Sputnik: when American fears went into orbit

When the Soviets put the first man-made satellite into space, 50 years ago today, the event launched an era of US self-doubt that continues to this day.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Science & Tech

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On 4 October 1957, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was not in the Kremlin, but in Kiev, Ukraine, on his way back from holidaying at his dacha on the Black Sea. By contrast, Americans felt tense and abashed. They could now hear on the radio, or watch with the naked eye, mankind’s very simple, but first ever artificial satellite. Weighing in at a hefty (for the time) 80 kilos, Sputnik took an elliptical orbit over their heads. The Enemy had launched it, not Uncle Sam.

As with the disaster of 11 September 2001, no US intelligence agency had anticipated events. Yet Sputnik was not just a propaganda gesture from Moscow; its launch vehicle, known as the R-7, was capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The Cold War had reached a new level – literally.

America ran scared. Across the country, millions of its citizens held group gazing sessions at night. Meanwhile, international reaction was forthright. China and Egypt, allies of the Soviet Union, were fulsome in their praise.

Paul Dickson, who maintains that the launch was ‘the shock of the century’, is probably overstating matters (1). Nevertheless, Sputnik did not just herald the Space Race, a new boom in US military research and development (R&D), and an apparent parity in nuclear destructiveness between East and West. It also ushered in an era of US self-doubt (2) – what Dickson terms ‘a sudden crisis of confidence in American technology, values, politics, and the military’. That’s an era from which America, for all its overwhelming military superiority today, has yet to recover.

Within a month of Sputnik being put in orbit, Moscow put a dog (‘Laika’) and a 500 kilo payload into space, just in time for the celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. After that, the Soviets went on to make a series of further satellite launches. Meanwhile, every one of America’s first 19 efforts to go into space failed. On 6 December, its first vehicle blew up into a massive fireball just a few inches above a launch pad in Florida. The event was broadcast on national television – and the US press dubbed it ‘Flopnik’ and ‘Stayputnik’ (3).

The effect on American militarism

Large-scale military spending was a matter of some controversy in late Fifties America. Just before Sputnik, no less a militarist than General Douglas MacArthur, by then head of the giant corporation Remington Rand, told stockholders that the Eisenhower administration was guilty of ‘exorbitant’ taxation to fund forces to combat what he lampooned as ‘some monstrous foreign power that was going to gobble us up’. But after Sputnik, much more room emerged for controversy about US military spending.

In March 1959, Eisenhower had sharply refused to raise military expenditures, warning that to do so risked turning the USA into ‘a garrison state’. Moreover, in his televised farewell speech of January 1961, Eisenhower both invented the phrase, and inveighed against, America’s ‘military-industrial complex’. Yet in the opinion of one later commentator, it took five years and a festering war in Vietnam for Ike’s warnings to seem anything more than ‘the swansong of an old and naive man’ (4). Instead, in the wake of Sputnik, a bellicose John F Kennedy used the Soviet satellite to boost his campaign to become president.

Sputnik allowed JFK to fight the election of 1960 by adding his voice to charges that Ike’s austere budgets for military matters had led not just to a nuclear ‘bomber gap’ between a weak US and a strong USSR, but also to a similarly worrying gap in intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Indeed, though JFK dissented from the idea that Soviet primacy in space had made America pass its ‘high noon’ and so go into ‘the long, slow afternoon’ of decline, he was forthright that such a ‘psychological feeling in the world’ was ‘what we have to overcome’ (5).

In fact, the ‘bomber gap’ was a myth; the US enjoyed overwhelming superiority over the Soviets in nuclear-armed bombers. Yet even before Kennedy’s accusations, Sputnik had already put a rocket up the US military. After the Pentagon’s disastrous series of failed satellite launches, stiff inter-service rivalries in missiles were put to an end. The US Air Force was placed in sole charge of the missile programme and the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), based in Alabama and Florida, was created in 1958.

Such decisions did not come a moment too soon. High-altitude reconnaissance had become essential to US surveillance of the Soviet Union, but the ability to sustain this was called into question by the shooting down of a U-2 spy plane on May Day 1960. Within three months of the U-2 incident, the CIA had its first pictures of the Soviet Union from space; space power likewise proved vital to the US in the Cuban missile crisis. When US secretary of state Adlai Stevenson histrionically held up photographs of Soviet missile bases in Cuba at an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council on 25 October 1962, it was the post-Sputnik redoubling of US efforts in space that allowed him his propaganda victory.

The Space Race and US self-doubt

During the period 1957-61, Washington restructured its military apparatus so as to recover its position in space; and it was not long before it built up a tangible lead over Moscow in terms of satellite picture quality and immediacy. But the legacy of Sputnik continued to have a destabilising impact on American self-esteem. Hence, when JFK gave a speech to a joint session of Congress on ‘Urgent National Needs’ on 25 May 1961, he famously appealed for America to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

This was a signal not just of the USA’s growing command of the heavens, but also of its concern that its reign there was still under threat from the Soviets. The Americans had reason to be concerned. On 12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space when he circled the Earth in Vostok 1. America’s response the following month, launching Alan Shepard in Freedom 7, had merely been a sub-orbital flight. The pressure felt by JFK was so grave that, as he told Congress, ‘it will not be one man going to the moon… it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.’ (6)

The wider context

By contrast to nuclear-armed bombers, Sputnik seemed to presage a new, scarily automatic age of mass destruction. As the Economist said last week in its comment on the fiftieth anniversary: ‘After Sputnik, megadeath would arrive in minutes by rocket, non-negotiably, and in such quantities that global annihilation looked on the cards.’ (7) This fetishised view of modern war as a kind of unstoppable process, with its own intrinsic momentum, independent of politics and the decisions of men, explains much of the panic with which Sputnik was met in the US.

Of course, Sputnik alone didn’t introduce a massive element of gloom into the sunny, apex years of Cold War America. Yet it did help to throw other weaknesses of US imperialism into sharp relief.

In the first place, Sputnik came just after real trauma in US domestic affairs: the racial turmoil in Little Rock, capital of the state of Arkansas. There, on 4 September 1957, exactly one month before the launch of Sputnik, the local Governor, Orval E Faubus, had sided with an organised mob of white racists and had called out the National Guard to prevent nine black pupils attending the local – and all-white – Central High School. On 23 September, after the usual prevarications, Eisenhower found himself forced to send in no fewer than 1,000 paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division to quell what he had come to regard as an insurrection. Former secretary of state Dean Acheson wrote to former president Harry Truman about the affair in words that very shortly proved prophetic: ‘A Little Rock with Moscow’, he said in a letter, ‘could blow us all apart’ (8).

Meanwhile, the economy was faltering. Recession had begun in July 1957; productivity growth slowed to one per cent over the course of the full year (9). On 30 December, Time magazine pronounced the recession ‘gold-plated’, in the sense that it was superimposed upon America’s unmistakeable post-war boom. Nevertheless, economic developments certainly brought new tensions to America’s relations with Europe. Having signed the Treaty of Rome on 25 March 1957, Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux countries were striving for ‘ever closer union’. They wanted to put wartime devastation fully behind them; but the prospect of weakened demand for their exports in the US now made them nervous.

Making them even more nervous, however, was America’s reaction to Sputnik. America had founded the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in 1949, and, up to mid-1957, unilaterally determined its strategic nuclear doctrine of deterrence through Mutually Assured Destruction. But in December, less than three months after Sputnik, NATO decided to equip its European members with stockpiles of battlefield nuclear weapons – nuclear artillery. It also agreed to deploy larger, ‘tactical’ (or ‘theatre’) nuclear missiles in Britain, Italy and Turkey.

America felt these manoeuvres necessary because Sputnik raised the wider question of the US militarily decoupling from Western Europe. Would the US really put its cities at risk from a Soviet strike when replying, by nuclear means, to a Soviet attack on Western Europe? This was the question that a noted foreign policy hawk by the name of Henry Kissinger had already raised earlier in 1957 (10). Now Sputnik and the ICBM that launched it made the question much more grave.

Western European doubts were not assuaged by the post-Sputnik changes in US nuclear posture. West Germany in particular, on the front line against the Eastern Bloc, felt that the new nuclear weapons planted on European soil were little guarantee of continued American protection (11). During the years of putative ‘massive retaliation’ in nuclear war, a weak Western Europe had feared American over-reaction. Now, made afraid by Sputnik, a rather stronger Europe feared American under-reaction, complacency and disinterest.

In retrospect, we can see that Sputnik enabled a feeble Soviet Union to drive a wedge between Washington and Bonn. That made life more difficult for the US. Today, of course, the USSR is long gone. But when George’s W Bush’s previous defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld notoriously drew a contrast between the ‘Old’ Europe of Germany and France, and the ‘New’ Europe of Poland, Hungary and other former members of the Soviet Bloc, he was putting an accusing finger on Western Europe’s continuing suspicions of America’s military plans – suspicions that first fully arose in the wake of Sputnik.


Five days after Sputnik, Eisenhower was insouciant: it was, he told a press conference, ‘one small ball in the air’, only made possible because Russia had ‘captured all the German scientists’ at the end of the Second World War.

What was regarded as a very worrying pose at the time was prompted by Ike’s delight that Russia had taken the initiative to over-fly the US from space, so establishing the principle that this was no dangerous violation of airspace. Some commentators think this was crucial, providing Eisenhower with the confidence to do the same back to the Russians. Indeed, America’s first satellite, Explorer 1, reached space just four months later. Given the news of Sputnik’s launch, America’s own German recruit, Nazi rocket scientist Werner von Braun, was properly upbeat: ‘We have the hardware on the shelf. For God’s sake turn us loose and let us do something. We can put up the satellite in sixty days… Just give us a green light and sixty days!’ (12) His timetable was almost vindicated by Explorer 1.

Sputnik didn’t put America’s world supremacy in the military domain in question for long. After all, in 1957, Russia was still devastated by the millions of deaths it had suffered during the Second World War, and the Stalinists in the Kremlin had little control over what had long been a totally chaotic economy. That a country in such a condition could briefly appear to overtake the US caused serious upset in Washington.

There were other embarrassments and warnings for the US to come. The loss of Cuba to Castro in 1959 – followed by the fiasco of the failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 – and the spread of insurgency in Laos highlighted America’s increasing inability to get its way in the world. Indeed, in this context, the still tougher problem of Vietnam was part of a pattern that Sputnik first created. What was key to the challenges of both Sputnik and Vietnam was neither economics, nor even a clear military threat to US interests, but, above all, the credibility of the USA as guarantor to world capitalism (13).

Previous blows to America’s post-war hegemony, such as the loss of China to Mao Tse Tung in 1949 and Russia’s acquisition of nuclear weapons in the same year, were concealed by continuing economic growth in the 1950s. It was a similar story in international relations. Though the Korean War (1950-53) ended in a draw, America was able to solicit the support of its allies for hostilities there; and, as late as the Suez crisis in Egypt in 1956, it faced down Britain and France to significant effect.

With Sputnik, however, US hubris evaporated. For all its massive lead in military matters, American political psychology proved enormously vulnerable.

We need to remember all these things today. The military threats America faces in 2007 – al-Qaeda, the Taliban – are a tiny fraction of that offered by Moscow in 1957. But today, war remains the extension of politics by other means, and, in America, the politics of fear that began with Sputnik is stronger than ever. Fear could yet drive the US to war with Iran, even though this would not actually suit US interests.

More war from the White House would be a symptom of weakness, not strength. US aggression in the Middle East marks a fundamental defensiveness at home. Sputnik shows that America has never been fully secure – neither today, nor 50 years ago.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation, De Montfort University. Visit his website at He is speaking at the session London 2012 at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

Previously on spiked

Joe Kaplinsky criticised Stephen Hawking for his fear-mongering defence of space travel. Henry Joe McCracken wondered why we have retreated from space. Sandy Starr reviewed Sean Topham’s book Where’s My Space Age?. Or read more at spiked issue Science and technology.

(1) Sputnik: The Shock of the Century, Paul Dickson, Walker Publishing Company, 2001. The outbreak of the First World War, on 4 August 1914, better fits the tag of ‘shock of the century’: when the prescient Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin learned that Germany’s socialists, the SPD, had voted for battle then, his first reaction was that the issue of the SPD’s journal carrying the news was a forgery put out by the German General Staff.

(2) Did Rachel Carson really kill more people than Stalin?, by James Woudhuysen

(3) On the flops, see for example Countdown to Space War, Bhupendra Jasani and Christopher Lee, Taylor & Francis, 1984

(4) The Military Industrial Complex, Carroll Pursell, Harper & Row, 1972

(5) Remarks of Senator John F Kennedy, Municipal Auditorium, Canton, Ohio, The American Presidency Project, 27 September 1960

(6) Kennedy, Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs, The American Presidency Project, 25 May 1961. See also The Final Frontier, Dale Carter, Verso, 1988, pp147-159

(7) Spacemen are from Mars, Economist, 27 September 2007

(8) Quoted in Red Mood Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age, Matthew Brzezinski, Times Books, 2007, p141.

(9) Time, 30 December 1957, Year in Review page six and page seven.

(10) Nuclear Weapons and American Foreign Policy, Henry Kissinger, Harper & Brothers, 1957

(11) The Politics of Nuclear Consultation in NATO 1965-80, Paul Buteux, Cambridge University Press, 1983

(12) Quoted in Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War, Michael J Neufeld, Alfred A Knopf, 2007, p312

(13) For the point on Vietnam and US credibility, see Vietnam: Anatomy of War 1940-1975, Gabriel Kolko, Unwin, 1985, especially pp112-4

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