Delanie Tarvin: Walter A. McDougall and Sputnik’s Political Impact


In the introduction to his book . . . the Heavens and the Earth, Walter A. McDougall discusses the political responses to Sputnik, focusing on the effect it had on the relationship between the government and new technology. McDougall claims that the launch of Sputnik created an intensified, if not totally, state-controlled technocracy in the U.S., the USSR, and other nations. McDougall explains that now “states took upon themselves the primary responsibility for generating new technology” (McDougall, 7). He says that Sputnik abruptly impacted American self-perception, as it made both the U.S. public and policymakers question its reputation as the “free world leader” as they feared the Soviets were taking away their technological superiority. McDougall discusses the subsequent criticism of President Eisenhower and the high hopes of Kennedy and Johnson. In discussing Eisenhower, McDougall defends the president, saying he was actually completely aware of the problems of the age, but wary of the government having total control over technological endeavors. McDougall explains that Eisenhower feared “the assumption of inordinate power and influence by a “military-industrial complex” and a “scientific-technological elite”” (McDougall, 8).

McDougall goes on to characterize Kennedy and Johnson administrations as allowing for the triumph of “the technocratic model,” claiming that both “set out to prove what had previously been taken for granted – the superiority of American institutions” by revolutionizing technology through heavily state-controlled (funded, managed, and directed) technological advancements (McDougall, 8). The result of this, McDougall explains, was a shift in the exploitation of “raw materials and semiskilled labor as the key factors in economic progress” to that of “knowledge and killed labor” (McDougall, 8-9). McDougall claims that Sputnik resulted in both mass euphoria and fear, noting that leaders like Kennedy hoped the subsequent competition between states would “be channeled into peaceful pursuits – exploring the cosmos as the moral equivalent of war, conquering disease, desalinating ocean water, developing the postcolonial world” (McDougall, 9). However, McDougall states this euphoria and hope for global welfare soon faded, leaving only nation-wide fear and “the maturation of the power complex of the R & D State” that went on to define the Space Age (McDougall, 9).

McDougall ends his introduction by questioning the success of Sputnik, asking: “If sudden acceleration of technological change… was the main historical product of Sputnik, then did it not flame out in a remarkably short time” (McDougall, 9). One assumes he addresses this question in the next chapters of the book.

McDougall’s perspective is a balance between his American nationality and profession as an International Relations Historian. Though he focuses primarily on how Sputnik affected the U.S., he also explores the international effects. Historiographically, he explores a few different historians’ perspectives, but the discussion is mostly based off of his own. It is more of an argumentative account than a historiographical one. His approach is primarily diplomatic, as he analyzes the political implications of Sputnik; however, he also mentions a few of the economic impacts.

McDougall expands on the standard narrative of Sputnik; rather than simply noting the huge impact it had, he explains what the various impacts were. Unlike most standard, U.S.-centric accounts, McDougall’s does not frame the U.S. in a necessarily positive way, and he tries to also address the international affects. Rather than a the nationalistic standard approach, McDougall seems to offer a rather honest account of the impact of Sputnik.

As I am very interested in diplomatic history, I enjoyed reading McDougall’s account. Although this was more argumentative than historiographical, his utilized sufficient evidence to back up his claims.


Source: Walter A. McDougall, . . .The Heavens and the Earth: a Political History of the Space Age. (Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).  3-13.

Word Count: 568

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