What makes the United States of America No. 1? That was the question posed by Yanek Mieczkowski, author of “Eisenhower’s Sputnik Moment: The Race for Space and World Prestige,” during a talk at the Eisenhower Visitor’s Center Thursday.
“What is the litmus test or the categories that constitutes super powerdom?” he asked.
His book, published by Cornell University Press, examines the role the prestige race played during the space race, which a media frenzy credited the Soviet Union with winning.
Is it the economics that make a super power, or maybe the country that has the tallest buildings? Mieczkowski referenced a Pew research poll that showed in 2008 47 percent of those polled believed the U.S. was the world’s leading economic power compared to China’s 20 percent. In five years, those numbers had slipped to 41 percent for America and jumped to 34 percent for China.
Those numbers were based on perception, another set of figures showed that in the 1980s all but one of the 10 tallest buildings in the world were located in America, now only two are.
“Do these categories matter to us? And do they constitute good litmus tests to rate the number one super power in the world?” he asked. “Which of these categories matter and where does space exploration fit in?”
With the space race came the prestige race and how America was viewed in the world’s eyes. At its helm was a president who did not perceive the space race an important public relations issue. His focus was on the substance of space exploration, satellites and missiles, but he neglected to see the serious perception damage that the USSR was to inflict on the prestige of America.
On Friday, Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union took a huge leap into space when it launched Sputnik. As Americans were learning that the Russians had won the space race, the president continued with his planned weekend trip to his Gettysburg home. The media had a field day with the bemoaning of losing the space race to the country’s No. 1 adversary.
“The very fact that Eisenhower went home for a relaxing weekend aggravated an image problem — this image of a do-nothing know-nothing president,” Mieczkowski said.
His first press conference after Sputnik further aggravated the image problem when he responded to a reporter’s question about national security by stating that Sputnik “does not raise my apprehensions, not one iota.”
Mieczkowski said that truthfully Eisenhower wasn’t concerned because while he could not announce it, America was already developing satellites that were much more sophisticated than the Sputnik, including a spy satellite that changed the course of history by providing President Nixon with the information he needed to sign the Salt Treaty.
The perception was that America was woefully behind the USSR, it made for a dramatic story, but wasn’t an accurate assessment. During Eisenhower’s administration, America had launched 31 satellites to the Soviet Union’s nine. Several of those 31 satellites remain in orbit today.
“So who really won the space race?” Mieczkowski asked.
Among those who attended Thursday’s talk was John Duck who flew in from Dallas for the program because he had wanted to meet Mieczkowski for a long time, ever since seeing him on CSPAN when he spoke about another book that he had written on President Gerald Ford.
Duck is an independent scholar and member of the Eisenhower Foundation. He said he makes the trip up from Dallas about once a year – whenever there is a new book about Eisenhower published. During this trip he learned more about the enormous role that Eisenhower played behind the scenes of the space race, a role that the president was never fully recognized for.
Other members of the audience included Eisenhower Center staff who expressed their pleasure in having some of their suppositions validated. Eisenhower archivist Mary Burtzloff said she hadn’t previously thought a lot about how Eisenhower viewed the prestige aspect of the space race and found it interesting to learn of his perceptions of the issue compared to the media’s perception.