Ike's Wise Restrained Response to Sputnik

Mr. Mieczkowski is the author of Gerald Ford and the Challenges of the 1970s (2005) and The Routledge Historical Atlas of Presidential Elections (2001). Chair of the History Department at Dowling College, he is currently writing a book on Eisenhower, Sputnik, and the space race.

A half-century ago, on October 4, 1957, the Space Age began.  The Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite, signaling a new era.  The event still resonates.  In September 2007, Russia announced plans to send men to the moon by 2025, prompting media chatter about a renewed "space race."

Sputnik initiated the first "space race"—and prompted harsh criticism of President Dwight Eisenhower.  As in today's war on terror, both political parties demanded dramatic government action and greater security, while the White House scrambled to provide leadership on an issue that exploded into the public consciousness on that autumn day. 

Eisenhower began a space program that eventually took the U.S. to heights the Russians have yet to reach.  Just as important, his insistence that America stay in the black to prevail in a long struggle showed a wisdom lacking today.  While politicians urged boosting America’s international prestige with a no-holds-barred space program, Eisenhower’s formula for earning world respect involved economic health and a sense of balance.

World War II and the ensuing Cold War convinced Americans of their system’s moral, economic, and scientific superiority to communism.  The Soviet satellite wounded American pride and created concerns that Russian rockets could launch nuclear missiles to the U.S.

With the popular Eisenhower suddenly vulnerable, Democrats pounced.  Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson charged that the Soviets "will be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses."  Even Republicans worried; to bolster defense, New York Senator Jacob Javits urged "a crash program."

Eisenhower disagreed.  A five-star general, he knew the Pentagon's hunger for weapons and viewed excessive defense spending as wasteful.  General Andrew Goodpaster, a top Eisenhower aide, said that the president maintained America's military strength “through all of this really tremendous flood of publicity and proposals by military groups, especially for crash programs." 

To Eisenhower, the satellite's real threat was its potential to panic Americans and make them "further exercised by the politicization of this in Congress and in the media," Goodpaster recalled. Eisenhower delivered two television addresses reassuring Americans about their strength in science and national defense.  Cautioning against trying "to ride off in all directions at once," he urged "selectivity in national expenditures of all kinds."

Eisenhower often mentioned the "long pull."  He predicted a half-century-long Cold War that America's economic strength would enable it to win.  Husbanding resources and balancing the budget would be crucial because the nation "cannot continue to prove to the world that we cannot and will not pay our debts as we go along…." 

After leaving office, Eisenhower privately criticized President John Kennedy's call to land men on the moon within a decade.  Although Eisenhower created NASA and supported space initiatives, he opposed challenging the Soviets to a “race” and staking America's prestige and resources on an expensive "stunt."  Were he alive today, Eisenhower likely would reject talk of outdoing the Russians with a manned Mars mission or other budget-busting ventures. 

Yet Eisenhower probably would back more limited NASA projects such as the space shuttle.  While leery of manned space flight's cost, he would appreciate its scientific benefits and the international cooperation the shuttle has fostered.  Having signed the National Defense Education Act of 1958 providing federal aid for science education, he might have eagerly watched shuttle Endeavour's August 2007 mission carrying a teacher into space.  Eisenhower assistant Edward McCabe observed, "He would not be lacking in imagination and gumption.  But also, he would not be lacking in the wisdom to know when we might be overreaching as a country, either in terms of an ability to pay [or] an ability to fight a war." 

Huge federal deficits—a record $412 billion for fiscal 2004—could cripple that ability.  They would horrify Eisenhower and strike him as "overreaching."  (By contrast, the worst deficit that Ike suffered, in fiscal year 1959, was $13 billion, and he presided over three budget surpluses.)  The only Republican presidents since Eisenhower to win two full terms, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, veered sharply from his emphasis on balanced budgets, running up the red ink he warned would be a burden on the 1950s generation and "a hundred times worse for our children and our grandchildren, unless we stop it."

There lay Eisenhower’s prescription for the future.  The nation’s place in the world—and space—depended on its economy, which needed restraint.  Avoid overstepping, he advised Americans, since they could not beat the Soviets in everything.  Instead, he recommended selecting areas where they could compete and win.  Above all, one competition Eisenhower shunned was war.  He called it "the ultimate failure of everything you've tried to do as a country." Intimately familiar with war's extreme cost in lives and resources, he preferred international trade, factories and farms, and grocery stores stocked with food, to military battle.

A half-century after Sputnik, Eisenhower's focus on economic strength and material wealth remains admirable.  His blandishments about balance still ring true—in new space ventures, the war on terror, or the unchecked federal spending he warned of long ago.

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Robert Lee Gaston - 10/4/2007

I was left bitter and resentful by Eisenhower’s response.

I was in the 7th grade at the time, and was informed that it was my duty as an American to take additional math and science classes. I was also informed that these classes were to be more rigorous than they had been in the past.

Needless to say, this ruined what would have otherwise been a very enjoyable junior high school experience.

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