Eisenhower Revisionism and Sputnik

From left to right: Russian Premier Nikolai Bulganin, United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower, French Premier Edgar Faure, British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden at the 1955 Geneva Conference. At this conference Eisenhower put forth the “Open Skies” plan.

From left to right: Russian Premier Nikolai Bulganin, United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower, French Premier Edgar Faure, British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden at the 1955 Geneva Conference. At this conference Eisenhower put forth the “Open Skies” plan.

At present Dwight D. Eisenhower enjoys a presidential stature that ranks just below the greatest of the American presidents, especially Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson. This has not always been the case. For the last thirty years Eisenhower revisionism has been underway rehabilitating his image. We are currently pursuing a major Eisenhower memorial in Washington, D.C., to cement this positive attitude toward his presidency.

In essence, Eisenhower gained stature as a president years after he left office because the bar was relatively low to start with. One could agree with many of Fred Greenstein’s arguments about Eisenhower in The Hidden-Hand Presidency (1981) that Ike was much more than his critics in the 1950s thought. Further, one can accept that he worked hard behind the scenes to provide a steadying influence on national strategy. Eisenhower especially attained lofty status as a grand strategist of the Cold War, setting in motion the policies that eventually led to the American victory over the Soviet Union.

This seems overblown to me. For example, with American prestige clearly at stake in the Cold War during the 1950s it is puzzling that the chief executive should have been so reluctant to recognize this fact of life. Eisenhower totally mishandled a long list of international intrigues with the Soviet Union, completely misinterpreted the nationalist fervor of former European colonies, displayed alarming incapacity to understand anything happening in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, and the list goes on and on.

So what might we make of Eisenhower’s leadership in the Sputnik winter of 1957-1958? There are several important questions that beg discussion. Most important, how did he so miss the psychological implications of Sputnik in the minds of the American people? There are, of course, many other issues of a more sublime nature, but focusing on this question promises a few useful insights.

Failure to appreciate the prestige associated with spaceflight is seemingly unfathomable for an individual of Eisenhower’s savvy, cagey, strategic nature. Both military and civilian observers had been discussing it for more than a decade. Under the Department of Defense and its predecessor a series of important studies on the use of space systems for national security and other purposes pointed this up quite well. Perhaps the key one appeared in 1946 from the newly established RAND Corporation published a Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship. This study explored the viability of orbital satellites and outlined the technologies necessary for its success. Among its many observations, this one proved especially prescient: “A satellite vehicle with appropriate instrumentation can be expected to be one of the most potent scientific tools of the Twentieth Century. The achievement of a satellite craft would produce repercussions comparable to the explosion of the atomic bomb.” Moreover, Eisenhower had been explicitly warned of this potential in 1955 in a critical National Security Council document.

A Soviet engineer and Sputnik 1.

A Soviet engineer and Sputnik 1.

This perspective is a classic application of what analysts often refer to as “soft power.” Coined by Harvard University professor Joseph Nye, the term gave a name to an alternative to threats and other forms of “hard power” in international relations aimed at co-opting or attracting potential adversaries to accomplish the desired ends. As Nye contended in 2003: “Soft power is the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals. It differs from hard power, the ability to use the carrots and sticks of economic and military might to make others follow your will. Both hard and soft power are important…but attraction is much cheaper than coercion, and an asset that needs to be nourished.”

In essence, spaceflight represented a form of soft power, the ability to influence other nations through intangibles such as an impressive show of space capability. It granted to the nation achieving it first, rightly as James Lipp forecast, an authenticity and gravitas not previously enjoyed among the world community.

Failure to appreciate the role of national prestige in space endeavors suggests an overriding tin ear in perceiving political issues. In addition, despite warnings from key administration officials, the President refused to accept his advisors conclusions. Eisenhower utterly failed to, in the words of historian Robert A. Divine in his 1992 book on Sputnik, to “quiet the fears of the American people that Sputnik represented a fundamental shift in military power and scientific achievement from the United States to the Soviet Union.”

As president, and there is a long list of U.S. chief executives who have led more effectively than anyone thought possible—Lincoln, FDR, JFK, and Reagan come immediately to mind—one critical responsibility is to provide the guidance and direction that calls the American people back from despair and dread to forthright action. Since he did not accept the premise that a psychological effect could result, Ike proved incapable of responding with the leadership required even if he had it within him to do so.

Instead Eisenhower and his lieutenants fumbled about, incurring criticism from all sides, and if any leadership was to be offered it had to come from other sources. Ultimately, a coalition of political opponents, scientists, military space advocates, space exploration enthusiasts, and leaders in the aerospace industry seized the initiative. Eisenhower during the Sputnik crisis may be compared to Chip Diller, the pathetic character played by Kevin Bacon, at the end of the 1978 slob humor feature film, National Lampoon’s Animal House, who screams for people to remain calm in the face of riot and anarchy on the streets when the Delta fraternity attacks a homecoming day parade for Faber College. Eventually the character was flattened on the street by a screaming herd of terrorized spectators. So was Eisenhower.

Was Eisenhower, a military leader used to giving orders and having them carried out without question or criticism, incapable of providing this type of effective leadership? Was it something in his background or psyche or persona that kept him from offering strong leadership during this situation, outlining effective methods for recovery from what was without question a political setback in the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union?

Instead, his persistent cries of “all is well” without any reason offered to believe that reminded everyone of just how ineffective his leadership had become. Perhaps he never had it in him to offer this “priestly function” of the presidency. Throughout American history it has fallen to the president to offer consolation and clear vision in the face of crisis. Those who have done so effectively are remembered as great leaders who responded to the trials of their ages.

Despite whatever other qualities they might have possessed those who failed to do so, and Eisenhower must be placed in this category, have appropriately been assigned lesser significance. No matter the time or circumstance, the critical component of the president’s skill set must be the ability to master the issues and offer perspective, rationale, and clear vision for the nation’s course. This Eisenhower utterly failed to do in the context of the Sputnik episode.

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4 Responses to Eisenhower Revisionism and Sputnik

  1. An excellent review of the issues that seem to befuddle Eisenhower and his Administration. Ike seemed genuinely caught by surprise over the domestic and world reaction to Sputnik. I believe this was partly due to his inside knowledge from U2 flights that the USSR did not have a credible ICBM threat and I give him credit for not allowing this knowledge of Soviet capabilities to become public while Nixon was taking a beating from JFK over the perceived “missile gap” during the 1960 election. Also Ike wanted the Soviets to launch a satellite first for a de facto “open skies” policy that had been turned down by the USSR. The problem being the public had no idea what the thinking was behind Ike’s passive reaction to Soviet PR triumphs. Ike was poorly served by his advisors regarding how the public would react and I believe Ike himself was battling his many health issues which may have impaired his judgement on this critical issue. You also cover many of the issues that Eisenhower mishandled during his time in office that has long been forgotten by Americans… issues that were left to fester and be dealt with by Kennedy when he assumed office in 1961 leading to the most dangerous time in our history. Very well done sir!


  2. Tom Billings says:

    I believe there are further reasons for Ike’s unwillingness to place a higher priority on spaceflight than bad advisers and a tin ear. At least 2 things come to mind. They are in the category of “having the vices of his virtues.”

    The first is his dislike of a particular group established within the US rocketry community by the early 1950s. They were almost certainly the strongest team we had to do projects involving rocketry from 1945 onwards, and major competitors for orbiting the first US satellite. They were the Peenemunde Team, headed by Werner Von Braun. Eisenhower had spent years fighting to stop the Nazis, while Von Braun was helping them by building rockets, and in photos as late as 1960 you can see the antipathy of Eisenhower when Von Braun was trying to explain how a particular system would work, and what it could be used for:


    While I cannot get to this URL till the government lets us once more, I believe it is the captioned photo of Von Braun explaining the Saturn 1 to Eisenhower, with body language that speaks eloquently. In the photo I remember Von Braun was on one side of the Saturn 1 model. Like many enthusiastic salesmen he was reaching towards it, and towards Ike on the other side of it, in near supplication. Eisenhower, by contrast was standing with arms folded in a defensive posture, and physically leaning back away from Von Braun, while frowning.

    This was the attitude throughout most of the Eisenhower administration to the Peenemunde Team. They would never have got their Jupiter IRBM program funded at all if the Navy had not gone in on it with them, at its start. Indeed, wherever Ike was heading a hierarchy from 1945 onwards, especially during the lean years between 1945 and 1953, wherever Ike was heading the Army, the Army’s budget for the Peenemunde Team’s rocketry was kept quite inadequate, almost seemingly in the hope that US industry would surpass “The Rocket Team” and make them “excess to needs.”

    Till he died Harry Stine would tell tales of searching through the scrap yards of the American Southwest with the Germans for steel pieces to make the launch stands and other ground equipment they needed to get the programs of launching V-2 tech demos and the Hermes Project moving and keep them moving. The simple fact was, the Team who could launch a satellite before the Soviets did it were people Eisenhower could barely stand to be in the same room with. Whether this attitude was correct is a matter still debated. I believe it was not.

    Second, I believe that the strategic choices Ike accepted as a legacy from Truman’s administration were so constraining to the US that we were fighting WW3 with one hand behind our backs, especially in this one area.This was so even in developing the arms that would let the US gain advantages sufficient that the Soviets would have to fold their hand, as they finally did between 1985 and 1991. The first point in this, that it already was WW3 (as Stalin put it to the politburo in January of 1946, World Wide Class War, with the US as the principal enemy of “the socialist camp”) was anathema in much of academia and the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. Ike continued this fantasy, that we were not at war, even though people were dying by the millions in a world wide conflict.

    In the area of strategic reconnaissance this meant that the CIA, with all its attitudes towards keeping “sources” utterly black, dominated even the most technical of military surveillance, reconsats, with CORONA, because the best Team in the military was unwanted and the others couldn’t get the job done. The antipathy towards The Rocket Team kept the Army from getting the money to do the building and launching of reconsats. As a result we had the Air Force’s SAMOS system which never worked well for 8 years, until replaced. By contrast, when the Peenemunde Team decided the Redstone needed a “stay-behind” system to evaluate whether they had hit their target, it was developed in 18 months. After it was defunded anyway, its tech became the basis of the TIROS program.

    In particular, the secret nature of the AF program did not keep it from being found out. Indeed, the Soviets had fired the first shot in a propaganda offensive against it *before* Sputnik launched. Nor did CORONA stay in the black, but was only “deniable”, through the “Discoverer” program. So, the desire of Ike to have the Soviets launch first could not have been to placate the Soviets. Rather, it was most likely directed towards the “progressives” throughout the West whose fear, that we were being bad people by fighting in a WW3 with all out technical competition, seemed to dominate even Eisenhower’s decisions.

    This strategic error meant that by the rules Eisenhower had already accepted, he was caught in a cleft stick. To placate “progressive” groups outside “the socialist camp”, he had to keep from forthrightly acknowledging the recon programs we had. IMHO, he should have acknowledged them, to the extent of denouncing the infinite altitudes for sovereignty specified in Civil Aviation Treaties, that satellites routinely break anyway. He should have justified that by acknowledging we were in WW3, though it was not a war like WW2.


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  4. OM Frack Tuu says:

    ,,,Roger, there’s something else to keep in mind: Ike’s health was not that great by the time the Sputniks were launched. From several political analysts, and one US Congressman, I’ve heard talk over the years about Ike possibly having what could have been a “mild stroke” about six weeks before Sputnik I made orbit and the headlines. In light of questions regarding his health following his first heart attack in 1955, his slow recovery from a surgery related to Crohn’s Disease in 1956, and his subsequent confirmed stroke in late November of 1957, this earlier, unreported – and probably undetected – stroke could have been part of the cause of Ike’s apparent conbefuddlement over the reaction to the Soviet launches. Clearly not the only factor in his actions – or lack thereof – as his distrust/dislike for Von Braun and the “Paperclip Nazis” is pretty well established. But something that should be considered as quite probably a major factor.

    As for Charlie Wilson’s breakdown…well, who knew that hanging/burning someone in effigy actually worked? 🙂



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