WAS SPUTNIK, THAT beeping little beachball-sized sphere that so surprised the West in really "the shock of the century"? That might be a bit much, despite the subtitle hype of Paul Dickson's recent cultural history, Sputnik: The Shock of the Century (Walker & Co.). But a huge shock it surely was, and it's instructive, here in a quite different world--one still reverberating from the collapse of the World Trade Center towers--to recall both Sputnik's shock and Sputnik's consequences. They have something to teach us about the cultural reaction to catastrophe.
How big a deal was Sputnik? Pretty big. You remember how Orson Welles dies in the opening scene of Citizen Kane? How a snow globe drops from his hand as he sighs the famously confessional "Rosebud"? Well, when the last of the early baby boomers goes, it won't be surprising if he or she too sighs a revealing last recognition of childhood's end. Not "Beatles." Not "'Nam." Not "Dealey Plaza."
"Sputnik." It mobilized boomers' minds and imaginations for political ends.
When the Soviets launched the first man-made satellite in October 1957-ahead of America's planned Vanguard--it didn't actually do anything but fly and emit its beeping signals. It couldn't see or hear anything. It wasn't a military threat. But just being up there, circling over everybody's head all day long (and at certain times visible to the naked Western eye), was enough to have major consequences. The first such consequence was to lend credibility to the Soviets as more than a potential military or political threat. Sputnik gave them scientific credibility; it gave them a potential role in the future and thus made that future much more threatening (even assuming no nuclear exchanges) than it had seemed.
The other consequence had to do with the West's idea of itself. Sputnik turned the West into a community of guilt-ridden flagellants in much the way the Black Plague had affected medieval Europeans. What Sputnik demonstrated, supposedly, was that we were a soft, sinful, and stupid people. Dickson quotes a historian's jeremiad from 1962, charging that Americans "had been experiencing the world crisis from soft seats of comfort, debauched by [the] mass media... pandering for selfish profit to the lowest level of our easy appetites, fed full of toys and gewgaws, our power, our manpower softened in will and body in a climate of amusement."
We needed toughening in mind and spirit, such prophets raged. But what we needed most were...