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The Sputnik Challenge.

Sputnik's orbit in 1957 launched an orgy of national anxiety and collective flagellation. The United States had lost "a battle more significant and greater than Pearl Harbor," said the ever-restrained physicist Edward Teller. Some feared an imminent Soviet moon shot, which was still more ominous since, according to the ill-informed Air Force Brigadier General Homer Boushey, "who controls the moon controls the Earth." More immediate was the fear that Sputnik's rockets could hurl nuclear weapons at the United States. Whether in the heavens or at the grass roots, America seemed vulnerable as never before. The whole tenor of national life was held up for scrutiny and disparagement, from sagging national will to too-big tail fins to flabby scientific education.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower was surprised that Americans were "so psychologically vulnerable" (17). He remained calm, however, and tried to use his prestige as an avatar of national defense to soothe a feverish public. He speeded up the ICBM program, set up the office of presidential adviser on science and technology, supported legislation creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and reluctantly signed a National Defense Education Act that was broader than he wanted. But he rejected the advice of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to reveal that the secret U-2 spy flights over the Soviet Union were the basis for his confidence and wound up looking defensive at best, out of touch at worst. His failure allowed Democrats, some Pentagon officials, and the aero-space lobby to charge that the United States was the victim of a "missile gap" and push for dangerously excessive missile programs. This was, argues Robert A. Divine, Eisenhower's greatest failure of leadership as president.

In this well-written model case study, Divine frames the issue as a study of presidential decision making. The book is thoroughly researched, especially in the copious archival materials at the Eisenhower Library. Divine's greatest strength is his in-depth analysis from inside the Oval Office and the bureaucracy. He provides the best analysis in print of the internal politics of missile programs in the late 1950s and one of the most intensive on Eisenhower decision making. Ike's failing "the Sputnik challenge" implicitly calls for a revision of what Fred Greenstein has lauded as the "hidden hand" presidency.

Eisenhower's failure was not one of policy - he had a clearer grasp of missile realities than his partisan detractors - but of public relations. (By contrast his lack of leadership on civil rights, which was perhaps a greater failure, was a failure of both policy and public relations.) After ten years of Cold War rhetoric many Americans thought Sputnik proved that the Russians really were coming. The public's psychological vulnerability should not have puzzled a politician who did little to dilute the McCarthyites' rhetoric, wrapped himself in the mantle of national security, and at times manipulated Cold War imagery (remember his "I will go to Korea" and Dulles' brinksmanship). Even Eisenhower could not deflate Sputnik's vivid Cold War symbolism with an appeal to trust an aging hero.

Clayton R. Koppes Oberlin College

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Author:Koppes, Clayton R.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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