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The fallout from Sputnik

The little satellite was no threat, but the rocket it rode on ushered in the age of the nuclear-tipped ICBM.

September 30, 2007|Matthew Brzezinski | Matthew Brzezinski, a former Wall Street Journal Moscow correspondent, is the author of "Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age."

Few Americans have ever heard of Sergei Pavlovich Korolev. But he is the reason that NASA was created and that we went to the moon. It is because of this anonymous Russian that we have federally backed college loans in this country and National Football League games on DirecTV. The Chief Designer, as Korolev was mysteriously known because his true identity was a Soviet state secret, almost single-handedly started the space and missile races. Thanks largely to this bullheaded survivor of Stalin's gulag, a man who lost all his teeth and nearly his life in Siberian camps, the Republican Party lost the White House in 1960, and Lyndon B. Johnson secured a place on John F. Kennedy's ticket and ultimately became the 36th president.

All this is just some of the fallout from Sputnik, the tiny Soviet satellite that Korolev and his team launched 50 years ago on Oct. 4, 1957, igniting a national panic in the United States, the effects of which still reverberate. The little aluminum sphere was not the source of fear, but rather the huge rocket that it rode atop, the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile. The 183-ton projectile gave the former Soviet Union an unrivaled capability to destroy any city on Earth within minutes of its launch. For the first time in U.S. history, the American heartland was vulnerable to attack by a foreign government.

For Korolev's Kremlin masters, Sputnik was never about space exploration or cosmic milestones. It was a bold display of military might meant to match -- and top -- Washington's own frequent exhibitions of firepower. "We simply switch the warhead," boasted Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev, in case anyone missed the point.

The irony of the Sputnik crisis, of the terrifying realization that the Soviet Union suddenly possessed an advanced new weapons system far more lethal than anything in the U.S. arsenal, was that the debacle was largely of Washington's own making -- a perfect example of how a nation's best-intentioned policies can sometimes backfire.

The roots of the crisis went back to 1953, when Dwight D. Eisenhower swept into the White House on a platform of securing the country against communist threats. Under the stewardship of John Foster Dulles, his hawkish secretary of State, Eisenhower devised a new defense doctrine to counter the spreading "Red menace," which had recently claimed Eastern Europe and was infecting Asia. The U.S., according to Ike's doctrine, would no longer get bogged down in "minor" wars like in Korea. Instead, it would prepare for "total war," an all-out nuclear holocaust designed, in Dulles' own words, "to create sufficient fear in the enemy to deter aggression."

To keep the Soviets sufficiently frightened and in check, the Air Force's Strategic Air Command, or SAC, began a systematic and sustained campaign of harassment and intimidation. Every day, U.S. planes took off from bases around the world and penetrated Soviet airspace, probing for weaknesses in Russian radar defenses. Huge exercises with ominous names like Operation Power House scrambled hundreds of nuclear-laden long-range bombers that charged across the Atlantic, headed for Moscow. At the last minute, they would turn around, but in some war games, squadrons of B-47 Stratojets would take off from Greenland, cross the North Pole and fly deep into Siberia in attack formation -- in broad daylight. "With any luck, we could have started World War III," the SAC commander, Gen. Curtis LeMay, famously declared.

The Russians were not amused. Had the Soviets tried the same stunt, Khrushchev indignantly responded, "it would have meant war."

Throughout the campaign to demonstrate overwhelming American air superiority, the United States violated Soviet airspace more than 10,000 times. Our thermonuclear stockpile increased tenfold, while LeMay publicly speculated about the 60 million Soviet citizens targeted for annihilation under the Dulles doctrine of massive retaliation. The term was a bit of a misnomer because Soviet planes at the time did not have the range to reach U.S. soil and never once infringed on U.S. territory.

The double standard was not lost on Khrushchev. "Stop sending intruders into our airspace," he thundered at a visiting U.S. Air Force delegation in 1956. But he was largely powerless to prevent the incursions, which, of course, was the entire point of the exercise.

Unfortunately, the massive retaliation doctrine was too effective. "Soviet leaders may have become convinced that the U.S. actually has intentions of military aggression," the CIA warned in a 1955 report. And the intelligence agency was right. "We were very afraid, and saw the Americans clearly as the aggressors," recalled Khrushchev's son, Sergei, who now lives in Rhode Island.

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