How America's golfing president fooled them all

When Russia's Sputnik won the space race, Eisenhower was playing dumb - for good reason, says Godfrey Hodgson
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The Independent Online
The news, reported by the BBC from newly declassified US government documents, that the United States was not taken unawares by the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik One in October 1957, but deliberately allowed the Soviet Union to go first, will boggle the minds of historians.

If it is confirmed, and it seems solidly sourced, it changes the story of the triumphant American manned space programme. And it reinforces recent reassessments of President Dwight David Eisenhower, demonstrating that far from being a bumbling golf-addicted has-been (as John F Kennedy's supporters and the media portrayed him), he was a shrewd and cunning political operator.

The news that the Soviet Union had launched the world's first artificial satellite came as a shock second only to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Americans in the 1950s believed - not wholly without justification - that they were far ahead of the rest of the world in all branches of technology. To learn that the Russians had actually beaten the US to the punch in what seemed, at the time, so futuristic a field of science and engineering as artificial satellites, was a painful shock to American pride. It also suggested a real danger from a form of attack against which there was then no defence. If satellites could orbit the earth with cameras and dogs, why not with atomic bombs?

The shock was intensified by the news that the President had not even bothered to cancel his game of golf on learning the news. So far from admiring his cool - as generations of British schoolchildren were brought up to admire Sir Francis Drake for going on with his game of bowls after he heard the news that the Spanish Armada was heading up the Channel - the media heaped insults on President Eisenhower.

It was this episode, reinforced by the news of his illnesses, that enabled the Democrats in the run-up to the 1960 election to caricature him as a complacent old pantaloon leading an Administration that had allowed a "missile gap" to develop between the Soviet Union and the US. The situation was not helped by the fact that, after Sputnik, the rocket used in the first attempt to launch a US satellite blew up a few feet above the launch pad. No one asked how many failures the Soviet Union had experienced, but suppressed.

The missile gap, as Kennedy subsequently acknowledged, was a myth. But if, as it now appears, the Eisenhower Administration deliberately lured the Soviet Union into launching satellites first - so that it would be the Soviet Union, not the US, that established that national boundaries do not stretch infinitely upwards into space - Eisenhower must already have known both that the Russians had this capability, and that the US could match it whenever it chose to do so.

The wry joke in Washington at the time was that "their Germans are better than our Germans". It was known that the Russians had carried off German rocket scientists to work in the Soviet Union, just as the US had taken Werner von Braun and his team to Alabama to work on missiles. It now appears that President Eisenhower actually intervened to slow his Germans down. (In reality, of course, from a very early stage Germans were a minority in von Braun's research team.)

The Eisenhower Administration wanted the Soviet Union to win the first round of the space race, thus freeing the US from diplomatic and legal complications over territoriality with its allies when it launched its own satellites. And Eisenhower was confident enough of his war hero popularity (he had been the leader of the Allied forces in Europe during the Second World War) with the American people, if not the press, to be willing to allow himself to look outfixed to gain that advantage.

This revelation also has implications for the history of the US intelligence satellite programme. It is widely believed that this was initiated only after the downing by a Russian surface-to-air missile of an American U- 2 high-level reconnaissance plane and the capture of the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, on May Day 1960. This incident also contributed to Eisenhower's reputation as a bumbler and spoiled his attempt at initiating better relations with the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. It now looks as if the US had already made considerable progress with intelligence satellites, while the U-2s were criss-crossing the Soviet Union from bases in Britain, Pakistan and Japan.

This also sheds a new light on the origins of the manned space programme, pushed ahead by the Kennedy Administration in the teeth of much opposition from scientists, who insisted that instrumentation could reveal more at a far cheaper price than manned space flight. And the alarm caused by the news of Sputnik not only put irresistible political pressure behind satellite technology, it led to a national campaign for investment in science, technology and education generally.

One example, which was to have incalculable consequences for American higher education was the Defence Education Act of 1958, passed by Congress as a direct result of the Sputnik affair. The Act spread federal funding in universities far beyond defence needs. Although originally a response to a commission's recommendation that the federal government should invest in education to provide more scientists and engineers to compete with the Russians, in practice money spread richly over such fields as linguistics, philosophy and even the classics (if an ingenious professor could come up with a plausible reason why the study of Plato or Amazonian languages would help to win the "space race").

If the Eisenhower Administration was already far advanced with a satellite programme by 1957, then it was keeping to itself the knowledge that massive new investments in education were not needed - or at least not for the stated purpose.

All in all, this new version of events paints a more Machiavellian, and more plausible, picture of Eisenhower as president than the image projected by his admittedly tortured syntax in press conferences.

The self-confident intellectuals of Kennedy's "New Frontier" (itself a metaphor taken from the space race) loved to portray Eisenhower as a semi-literate farm boy from Kansas - a picture somewhat at odds with such facts as that he passed first out of 275 officers in the US Army's command school in 1926, that he was famous for his mastery of logistics, and that as a military diplomat he held the towering egos of American and British commanders more or less together as a team.

As long ago as 1982, the political scientist Fred I Greenstein, in a book called The Hidden Hand Presidency, showed how skilfully Eisenhower concealed his own political skill. Greenstein quoted the liberal political journalist Richard Rovere as saying, "One hesitates to attribute political adroitness to a man who has revealed so much political ineptitude as Eisenhower, but it happens to be a fact that he has achieved a number of things that are commonly thought to be the product of skill".

Among them, it now seems, were outsmarting the Russians, resolving a potentially Gordian issue of international law, persuading Congress to break its traditional willingness to fund education, and putting his vice- president, Richard Nixon, a dozen years later, in a position to claim credit for putting an American on the moon.