon and his host headed to Sokolniki Park. As workers milled about constructing sets, the two...

    • Chapter 14 Voyages, Mirages, Images
      (pp. 223-238)

      During 1957 and 1958, Eisenhower had taken a political pounding. Sputnik, the recession, and the erosion of American prestige combined to drag him down in the polls. By April 1959, one British newspaper described him as “a man who can hardly perform his day-to-day tasks.” But later that year, the media talked about a “new Eisenhower.” Gone was the calcified leader, replaced by a dynamic one. In August, New York Times reporter Cabell Phillips wrote that the president’s stature “is growing rather than shrinking—his heroic image has almost as much luster in the public eye as it had six...

    • Chapter 15 Space, Prestige, and the 1960 Race
      (pp. 239-254)

      A top Eisenhower priority was achieving an arms control agreement and ameliorating tensions with the Soviet Union. On that front, he sighed late in his second term, “we haven’t made a chip in the granite in seven years.” But in 1960, he had hope. Khrushchev’s 1959 visit to the United States had gone well, and the Russian leader invited Eisenhower and his family to the Soviet Union the next year, which was to be the first-ever state visit by a president to the USSR. Eisenhower had grown more amenable to meeting with the Soviets, and he, Khrushchev, British prime minister...

    • Chapter 16 Eisenhower versus Kennedy
      (pp. 255-279)

      Eisenhower hated giving up the Oval Office to Kennedy. He mused over “what Joe Kennedy is going to try to get his son to do when he becomes President.” He thought his successor inexperienced (although Kennedy had served six years in the House and eight in the Senate) and too young for the presidency. Kennedy cronies like Frank Sinatra baffled the old general, who wondered why Kennedy chose such company. Privately, Eisenhower made his feelings known. He used Charles Wilson’s remark about a man’s “flywheel being too big for his engine” to describe Kennedy and said he had “a minimum...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 280-296)

    Eisenhower practiced a disciplined leadership stressing tenets that seemed archaic and dull. Most of all, he resisted cries for expansive government programs and spending. As Herbert York judged, after Sputnik the administration “was able to deal successfully and sensibly with most of the resulting rush of wild ideas, phony intelligence, and hard sell.” Eisenhower was a throwback to pre-Keynesian thinking that emphasized balanced federal budgets and limited spending; as the new Keynesian paradigm of deficit spending took hold, advocating government intervention to massage the business cycle, Eisenhower’s way seemed outdated. In the wake of Sputnik, it was easy to grow...

  9. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 297-300)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 301-334)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 335-344)
  12. Index
    (pp. 345-358)