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College Quarterly
Summer 2013 - Volume 16 Number 3
Eisenhower’s Sputnik Moment: The Race for Space and World Prestige
Yanek Mieczkowski
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

I’m willing to bet that the 1890s will not be popularly remembered as the (Grover) Cleveland Era and I am pretty sure that the 1920s will not be remembered as the (Calvin) Coolidge Era, but I suspect that Americans and America-watchers may recall the 1950s the Eisenhower Era. It was the time of the Cold War, the Korean War, the ultimately catastrophic CIA-led overthrow of a secular, democratic government in Iran, a similarly foolish but less globally unsettling overthrow of a democratic regime in Guatemala, the domestic repression imposed by the House Committee on Un-American Affairs (popularly known as HUAC), the planning of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and so on. It was, incidentally a time when the marginal rate of taxation on the wealthiest Americans was in excess of 90%, a fact that would be unsettling to “fiscal conservatives” who now holler bloody murder when timid Democrats hint at boosting the rate by one or two percent, while still keeping it well below forty—if they knew enough recent history to recall it.

The 1950s was a time when wondrous economic and technological development promised a bright and prosperous future. It was ably assisted by one of the most successful social programs in US history, the “GI Bill,” which subsidized soldiers returning from World War II, Korea, etc. as they sought and succeeded in getting a decent postsecondary education. It witnessed the creation of the new middle class and a level of economic equity that has not been seen since. It was also the “golden age of television,” Disneyland and the construction of the Interstate Highway System. Doris Day and Davy Crockett ruled the silver screen and the small screen. Fast-food restaurants were launched, families enjoyed summer vacations spent camping in a host of national and state parks and the American Dream of individual home ownership (with a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage) was suddenly within reach for new millions in the population.

There were signs of turbulence, of course, as “Negroes” became testy about “colored” washrooms, segregated schools and drinking fountains, and seats at the back of the bus. Elvis Presley brought “Negro” music to pretty young girls in poodle skirts and disreputable people such as William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Lenny Bruce, “Lord Buckley,” Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac and any number of jazz and rhythm-and-blues musicians from Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis to the likes of T-Bone Walker and B. B. King lurked around the margins of polite society.

Mostly, however, it was a time in which American sociologist Daniel Bell could say with a straight face that we had reached the “end of ideology” at a time when the US government was launching Radio Free Europe, sponsoring CIA-front conferences on cultural freedom, and infiltrating and funding intellectual journals such as Encounter, The Partisan Review, The Kenyon Review and many others. On television, the working classes lived “The Life of Riley” and “Ozzie and Harriet” established the norms of cheerful suburban existence. Solid nuclear families played “Monopoly” on Saturday nights and went to Church on Sunday mornings. It was a time of fragile peace and brittle security, but it is warmly remembered by aging Baby Boomers.

Atop the social pyramid, General Dwight David Eisenhower, formerly the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force for the Normandy invasion and later for all of north-west Europe in the final year of World War II, presided over national and global affairs. As President of the United States, he was nothing if not comforting. A young Marlon Brando on a motorcycle, a rebellious James Dean without a cause and Tony Perkins as a psycho killer made people fretful, but “Ike” was there to reassure us that the good life would continue, America would prevail and there was no cause for undue alarm. Even Jack Kennedy, when he rallied the nation to his call for courage and vigor on the edge of the “New Frontier,” took pains not to mock the President, but merely to send him respectfully off to a well-deserved retirement as a new generation assumed control.

In the end, it might be said of President Eisenhower, as it has been said of others, that nothing was more remarkable about his time in office than his leaving of it. His “Farewell Address” to the nation, in which he gave his warning against the accumulated power of the “military-industrial complex” was a singularly subversive text, and one which few might have anticipated coming from the mouth of this particular president at the moment of his retirement. No American leader was closer to the workings of the military and none has secured such support for (and from) the major weapons manufacturers and the aerospace industry. And yet there he stood, cautioning the American people against the growing influence of the people upon whom he had depended for campaign support and to whom so many government contracts had been awarded.

The story may be apocryphal, but it has been said that Eisenhower had originally intended to speak of the “military-industrial-congressional complex,” seemingly taking a page out of left-wing sociologist C. Wright Mills’ critique of the American power structure, The Power Elite (1956). More partisan heads prevailed, however, and the good general removed the allusion to Congress lest voters withdraw support for some of his Republican comrades. Be that as it may, in retrospect I’d have been inclined to expand, not to restrict, expressed concerns. Perhaps the “military-industrial-congressional-judicial-presidential-commercial-financial-industrial-ideological complex” might have been more accurate, though admittedly more cumbersome.

Yanek Mieczkowski’s assessment of the Eisenhower years finesses the final address and focuses on a singular decisive event, the launching of the Sputnik satellite by America’s chief rival, the USSR, in 1957. For Mieczkowski, it was the defining episode in Ike’s two-term presidency. It was the “moment” in which Eisenhower was faced a test that would seem to catch him temporarily short, but which would also allow him to create a lasting legacy.

Sputnik was the first human artifact put in orbit around Earth. By today’s standards, it was an insignificant little metal ball. It was less than 60 cm. in diameter, circled the world at an unimpressive height of less than 600 km, and stayed aloft for less than 70 days before it fell back to Earth and was burned up in its descent. It could, however, hardly have made a greater impact. To nervous ideologues and ill-informed Cold Warriors, it was evidence that the Soviet Union was winning the “space race.” It compelled America’s leaders to commit to a come-from-behind victory.

In response, the old warrior displayed a certain apparent lethargy. He didn’t remain restrained, though his unruffled demeanour was misinterpreted as lassitude in some quarters. Behind the scenes, though, it was plain that Eisenhower took all appropriate action. He created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and a host of other agencies dedicated to putting the USA back into the lead in the efforts to dominate militarily not only on land, sea and in the air, but in “outer” space as well. He did so, however, without bluster, bombast or even excessive hyperbole.

Of course, the kerfuffle was all a bit of a sham. Just as Kennedy would later claim that the USSR had an advantage in nuclear weapons, so there was no shortage of alarmists who insisted that the Soviet satellite launch betokened the enemy’s domination in science and technology. Throughout the 1950s, I vividly recall, school children were instructed how to hide under their desks in the event of a nuclear attack and gullible suburbanites were sold backyard or basement bomb shelters in anticipation of an impending Armageddon. So, Ike’s paternal reassurances were easily confused with indolence. As something of a corrective, Mieczkowski does a commendable job of demonstrating that the USA was never behind the USSR by any significant measure of scientific advancement or military power; but, in this instance as in many others, “reality” took second place to “optics.” The mere perception that the “godless communists” had embarrassed the USA by being the first into space and would continue to do so by putting the first dog (Laika, a doomed passenger on Sputnik 2) and first man in orbit (Yuri Gagarin on Voztok 1 on 12 April, 1961), an adventure that must have prompted President Kennedy’s promise that the USA would take men to the Moon and return them safety to Earth by the end of the 1960s. That, of course, was all in the future; after Sputnik, it was enough for Ike to manage the first public relations shock that was, for Mieczkowski, the supreme test of Eisenhower’s political leadership and of American self-confidence at the height of the Cold War.

President Eisenhower comes out rather well in Mieczkowski’s telling of the tale and it is likely that future historians will treat him kindly as well. While American politicians, mass media and public opinion were seriously distressed in the “Sputnik moment,” Ike resisted the impulse to panic. He properly regarded the incident as a publicity stunt that had little or no material importance for military or international affairs. Accordingly, he adopted a calm and measured approach. National defense had always been his top priority and, although he can be legitimately criticized both for his overall global strategy and for some of his specific decisions, he exercised admirable self-control while, at the same time, not losing sight of the fact that this crisis could be worked to advantage.

I am told that the word “crisis” is represented in Chinese characters by the symbols for “danger” and “opportunity.” If Sputnik did not pose an actual danger, it did present an opportunity. Mieczkowski admits that Eisenhower’s early unruffled approach may have caused a small set-back in the popular view of his leadership qualities, but that was mainly “show business.” In fact, Ike was steadily promoting a strong satellite and space exploration program as well as robust initiatives in the fields of nuclear weapons and “delivery systems,” especially in the form of nuclear submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Underestimating the General’s grasp of the “arms race” was a mistake. So was misjudging America’s weapons and war strategies based on a relative absence of public noise. His experience in planning the defeat of Germany only a decade before had, among other things, taught Eisenhower the value of strategic and tactical secrecy. If his decision not to advertise his programs allowed the Soviets to win propaganda points at his expense, it was a price he was prepared to pay.

Eisenhower’s political adversaries in the Democratic Party, of course, leapt on the apparent failure of his administration to react forcefully to the apparent Soviet threat, and bellicose speeches were made by future Vice-President Johnson and, soon, by future President Kennedy. Eisenhower, however, maintained a posture which emphasized the facts of peace and prosperity, not the illusion of external threat. It is arguable that Ike’s subdued image fed into the Democratic Party’s electoral plan and helped Kennedy narrowly to defeat Eisenhower’s Vice-President Richard Nixon in the 1960 election. Nonetheless, however much American military power and international prestige may seem to have been damaged, and despite the fact that Eisenhower reluctantly went along with a ramped-up space race, it is one of the “moments” from which contemporary leaders (and not just in the United States) might learn a lesson.

The division of the world into a sort of Manichaean division between unassailable good and irredeemable evil, whether based on religion, ideology or the overarching notion of civilization itself, rarely helps anyone including the contesting parties. In this case, the indirect benefits of the ongoing Cold War, amplified by the spectre of a militarized space race, were abundant. The mere fact that, in the 1950s and 1960s, governments somehow found the cash to pay off the debt from World War II, totally transform and massively expand postsecondary education, and produce a prosperous and more equitable society for North Americans proves, if nothing else, that such things can be done.

By comparison, the complaints of neoliberal politicians, economists and their enablers in the mass media seem strangely disconnected not from the world as it is, but from the world as it could be.

I don’t recommend another Eisenhower moment based on additional irrational fears of “bad guys,” “people who hate us,” and so on. Nonetheless, if the real dangers that threaten our society and ultimately our species including everything from economic inequity to environmental degradation could be given the same recognition and afforded the same gravitas as was lent to the USSR fifty-five or sixty years ago, we might come to the sudden and stunning realization that the “funding crisis” which daily diminishes education, marginalizes public discourse, reduces collective investments and benefits from health care, domestic social assistance and humanitarian foreign aid, alternative energy sources and conservation policies to name just a few is “just made up.” The myth of scarcity, like the myth of austerity, is a false ideology disseminated by interests which profit obscenely from human suffering. Despite the lingering malaise that leads to a vague pessimism pushed forward by an unpleasant mixture of apathy and cynicism, however, it seems that only when some imminent catastrophe laps up at our collective back door will we extract ourselves from the torpor inflicted by contemporary power elites and begin to emancipate ourselves from our silicon cage. That, of course, takes education rather than mere vocational training or the kind of corporate indoctrination which is so plainly in evidence today.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower made some hideously poor choices in his time in office. He missed excellent opportunities to promote social justice at home and to reduce oppression abroad. Too often, he joined forces with horrific tyrannies to repress what was construed as the “communist menace.” In this one “moment,” however, he showed a measure of maturity and pragmatism that set in motion a process that has altered North American education utterly. The college for which I have worked since the late 1960s was one of almost two dozen created almost ex nihilo in the short space of three years. To contemplate such a bold initiative today would be to risk a clinical diagnosis of insanity. Yet, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s initiation of an almost total transformation of American education and William G. Davis’ colossal experiment in Ontario were both the result of conservative administrations. The idea that either would be taken seriously as possible, much less desirable, by Republicans in the USA or by Conservatives in Ontario today is too bizarre for comment. Meanwhile, neoliberal economic policy since about 1980 or even earlier has brought the process of authentic educational reform and development to a grinding halt. They have reversed many of the better innovations and are now replacing good ideas with narrow technological-ideological substitutes for education on a grand scale.

Yet, today the need for a metamorphosis in college education is surely as great as or much greater than it was in the 1950s. The time is surely right to consider making a trip back to the future. Back then, the authorities had in mind a holistic education which combined high-skill job training with a serious liberal education. It was not a fantasy but a realizable objective that was surprisingly often attained. Educational leaders then appreciated that technological innovation in and out of the classroom was both desirable and inevitable. They did not, however, fetishize technologically mediated education nor did they necessarily marginalize critical social analysis unlike too many institutions today which (mainly in order to save money on labour-intensive education involving actual teachers) are happy to dispense with as many teachers as possible and look forward to the day when all of us can be replaced with cheerful robots.

I am not suggesting that we are in a position to create a generation of worker-intellectuals on the Gramscian model and I am sure that Ike and others would have recoiled from the notion; yet, we are in a position to do better than we do if we can only stop chronically deferring to what is and what is said to be inescapable. The imagination and courage needed to do so would, I don’t hesitate to speculate, have won General Eisenhower’s (and Bill Davis’) approval.


Mills, C. W. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto.