The Cold War is marked with high tensions and anxieties centered around the east vs. west hysteria that drove the cultural conflict. Throughout the era, hallmark events such as the plethora of proxy wars, the Cuban Missile Crisis, or McCarthyism set the global stage for politics. One event, however, stands out above the rest in its effect on the American Public. The successful launch and subsequent orbit of the USSR’s first satellite Sputnik caused a sense of alarm and general paranoia the likes of which had not blanketed the United States in many years.
The above video highlights some of the frenzy surrounding the launch. In his article for PBS, Paul Dickson states, “No event since Pearl Harbor set off such repercussions in public life.” Dickson’s article focuses on the reaction the American people as a whole had to the Sputnik launch. He discusses how the launch initiated a craze publicly. The launch of the satellite resulted in a loss of faith in the American political system, the nation’s values, and our technological prowess. Everyone wanted to listen to the satellite as it passed overhead. People crowded into public spaces at dawn and dusk to catch a fleeting glance as the small object shot across the sky. The reality that the Soviets had beaten the U.S. into space began to sink in.
The actuality that the USSR had an object emitting radio-waves flying across earth did not sit well with the American public. A general outcry commenced that accused the government of being weak and less technologically advanced than its Soviet counterparts. In his article Dickson asserts, “Politically, Sputnik created a perception of American weakness, complacency, and a “missile gap,” which led to bitter accusations, resignations of key military figures, and contributed to the election of John F. Kennedy, who emphasized the space gap and the role of the Eisenhower-Nixon administration in creating it.” Dickson’s statement captures the essence of how the American people felt towards the launch of Sputnik.
As Americans, we often times expect to be the biggest, best, and first. The launch of sputnik represents a time in our history where this was not the case. The subsequent public backlash pushed President Eisenhower into distaste and demanded a more active role be taken in the newly coined “space race”. While the initial loss created discord across the United States, it would ultimately provide the impetus for the new president, JFK, to launch the ambitious campaign to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.
Dickson states in his article, “Without Sputnik, it is all but certain that there would not have been a race to the moon.” He understands the power of the American people. He lived through the event and understands first-hand the frustration and concern it incepted across the United States. The launch of Sputnik ultimately resulted in a public outcry in the United States that centered on a wounded sense of national pride and ability. As a result of the space dilemma created by Sputnik, the United States would enter into the aptly named space race.