Sputnik and Delayed Gratification

The President’s remarks about a “Sputnik moment” in his SOTU speech last month prompted lots of comment, most claiming he misapplied or misunderstood the impact of Sputnik.

However, I came across an article from American Heritage — can’t give the hat-tip because I can’t find the cite — that shows that many of us don’t get the original Sputnik moment.   First off, Sputnik 1 was mostly a curiosity to both the US government and public.   The success of Sputnik 2 — a much larger payload that carried Laika the dog — was got everyone worried.  The failure of the Vanguard program’s first launch one month later panicked many.

What I didn’t know was that this “failure” was deliberate.  Unlike me, T.A Heppenheimer didn’t bury the lede — the title gets right to the point “How America Chose Not to Beat Sputnik Into Space”.

We could have launched an Earth-orbiting satellite more than a year before the Soviets, but we intentionally held back. And by handing them a propaganda triumph, we ensured their ultimate defeat in the Cold War.

American diplomatic sophistication is disparaged by many, but this article shows that we can play a subtle and deep game when needed.


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