Sputnik, Eisenhower, and the Cold War

October 4 marks the 50th  anniversary of the Soviet launch of Sputnik, an event that caused profound shock and panic verging on hysteria in the United States. Newsweek declared that Sputnik constituted a Soviet victory in three areas: pure science, practical know-how, and psychological Cold War. Some compared Sputnik to Pearl Harbor, while many warned that American defenses were inadequate. Critics blamed the Eisenhower administration for the nation’s alleged “missile gap,” “education gap,” and “propaganda gap.” Coupled with the USSR’s successful testing of an ICBM in August and its massive hydrogen bomb tests in September, the launch of this small satellite (184 pounds) seemed to supply irrefutable evidence that the Soviets had greatly surpassed the United States in ballistic missile technology.

The Eisenhower administration’s response to these dramatic developments was three-fold. First, the president announced that Project Vanguard would launch a satellite in December. This mission was a disaster: the first launch was aborted; when the rocket was launched two days later it quickly exploded (prompting such lampoons as “Flopnik” and “Dudnik”); and ultimately the mission was cancelled. The United States finally launched a rocket (Explorer I) on January 31, 1958, but this was greatly overshadowed by the orbiting of Sputnik II two months earlier, which weighed 1,121 pounds and carried a dog, and the May launching of Sputnik III, which weighed 3,000 pounds and housed numerous instruments.

Second, Eisenhower tried to reassure Americans that the nation’s military could easily counter any enemy attack. In four televised addresses during the fall of 1957 he accentuated the incredible power of the U.S. military. He created the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee and appointed a czar to supervise the government’s missile programs. Eisenhower also authorized a substantial increase of the military budget for the next fiscal year (although it was far less than some advocated), accelerated the Intermediate–Range Ballistic Missile program, and sought to deploy missiles in Europe. Finally, he laid the foundation for the National Defense Education Act, which emphasized that scientific education and more extensive research were crucial to the nation’s long-term security.

Third, Eisenhower insisted that the United States must wage “total cold war” to defeat the Soviets. This involved the use of “economic development, trade, diplomacy, education, ideas and principles.” Chief among these “ideas and principles” were biblical and spiritual tenets. Like Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower repeatedly stressed the need of a national spiritual revival to enable Americans to deal effectively with their problems at home and abroad. “Bullets and guns and planes and ships,” the president declared, could “produce no real or lasting peace.” Neither could “edicts and treaties, no matter how solemnly signed,” nor could economic arrangements, no matter how favorable they were. “Only a great moral crusade” carrying out God’s will, he proclaimed, would be successful.

As Roosevelt did during World War II when depicting the struggle against the Axis Powers, and as Ronald Reagan would do later, Eisenhower often described the Cold War as a religious crusade, a conflict between righteous and ungodly foes, a battle to preserve Christian civilization. Like most of the nation’s leaders of his generation, he was convinced of American moral preeminence. The United States would ultimately triumph over its godless, immoral foe, the Soviet Union, Eisenhower contended, because it rested on spiritual and moral principles and defended democracy, a system of government that recognized human dignity and protected individual rights.

In waging ideological warfare against communism, Eisenhower sometimes contrasted the Soviet Union’s material achievements with U.S. spiritual accomplishments. America’s moral vitality, he argued, was more impressive than Soviet missiles that hit the moon and orbited the sun. While communists put their faith in their triumphs in space, Americans put their faith in the “service of God and man.” “Our Protestant beliefs and convictions,” Eisenhower trumpeted, provided a sound basis for “our civilization and government.” He castigated “Russia’s hostility to free government—and to the religious faith” on which it “is built.” The free world, Eisenhower repeatedly insisted, must use spiritual, intellectual, and material weapons to defeat communism.

Such comments prompted the editors of the Nation to bemoan “the evangelical certainty” with which the president “described the ‘forces of good and evil’ now locked in mortal combat in the world.” This characterization, they protested, thwarted efforts to resolve disputes between the United States and the USSR. Nevertheless, such rhetoric expressed some of the core convictions of a man, who, although he did not join a church until the second Sunday of his presidency, considered himself “the most intensely religious man I know.”

Eisenhower’s faith affected how he responded to many of the challenges of his presidency, especially the Cold War. His response to the crisis Sputnik produced was consistent with his general approach: he continually urged Americans to pray for peace, called for religious renewal, and promoted the use of spiritual weapons.