Since tomorrow is the anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, I thought it appropriate to reflect on the Eisenhower response to what became an important crisis in his presidency in the fall of 1957. Without question, in reacting to Sputnik in October 1957 President Dwight D. Eisenhower was pressed by a set of political exigencies beyond his expertise in responding to the crisis. How well he did in this arena deserves reevaluation. Indeed, he lost the initiative in agenda setting and national leadership in the fall of 1957 and did not regain it, at least in terms of space policy during the remainder of his term. For this failure Eisenhower’s leadership as president deserves criticism.
This bring to the fore the issue of Eisenhower revisionism that has been underway for the last thirty-five years and highlights its inadequacies. At a fundamental level this revisionism was built on the flimsiest of reasons: “Eight years of Eisenhower: seven and a half of peace. Ten years of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon: almost ten solid years of war.” At least that was the assessment of a political commentator.
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 importance of Sputnik for 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. That 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.
In a paper published nine-months later, RAND’s James Lipp expanded on this idea: “Since mastery of the elements is a reliable index of material progress, the nation which first makes significant achievements in space travel will be acknowledged as the world leader in both military and scientific techniques. To visualize the impact on the world, one can imagine the consternation and admiration that would be felt here if the United States were to discover suddenly that some other nation had already put up a successful satellite.” Moreover, Eisenhower had been explicitly warned of this potential in 1955 in a critical National Security Council document.
Failure to appreciate the role of national prestige in space endeavors suggests an overriding tin ear in perceiving political issues. And despite warnings from key administration officials he refused to accept their conclusions. Eisenhower utterly failed to, in the words of historian Robert A. Divine, 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 done this 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 had it in him to do so.
Instead Ike 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.