Sputnik Challenge

Overview

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched a 184-pound metal ball called Sputnik into orbit around the Earth, and America plummeted into a panic. Nuclear weapon designer Edward Teller claimed that the United States had lost "a battle more important and greater than Pearl Harbor," and magazine articles appeared with such headlines as "Are We Americans Going Soft?" In the White House, President Eisenhower seemed to do nothing, leading Kennedy in 1960 to proclaim a "missile gap" in the Soviet's favor. Rarely has ...

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The Sputnik Challenge

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Overview

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched a 184-pound metal ball called Sputnik into orbit around the Earth, and America plummeted into a panic. Nuclear weapon designer Edward Teller claimed that the United States had lost "a battle more important and greater than Pearl Harbor," and magazine articles appeared with such headlines as "Are We Americans Going Soft?" In the White House, President Eisenhower seemed to do nothing, leading Kennedy in 1960 to proclaim a "missile gap" in the Soviet's favor. Rarely has public perception been so dramatically at odds with reality.
In The Sputnik Challenge, Robert Divine provides a fascinating look at Eisenhower's handling of the early space race—a story of public uproar, secret U-2 flights, bungled missile tests, the first spy satellite, political maneuvering, and scientific triumph. He recreates the national hysteria over the first two Sputnik launches, illustrating the anxious handwringing that the Democrats (led by Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson) aggressively played for political gain. Divine takes us to private White House meetings, showing how Eisenhower worked closely with science adviser James Killian, allowing him to take the lead in creating a civilian agency—NASA—which provided intelligent and forceful leadership for American space programs. But the President also knew from priceless intelligence from U-2 flights over the U.S.S.R. that he had little to fear from the touted missile gap, and he fought to limit the growth and multiplication of military missile programs. Eisenhower's assurance, however, rested on classified information, and he did little to instill his confidence in the public. Nor could he boast of his early support for the secret spy satellite program (which quickly replaced the U-2 plane after Gary Powers was shot down in 1960). So the public continued to worry, feeding the national movement for educational reform as well as congressional maneuvering over funding for numerous strategic projects.
Eisenhower, Divine writes, possessed keen strategic vision and a sure sense of budgetary priorities, but ultimately he flunked a crucial test of leadership when he failed to reassure the frightened public that their fears were groundless. As a result, he ultimately failed in his goal to limit military spending as well—which led to a real missile gap in reverse. Incisively written and deeply researched, The Sputnik Challenge provides a briskly-paced history of the origins of NASA, the space race, and the age of the ICBM.

Divine provides a fascinating look at Eisenhower's handling of the early space race--a story of public uproar, secret U-2 flights, bungled missile tests, the first spy satellite, political maneuvering, and scientific triumph. The author re-creates the national hysteria over the first two Sputnik launches and the creation of NASA.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik , the world's first artificial satellite, on October 4, 1957, many Americans believed that this epochal Cold War event signaled dangerous weaknesses in American science, the failure of American schools and complacency in American political leadership. Most disturbing was the fear that the Soviet Union had grabbed a decisive lead in the development of long-range missiles. As Divine ( Eisenhower and the Cold War ) points out, the panicky response to Sputnik had a long-lasting effect on American life, spurring a national debate over the state of education, science, space exploration and security that lasted well into the 1960s. The principal focus of this succinct, clear-sighted study is President Dwight Eisenhower's moderate, balanced response to the Sputnik crisis. Divine analyzes the president's role in limited expansion of the U.S. missile program, acceleration of the reconnaissance-satellite effort, modest increases in federal aid to education and the creation of a civilian agency devoted to the peaceful exploration of outer space, i.e., NASA. Divine is a history professor at the University of Texas. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Russia's launching of the world's first artificial satellite in October 1957 touched off a hysterical reaction among the American public fearful that the event signaled a fundamental shift in the strategic balance. President Eisenhower's calm response to the propaganda victory was taken at the time as evidence of complacency and opened his administration to a torrent of criticism by the press and Congress. In Divine's detailed account, which draws heavily on archival sources, he argues that the president's measured response was entirely correct. Eisenhower's firm belief that fiscal responsibility and a balanced budget were at least as important to the national security as were missiles led him to avoid crash programs and costly duplications of weapons systems. At the same time, he used the public furor to push his plans for the reorganization of the Pentagon, for educational reforms, and for the creation of the civilian space agency, NASA. Despite the correctness of Eisenhower's response from a policy standpoint, Divine nevertheless notes that the failure to allay public fears constituted a major failure of presidential leadership. Highly recommended for academic libraries.-- Thomas J. Frieling, Bainbridge Coll., Ga.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195050080
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 3/25/1993
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 1,187,944
  • Product dimensions: 6.44 (w) x 9.56 (h) x 1.03 (d)

Meet the Author

About the Author:
Robert A. Divine is a Professor of History at the University of Texas, Austin, and is the author of Eisenhower and the Cold War and Blowing on the Wind.

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