Parallels Between the Sputnik and 9/11 Crises

Sputnik 1 changed the direction of space policy in the United States after its launch on October 4, 1957.

Is there a relationship between the so-called “Sputnik moment” in October 1957 and the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks? Yes, at several levels there are intriguing parallels between the Sputnik crisis of 1957-1958 that Eisenhower faced and the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the United States made on September 11, 2001.

In both instances, these events signaled that the U.S.was not immune from serious challenge to its society and national power. One was a symbolic attack on American might, the other a literal attack. Both sparked a response that led to serious changes in the direction of the nation, and some might argue that in both instances some of the response was ill-conceived. For example, Eisenhower was forced to respond with many actions that he believed ill-considered, among them the creation of NASA. In addition, Sputnik led directly to several critical efforts aimed at “catching up” to the Soviet Union’s space achievements.

On the whole, however, the actions in the aftermath of Sputnik proved acceptable both from a political perspective and for the long-term health of the United States. These included:

    • A full-scale review of both the civil and military programs of theUnited States(scientific satellite efforts and ballistic missile development.
    • Establishment of a Presidential Science Advisor in the White House who had responsibility for overseeing the activities of the federal government in science and technology.
    • Creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the Department of Defense, and the consolidation of several space activities under centralized management.
    • Establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to manage civil space operations.
    • Passage of the National Defense Education Act to provide federal funding for education in the scientific and technical disciplines.

In the case of Sputnik it was a technological challenge and the response involved a broad reorientation of government programs aimed at rectifying the perceived weakness. Sputnik rather “inspired” politicians to fund science as never before. In the case of 9/11 it was a direct security weakness that needed to be addressed. There were hearings and finger-pointing and an opening of floodgates of government funding for all manner of presumed security-enhancing programs. Whereas the Sputnik crisis allowed the scientific-technological community into the White House as never before and opened the public treasury to funding for all manner of efforts never given serious consideration before, the 9/11 tragedy did the same for security and intelligence specialists.

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.

Interestingly, in both instances the president took criticism for failing to anticipate and react to the challenge, and thereby mitigating it or at least minimizing its impact. Eisenhower’s supposed complacency in failing to anticipate Sputnik, and his slowness to react afterward, tarred his administration and his image for a generation. Whether he deserved that criticism is questionable, but his failure to recognize the obvious concern of the public was a shortcoming of consequence. Refusing to overreact served his and the nation’s long-term needs well. Similarly, George W. Bush received criticism for the 9/11 attacks and failure to prepare for such an eventuality. Like Eisenhower, Bush responded with a range of changes to the federal government to enhance intelligence gathering and national security:

    • Passage of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
    • Establishment of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC) to coordinate the analysis of all domestic counterterrorism intelligence.
    • Creation of the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) to integrate information on various terrorist watch lists.
    • Consolidation of oversight of intelligence assets under a single individual.
    • Passage of the Patriot Act of 2002.
    • Other reorganizations within and among various federal agencies.
The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.

The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.

Unlike Eisenhower, Bush aggressively championed these changes and generally appeared to be leading in their adoption rather than opposing some of them. This perception was misleading in both instances, for Eisenhower was fully committed to many of the reforms undertaken during his administration and Bush was opposed to some of those for which he has been applauded, especially the creation of an intelligence “czar” to oversee all intelligence organizations in the government.

In an irony of the first magnitude, Eisenhower believed that the creation of NASA and the placing of so much power in its hands by the Kennedy administration during the Apollo program of the 1960s was a mistake. He remarked in a 1962 article: “Why the great hurry to get to the moon and the planets? We have already demonstrated that in everything except the power of our booster rockets we are leading the world in scientific space exploration. From here on, I think we should proceed in an orderly, scientific way, building one accomplishment on another.” He later cautioned that the Moon race “has diverted a disproportionate share of our brain-power and research facilities from equally significant problems, including education and automation.” He believed it was used to overreact to the perceived threat. President Bush, on the other hand, embraced the use of American power in the aftermath of 9/11 and engaged in actions that some believed an overreaction to the perceived threat, especially the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

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