Station 1: Sputnik in the Media. “The newspapers really headlined the story [of Sputnik’s launch].” Some military persons were quoted as saying that controlling space gives Russia military advantages. They regarded it as a threat to our security.”
“The newspapers really headlined the story [of Sputnik’s launch].” Some military persons were quoted as saying that controlling space gives Russia military advantages. They regarded it as a threat to our security.”
– Connie Bimber, math teacher living in Ohio during the 1950s
John Gunther, Inside Russia Today, Harper & Brothers, 1958
…For a generation, it has been part of the American folklore to think that Russians are hardly capable of operating a tractor. Not since Pearl Harbor has the United States suffered such a jolt. Perhaps it may turn out to be a salutary jolt.
Obviously if the Russians are capable of creating a multi-section rocket that could shoot anything so heavy as Sputnik II into the sky, with delicate accuracy and precision, they can perform similar wonders in the realm of missiles…
Even so, Soviet work on Sputniks and missiles has changed irremediably the world strategic picture. American prestige has gone down; what is much more telling, the United States can no longer claim with reason to be the world’s first scientific power, in an era when science, as well as prestige, counts for so much. At the moment the United States is, for the first time in its recent history, being forced to pursue its international affairs from a position of relative weakness and inferiority, not from one of undisputed strength. This position may, of course, be soon redressed. But, thinking strictly in terms of today, consider the fact that American policy toward the Soviet Union is largely based on two elements, containment and the deterrent power of “massive retaliation.” Neither is out of the window yet—we still seek to “contain” the USSR and the Strategic Air Command certainly still has the capacity for massive retaliation—but both concepts seem, late in 1957, to be somewhat out of date and a little sour. What good is “containment” if the Russians have reached, not merely the Middle East, but are exploring the way to the moon?
What good is massive retaliation, if the Russians have a capacity for massive retaliation equivalent to ours?
American policy toward Russia and Russian policy toward America have both been based to a degree on fear; in the first case, American fear of Soviet subversion; in the second, Soviet fear of direct American attack. This equilibrium has been substantially altered by the Sputniks… the USSR has something—something important—that the USA hasn’t got… For us merely to build bigger and better Sputniks will not be enough.
Station 1: Sputnik in the Media
Chicago Daily Tribune, Nov. 4, 1957
“I was born in 1953, so I would have been fairly young when the first Sputnik satellite was launched. However, I do remember discussion by my parents about Sputnik… Sputnik caused concern that the Russians were beating us in space and science and technology. I do remember when I was about six or seven one evening my father pointed out a satellite in the night sky…. When I was in elementary school there was a general concern in the country that the Russians were getting ahead of the US technologically and militarily and concern about a nuclear attack. I can remember my mother listening to news… She was worried and expressed concern that we could be involved in a nuclear war at any time. As a child, I did not understand the full significance of this.”
– Fred Bimber, a child living in Ohio during the 1950s
“I was six years old when the Russians launched Sputnik in October of 1957. I remember clearly the excitement surrounding Sputnik. My family and the rest of the neighborhood stood on our front lawns eager to see Sputnik pass overhead.Everyone talked about space. People bought telescopes. Children's pajamas had rocket ships, suns and moons on them instead of teddy bears and kittens. Toy rockets replaced kites as a favorite summer toy… Boys were encouraged to consider careers in science and dreamt of exploring space. We girls were not so encouraged. We continued to get dolls, toy dishes, paper dolls and girlie things..The launch of Sputnik also created a lot of anxiety. When the Russians launched Sputnik, my parents and many other adults thought that if the Russians could launch a satellite they could also launch nuclear bombs. America had to be ready. The U.S. had to catch-up to the Russians. We had to catch up and soon, or else.”
-- Karen Nielsen, a child living in Michigan during the 1950s
Like many boys of their generation, these lads of the early 1960s are showing off their model rocket.
“We were told when to look at the sky at night to see it traveling across.And we did see what we thought was Sputnik. It was a light that looked like a star but it traveled slowly and steadily across the sky while the stars did not seem to move.”
– Constance Bimber, a math teacher and mother of three living in Ohio during the 1950s
“I do not remember discussion of the Cold War as such during elementary school (for me, 1959- 1965). I do remember hearing news reports that Russian children were better educated in science and more physically fit. After news of that both phys ed and science were beefed up in school.In my earliest years in elementary school (about 1960-1962) we had bomb drills. These were to prepare us students on what we should do in case of nuclear attack. Several times a year a special alarm would sound. Everyone went to the central hall of the school (the most protected part of the building). Girls sat down facing the walls of the hallway and bent down toward the walls, sheltering their heads with their hands. Boys sat down in a row behind them, doing the same. We students knew this was preparation for a nuclear attack. As a 6 -8 year old I do not remember being disturbed by this.In the early 1960s, and probably earlier, there was a concern in the country about nuclear attack and preparing for it. There were news stories and magazine articles about building bomb shelters or storing food, water and supplies in your basement as preparation for nuclear attack. In the early 1960s my family had some supplies like that in our basement… As a child in the early 1960s, I did not appreciate the concern about nuclear war like adults did. I understood that a war with atomic bombs was always possible, but I did not understand the real significance of that.”
– Fred Bimber, a child living in Ohio during the 1950s
“The threat of an atomic attack felt like a real possibility and was taken seriously by everyone. We saw pictures of mushroom clouds in newspapers and in magazines. Popular magazines had articles about the enormous size of an atomic blast. We saw pictures of Nagasaki. We knew the atomic bomb could level whole cities.
Fear of a nuclear attack was great enough that Popular Science and other magazines even printed plans for how to build a bomb shelter in your backyard. I knew some families who actually did this. Other magazines printed lists of the supplies every well stocked bomb shelter should carry. Communities established nuclear attack bomb shelters. The basement of my high school was designated as one such site. A janitor took me on a tour of the bomb shelter. There were racks and racks full of canned goods, blankets and other supplies.In addition to fire drills, my school started holding nuclear bomb drills. During such a drill my first grade class was told to climb under our little wooden desks, cover our heads with our arms and close our eyes tight so we wouldn't be covered with fallout and the flash of a nuclear bomb wouldn't blind us.”
--Karen Nielsen, a child living in Michigan during the 1950s
Question: What do you remember about how the Cold War was talked about in school?
Answer: “The Russians were the bad guys. Americans were the good guys. American had to keep Communism from spreading, by force if necessary. It was pretty black and white. Teachers spoke of an Iron Curtain, the Red Army, the Commies… The Soviet Union was spoken of as a country not to be trusted. It was the country America feared most. The Russians wanted to take over the world. Americans had to stop them.”
Answer: “Though I do not remember any specific lecture or discussion on it, we accepted it as a given that the Russians were the bad guys. This was just the common understanding. We probably got it from our parents, the news and reinforced it with each other. The Soviet Union was in its prime then, but we always called them the Russians.”