The Bluff of the Century: Sputnik and the Cold War.
“Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik¸ we had no idea how we’d beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t there yet. NASA didn’t even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs … This is our generation’s Sputnik moment”
The quotation above, taken from US President Barack Obama’s recent State of the Union address on 26 January 2011, relates to his plea for the necessity of continued US investment in research and technologyin the contemporary world. His words also serve as a powerful testament to the enduring legacy left by the successful Soviet launch of the satellite Sputnik on 4 October 1957. The launch of Sputnik ignited the Cold War Space Race in earnest; as George Reedy, an aide to US President Lyndon Johnson famously declared: ‘the Russians have left the earth and the race for control of the universe has started’.
In this article, guest author Harry Hopkinson argues that Sputnik actually functioned as something of a ‘military boomerang’ for the USSR – temporarily boosting Soviet prestige but at the expense of galvanising America’s own technological and military development in the longer term and ultimately pushing the Soviets into making technological and military commitments that they would struggle to maintain – while also considering some of the ways in which Sputnik’s influence permeated the Cold War beyond the military and technological spheres after its launch in 1957.
The Bluff of the Century: Sputnik and the Cold War.
By Harry Hopkinson.
Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, was successfully launched on the 4th of October 1957. Serving as a demonstration of Soviet technological advancement, its launch was met with a response of shock, awe and fear which reverberated across both sides of the Iron Curtain. Sputnik spent a total of 3 months orbiting the Earth, emitting a simple signal that was picked up by amateur radio operators around the world. The satellite weighed 184 pounds, and the R-7 rocket that launched Sputnik into orbit was capable of generating 1,120,000 pounds of thrust.
Soviet technology thus appeared to be firmly in the ascendency, with the implication that the Soviet Union was now also capable of launching a long-range nuclear strike. In the political climate of the Cold War, Sputnik proved to be a huge propaganda coup for the Soviet Union. Soviet prestige was bolstered while the United States faced political and national embarrassment due to perceptions of their lack of comparable technology. However, the initial embarrassment that the United States experienced as a result of Sputnik’s success had a galvanising effect on American attitudes towards competition with the USSR, the exploitation of Space and the development of nuclear weapons. As a result, while Sputnik is traditionally perceived as being an off-shoot or catalyst for the Cold War arms race, as well as kick-starting the Space Race, the satellite also left a much wider legacy. The Sputnik launch and the response of the United States set the tone for the remaining years of the Cold War, and many aspects of Sputnik’s wider legacy continue to reverberate to this day.
VIDEO: ‘Sputnik beeps overhead: Americans in awe’
Sputnik: The Soviet Bluff
Following the Second World War, the creation of advanced technological weaponry in the form of an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) that was powerful enough to launch a nuclear warhead thousands of miles was a key aim shared by both the USA and the USSR. Sputnik’s launch seemingly demonstrated to the world that the Soviet Union had attained this goal, and was capable of threatening the USAwith nuclear ICBMs. This short animated video, shown on an American News programme, provided a simple demonstration of the science behind the Sputnik launch:
The reality of the situation however, was that the powerful R-7 rocket that lofted Sputnik into orbit possessed many problems that made it unsuitable as an ICBM. The key problem was that the heat shield that would protect the warhead from the heat of atmospheric re-entry had not been sufficiently developed. This meant that the R-7 could not function as a nuclear weapon. Khrushchev himself later acknowledged that the R-7 was a ‘symbolic threat’ and that it was ‘reliable neither as an offensive or defensive weapon’ (Quoted by Matthew Brzezinski, Red Moon: Sputnik and the Rivalries that United the Space Age, Bloomsbury: 2007). Though the rocket would continue to prove an excellent motor for Space exploration (and would also be used to propel Yuri Gagarin into orbit during the first manned space flight in April 1961), as a weapon it was clearly not capable of threatening the United States when Sputnik was launched in 1957, while in contrast, the United States had assembled a large bomber fleet that was capable of striking at the Soviet Union from bases within Europe and America.
The Sputnik launch can therefore be seen as something of a bluff on the part of the Soviet Union; giving the illusion that Soviet rocket technology and its nuclear capability was more advanced than it actually was. From a Soviet perspective, the ability to bluff an ICBM advantage was important as this could deter the USA from any pre-emptive strike on the USSR in the event of a nuclear war. By bluffing about their nuclear capacity and creating the illusion of capability to ensure ‘mutually assured destruction’ the Soviet Union thus sought to bolster their own security. The concept of nuclear deterrence was crucial for Soviet foreign policy at a time when Khrushchev was actively seeking to establish a policy of rapprochement with the USA. The Sputnik bluff thus helped to set the stage for the doctrine of ‘peaceful co-existence’ between the USA and the USSR.
Sputnik: The American Response
Although the Eisenhower administration recognised that Sputnik did not dramatically shift the nuclear balance of power, they still reacted sharply to the technological achievement demonstrated by the Soviet satellite and implemented several changes to existing policy in direct response to Sputnik. One immediate change was the revamping of the USA’s ICBM and satellite programmes. The Navy’s experimental missile project Vanguard was tasked with launching a satellite, despite the fact that its rocket had still not been fully tested. The accelerated launch of an American satellite was intended to placate public concerns that the USA had fallen behind the Soviet Union technologically. Unfortunately the experimental Vanguard rocket exploded spectacularly on its launch pad on the 6th of December 1957, prompting wide-spread derision from the American media. The New York Times referred to the debacle as ‘Sputternik’ (7th December 1957), while Time Magazine dubbed it ‘Project Rearguard’ (7th December 1957). Following Vanguard’s failure, missile development and satellites became a highly politicised issue, fuelled by the popular public perception that the USA were in danger of falling further behind the USSR.
Public concern about Sputnik was also exploited by the Democratic Party for political gain. Senator Lyndon Johnson proclaimed of the Russians ‘Soon, they will be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cards from freeway overpasses’ (Quoted by Paul Dickson, Sputnik: The Shock of the Century, Berkley: 2001) while Charles Bewton, a Democrat senatorial aide, drafted a memo for Democrat George Reedy stating that ‘the issue (Sputnik) is one which, if properly handled, would blast the Republicans out of the water, unify the Democratic party and elect you President…’ (Quoted by Walter McDougal in The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, John Hopkins University Press: 1985).
The Democrats repeatedly argued that a ‘missile gap’ existed between the USA and the USSR, and this became a decisive issue in John Kennedy’s winning election campaign in the run up to the 1960 Presidential elections. That Kennedy’s presidency was won on this premise illustrates that the Democrats were able to use Sputnik for political ‘leverage’: exploiting the concerns of the general public, who worried that America may lose power, prestige and international leadership.
The Sputnik bluff was therefore initially successful: it boosted Soviet prestige at the expense of the USA; marked a triumph for Soviet science and technology and changed world perceptions of the Soviet Union. Being the first into space meant that the USSR was viewed as a serious rival to the USA. This was later compounded by the Space Race, where the USA actively competed with the USSR for scientific and technological supremacy. The idea that America thus had to compete with the Soviet Union, not just militarily but in every walk of life, was established by Sputnik. Sputnik can therefore be seen as an ideological victory for the Soviet Union as it changed American perceptions of the USSR and set the tone for the remaining Cold War.
Sputnik also had a galvanising effect on American missile development and by 1960 the USA had begun to overtake the Soviets in numbers of ICBMs, while also retaining its large nuclear bomber fleet. Sputnik precipitated this galvanisation and so ironically, actually helped to put more nuclear pressure on the Soviet Union. As Sputnik served to strengthen America’s position in real terms while offering only the illusion of strength to the USSR, as a bluff it was ultimately to be to their detriment. This gulf, between the perceived Soviet capabilities that Sputnik granted and the reality of the situation, would go on to have several further influences on the Cold War.
Sputnik: The Wider Impact
One key impact was that Khrushchev sought to address the growing nuclear imbalance by placing missiles in Cuba, sparking the now infamous Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. A Soviet memorandum from the 24th May 1962 outlined Soviet plans to place launchers and a missile division on Cuban soil. Placing missiles in Cuba marked a shift, as the Soviet Union now had missiles capable of threatening the USA with nuclear strikes. Khrushchev stated that levelling the nuclear balance of power was the principal aim of his decision to place missiles in Cuba in his memoirs. He asserted ‘We had to establish a tangible and effective deterrent to American interference in the Caribbean’ and went on to acknowledge how unfavourable the nuclear balance of power between the USA and USSR was at that time because ‘The United States had already surrounded the Soviet Union with its own bomber bases and missiles. We knew that American missiles were aimed against us in Turkey and Italy, to say nothing of West Germany’ (Khrushchev Remembers, Penguin, 1977). This suggests that the skewered balance of power created by Sputnik was a primary motivation for the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Sputnik bluff also created tensions between the Soviet Union and its allies. China was highly critical of Soviet attempts to make overtures towards ‘peaceful co-existence’ with the USA, instead pushing Khrushchev to adopt more aggressive political manoeuvring, given their perceived technological ‘superiority’. Ultimately, part of the reason for the Sino-Soviet split in 1961 was because the USSR would not share nuclear technology with China. Arguably then, the Sputnik bluff gave the Chinese an inaccurate view of the true nuclear capacity of the USSR in relation to the USA, and while this was not the sole reason for the split, it was influential. Polish leader Gomulka also sent a letter to Khrushchev on 8th October 1963 arguing against Soviet proposals for a non-proliferation treaty with the USA. Gomulka asserted that the presence of missiles in Europe due to NATO would still threaten Eastern Europe and the Warsaw Pact, and argued that the USSR should share nuclear weapons with China. Gomulka does not encourage the use of nuclear missiles but does assume that the USSR is capable of dealing with the USA as an equal.
By 1963 the USSR was beginning to ‘catch up’ with the US in terms of its own missile production; however the sheer volume of nuclear weapons that the USA possessed by this point made any war so potentially devastating that there was no political incentive to fight one. Although Sputnik had given the illusion of the Soviet power equalling that of the USA, in reality their ability to use their nuclear force for political gains had sharply decreased. Therefore, the Sputnik bluff gave the Soviet Union’s allies an inaccurate view of the nature of the nuclear balance of power between the two super-powers and created a false impression of Soviet capability to use nuclear missiles to barter for political concessions with the USA.
Assessing Sputnik’s Legacy
The Space Race kick-started by Sputnik would open up further space exploration and go on to shape a generation of technology. Due to the reorganisation of research and development under Eisenhower, the USA was better poised to exploit the technology it developed, while the USSR remained rigidly bound by its centralised bureaucracy and did not throw its economic, technical and human resources in to such projects to the same extent as the USA. The subsequent success of NASA in the space race would ultimately go on to influence Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) in 1983, making the prospect of a space-based weapons platform seem possible, if not entirely feasible. The extent to which Regan’s SDI was the main motivator in Gorbachev’s subsequent disarmament efforts is debatable. However this provides another example of Sputnik’s continual influence throughout the Cold War period, as it introduced the possibility that a second, space-based arms race could occur between the USA and the USSR in the 1980s, before the disarmament overtures made by Gorbachev squashed this.
Sputnik inadvertently locked the USSR into an arms race that was mirrored in a technological race between the two super powers to exploit space. The USA came out ahead in both of these races. Sputnik then, can be seen as a bluff that, while initially successful, ultimately back-fired. Militarily it was a ‘boomerang’: Sputnik temporarily boosted Soviet prestige but at the expense of galvanising America into a vast military build up. Despite initial Soviet success, the USA would also go on to dominate space through its use of satellites and the influence of NASA. The USSR struggled to catch up with both of these movements, so in many ways Sputnik can be seen as pushing the USSR into technological commitments that it would subsequently struggle to meet. Therefore, Sputnik’s influence set the tone for the Cold War from its launch in 1957 until theSoviet Union’s collapse in 1991. Sputnik can thus be seen as a turning point in the dynamic between the USA and the USSR, due to its role in changing American perspectives of the USSR and its pivotal involvement in the arms race between the two countries. Ultimately then, Sputnik allowed the USA to become more scientifically advanced while the USSR would go on to stagnate.
About the Author:
Harry Hopkinson recently completed his BA (Hons) in History at Swansea University, graduating with First Class honours in July 2011. Harry is particularly interested in the history of science, the Cold War and the Soviet Union and during his final year of study at Swansea he decided to combine these interests, to good effect! The result was an extremely accomplished history dissertation, Sputnik: Bluff of the Century. Harry is currently travelling in America and is considering undertaking further historical research in the future.
For more information on this topic, see:
David Scott & Alexei Leonov with Christine Toomey, Two Sides of the Moon: Our Story of the Cold War Space Race (Simon & Schuster: 2004)
Hardesty, Von & Eisman, Gene Epic Rivalry: The inside story of the Soviet and American Space Race (National Geographic: 2007)
Brzezinski, Matthew Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the rivalries that ignited the space age. (Bloomsbury: 2007)
McDougall, Walter A. A Political History of the Space Race…The Heavens and The Earth (The Johns Hopkins University Press: 1985)
Siddiqi, Asif A. Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge and The Soviet Space Race with Apollo (University Press of Florida: 2003)
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