Living in the shadow of Sputnik

Zuoyue Wang. San Gabriel Valley Tribune. Oct 3, 2007.

 (Copyright (c) 2007 Los Angeles Newspaper Group. All Rights Reserved.)

EVEN though I grew up on the other side of the Iron Curtain, I did not escape the shadow of Sputnik. Just as the Soviet satellite sent a shock wave of apprehension to the West in the bitterly divided Cold War 50 years ago today, it stirred a great euphoria for the socialist system in the East.

In China, the Communist leader Mao Zedong, inspired in part by Sputnik and armed with party scientists' supposed "scientific proofs" (dissidents had been crushed months earlier in the anti-rightist purge), launched the country into an ambitious but ultimately disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign of rapid industrialization and agricultural collectivization. My own parents barely survived the resultant famine, but millions of others were not so lucky.

Officially, however, Sputnik and the Great Leap Forward remained positive milestones of the march of communism in China during the decade of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Only much later, when I came to the United States for my graduate studies in the history of science, did I gain a fuller understanding of destruction of the Leap campaign and the crucial role that Sputnik played during the Cold War.

This fascination with Sputnik's impact stayed with me when I decided to naturalize as a U.S. citizen and became interested in the history of American science. What kind of shadow did Sputnik cast on American science, technology and society in 1957 and since?

A quest to answer that question eventually led me to undertake a historical study of an important but largely neglected legacy of Sputnik: President Dwight Eisenhower's introduction of the independent voice of science in the White House in the form of the president's science adviser and the president's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) as one of his earliest and most significant responses to the Soviet space achievement. Today, the system of presidential science advising still exists in the George W. Bush administration but its role and influence in public policy have been much reduced from the PSAC days. That's a pity, because Eisenhower's science advisers not only helped him respond to the Sputnik crisis but also articulated what might be called a technological skepticism that very much speaks to our own times.

When Eisenhower publicly announced the appointment of James Killian, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as his science adviser, and the establishment of PSAC within weeks of Sputnik, he made a conscious choice between two groups of scientists who had held opposing views on the meaning of Sputnik.

On the one hand, Edward Teller, the "father" of the American hydrogen bomb and leader of a vocal minority of politically conservative scientists, saw Sputnik as an American military-technological defeat worse than Pearl Harbor. With a clarion call in the Los Angeles Times that "We must win the H-war before it starts!" Teller urged that the U.S. launch a massive acceleration of thermonuclear weapons to counter Soviet advances.

On the other hand, I.I. Rabi, dean of politically moderate scientists, told Eisenhower that despite Sputnik, the U.S. was still ahead of the Soviet Union in overall strength, but the Soviet achievement did represent a challenge to American science and education. Thus, to him, the proper response to Sputnik was not a military-technological buildup but increased federal support for basic research and science education.

Dismayed by Teller's militaristic rhetoric, Eisenhower, at the time increasingly concerned with the destructiveness of nuclear wars and the uncontrolled growth of the military-industrial complex, found Rabi's advocacy of science and arms control attractive. Thus, he not only appointed Killian, who was not a scientist but was popular among moderate scientists, but also brought a group that Rabi had headed into the White House and reconstituted it into PSAC.

Growing wary of a resurgent American technological enthusiasm in the wake of Sputnik, Eisenhower came to rely on PSAC to provide him with competent but independent advice on all matters of public policy, ranging from defense organization, nuclear weapons and space to science and education. During their last meeting in December 1960, Eisenhower expressed his gratitude to the scientists for their contributions, noting that "more and more (I have) tended to put science advice into more and more subjects of national policy."

It is not the PSAC scientists' advice on what technology could do, but their advice on what it could not do. It's their recognition that there were limits to technological solutions to social and political problems, both at home and abroad, during the Cold War. The illusion of technological fixes, PSAC scientists believed, often led not only to a waste of societal resources on impractical developmental projects, such as the $1billion failure to make a nuclear-powered bomber, but also, sometimes, to dangerously misguided foreign policy, such as the war in Vietnam.

And it is this sense of technological skepticism, I believe, that we still need in our own age of global technological enthusiasm and renewed American military adventurism in Iraq and elsewhere if we are to prevent future Great Leap Forwards and escape the various shadows of Sputnik.

Zuoyue Wang is an associate professor of history at Cal Poly Pomona and author of the forthcoming book "In Sputnik's Shadow: The President's Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America" (Rutgers University Press).