With Putin’s ‘Invincible’ Missile Taunt, Some Hear Chilling Echoes Of Sputnik And The Cold War
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The satellite had a name that conjured a benign enough image: Sputnik, or “fellow traveler of Earth” in Russian. For an object destined for space, it was physically unremarkable, save for four long antennae that poked forth from a shiny metal orb.
The satellite weighed 184 pounds and measured about 23 inches in diameter, no larger than a yoga ball. Inside, a pair of radios emitted a steady, static-filled “beep … beep … beep” that even amateur radio operators could pick up.
But Sputnik’s successful launch — and even its simple, constant beeping — would be enough to trigger a seismic disturbance in the presumption of American exceptionalism. If the Russians, then presumed to be technologically inferior to the Americans, could beat the United States in this first hurdle of the space race, what else were they capable of?
Did the Soviets have rockets powerful enough to launch missiles stateside? Were those beeps really just for them to track Sputnik, or was it some kind of nefarious code? The ensuing anxiety seeped into national conversations about everything from the U.S. education system to America’s military readiness.
Before the panic, though, there was wonder. For David Hoffman, who was 13 years old at the time and living in Levittown, N.Y., the announcement of Sputnik’s launch was a “where were you when …?” event that would continue to inspire him decades later as a filmmaker.
“Everyone heard it on the radio and on the television and heard the beeps,” said Hoffman, who directed the 2007 documentary “Sputnik Mania.” “It appeared that this was just a glorious new day. … It was amazing to think about.”
For weeks, news stations made announcements whenever Sputnik was slated to pass overheard, and people in Hoffman’s Long Island neighborhood would congregate outside to try to catch a glimpse of the satellite. He saw neighbors praying or crying — not because they were necessarily afraid, but because it seemed so momentous.
“One of the great scientific feats of the age,” announcer Ed Herlihy intoned in the first American newsreel about Sputnik, complete with simulation. A relatively straight headline dominated the Los Angeles Times front page the morning after the launch: “RUSS SATELLITE CIRCLING EARTH; First ‘Moon’ Sent 560 Miles High.”
Sputnik left a lasting impression on one 10-year-old boy named Stephen King, who was reportedly watching a matinee of “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” when the theater manager interrupted the sci-fi flick to make an announcement about the real-life space development.
“I am certainly not trying to tell you that the Russians traumatized me into an interest in horror fiction, but am simply pointing out that instant when I began to sense a useful connection between the world of fantasy and that of what ‘My Weekly Reader’ used to call Current Events,” King recalled to author Paul Dickson for “Sputnik: The Shock of the Century.”
However, by the Monday after the launch, the collective mood in the United States seemed to shift decisively to one of alarm, reflected in increasingly dramatic headlines and quotes.
“‘Sputnik’ Could Be a Spy-in-Sky; Chinese Reds Wave Big Stick,” warned an Oct. 7, 1957 piece in The Washington Post that included reactions to Sputnik from around the world. Reuters interviewed a Sydney University physics professor who was convinced the satellite meant “life or death for us — freedom or the extinction of civilization.”
An East German newspaper declared that the superiority of communism could no longer be questioned. The French newspaper Journal Du Dimanche acknowledged America’s embarrassment as graciously as possible: “It is certain that the Americans, whipped by the success of their Russian rivals, will soon show other wonders of science and industry.”
In the coming weeks, concern about Russia’s dominance had reached a fever pitch in U.S. news reports, as Matthew Brzezinski detailed in his 2007 book “Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries That Ignited the Space Age”:
Sputnik was “a great national emergency,” declared Max Ascoli of the Reporter. A “grave defeat,” lamented the staunchly Republican New York Herald Tribune. US News & World Report likened it to the splitting of the atom. The editors of Life made comparisons to the shots fired at Lexington and Concord and urged Americans “to respond as the Minutemen had done then.” Sputnik was “a technological Pearl Harbor,” fretted Edward Teller, the father of the H-bomb. The sphere’s “chilling beeps,” echoed Time, were a signal that “in vital sectors of the technology race, the U.S. may have well lost its precious lead.”
President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously downplayed the significance of Sputnik in his first public comments about the launch, telling reporters that the Russians “have only put one small ball in the air” at a White House news conference on Oct. 9, 1957.
But Lyndon B. Johnson, the Senate majority leader at the time, was not convinced.
“It is not very reassuring to be told that next year we’ll put an even better satellite in orbit, maybe with chrome trim and automatic windshield wipers,” Johnson said in response to Eisenhower’s remarks. “I guess for the first time I’ve started to realize that this country of mine might not be ahead in everything.”
Lest anyone miss his point, Johnson added: “Soon [Russia] will be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses.”
The resulting “Sputnik crisis” would drive the United States to dramatically increase spending in engineering, technology and defense — leading to scholarships and agencies that still exist today. In February 1958, Eisenhower approved the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), now known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
A few months later, he would authorize the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). There was now incredible short-term pressure for the United States to successfully launch any missile of its own. (The first American launch attempt, in December 1957, ended in a demoralizing explosion. “They called it ‘Flopnik’ and a lot of other names like that,” Hoffman said. “‘Kaputnik’ was another one.”)
The newly invigorated “space race” led directly to a push for the United States to land the first person on the moon.
Notably, NASA was founded as a civilian administration, not a military one, at the urging of scientists and engineers who testified that space could be used for peace — not just as a frontier in which to show off one’s military technology.
“Use of space was not confined to military activities,” Dr. Eilene Galloway, who helped draft NASA’s founding legislation in 1958, wrote last year. “It was remarkable that this possibility became evident so soon after Sputnik and its significance cannot be understated. The problem became one of maintaining peace rather than preparing the United States to meet the threat of using space for war. Fear of war changed to hope for peace.”
Finally, the following September, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act of 1958 in an effort to produce more and better trained scientists and engineers, directly because of the “shock to the system” Sputnik had provided.
Ironically, the political activity that took place in response to Sputnik would long outlive the satellite itself. The first Sputnik orbited the Earth 1,440 times, then burned up on reentry on Jan. 4, 1958, three months after it had launched. But its existence left an indelible mark on American innovation.
“It adjusted America from superb confidence in our military leadership and in our scientific leadership, in a day, to ‘whoops, how did that happen?'” Hoffman said. “It was a big moment. Everything changed in Sputnik: Military, education, politics, strategy.” Even child-raising changed, after more female students were encouraged to pursue science and engineering, Hoffman said.
If any of this seems familiar, it may be because some similar sentiments unfolded Thursday, after Russian president Vladimir Putin announced Russia had developed “invincible” nuclear weapons capable of avoiding U.S. missile defense. Unlike with Sputnik, this time the threat of technological superiority didn’t have to be extrapolated.
“No one listened to us,” Putin said. “Listen to us now.”
Putin’s revelation shocked weapons experts and spawned debate over what that meant for the United States.
“This is the start of a new Cold War,” independent Russian military analyst Alexander Golts told The Post’s Anton Troianovski. “This is an effort to scare the West.”
“Putin’s statement makes it clear we are in a new arms race that will put us under the terror of a new Cold War, in constant fear of death at any instant,” Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said in an email. “While Russia and the U.S. compare the size of their arsenals, the rest of the world is joining a treaty that bans them.”
As in 1957, federal officials sought to downplay the threat.
“We’re not surprised by the statement, and the American people should rest assured that we are fully prepared,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White told reporters Thursday, without elaborating on what that preparedness meant.
For Hoffman, Putin’s threat triggered echoes of the shock from 1957.
“We don’t have the hegemony any longer,” Hoffman said. “[Putin’s message] just says, ‘Hey, America, if you think you dominate the world because of your nuclear weapons, you don’t.’ It’s right in our face.”
Still, it was too early to say if the announcement constituted another “Sputnik moment” for the United States. For one, as a former Russia ambassador cautioned, it has not yet been confirmed whether Russia does in fact have such nuclear capabilities. Additionally, it remains to be seen how Americans respond — positively or negatively.
“A ‘Sputnik moment’ is something so shocking that you just — you’re overwhelmed by it,” Hoffman said. “I can think of several analogies: Somebody creates a cloned human. A glacier piece sails into Los Angeles harbor.”
As with Sputnik, the United States could respond to Putin with aggression, innovation — or maybe indifference.
“I have a feeling that, unless the political forces make this extremely scary, Americans will act that this is just a bunch of noise,” Hoffman said.