Published On: Fri, Oct 6th, 2017

When Soviets Launched Sputnik, C.I.A. Was Not Surprised

Still, the report suggests that the criticism endured at the time by top United States officials — including President Eisenhower himself — for apparently failing to predict the Soviets’ accomplishment might have been a little off the mark.

When Sputnik launched, the Cold War was about a decade old. So was the C.I.A. Both the Soviets and the Americans had been working on satellite technology for years. But President Eisenhower, concerned about the Soviet Union’s work on intercontinental ballistic missiles, was reluctant to invest military resources in a space race.

The Soviets, on the other hand, had a much better grasp of the power of propaganda, said Michael Khodarkovsky, a history professor at Loyola University Chicago who specializes in Russia and the 20th century. He described “complete euphoria” in the Soviet Union after Sputnik launched.

“As a propaganda tool, it was just extraordinary,” he said in an interview on Thursday.

Sputnik was an aluminum sphere about the size of a beach ball — it was jammed full of communications equipment and weighed more than 180 pounds — with four spindly legs. It careered through space for three months, circling the Earth about every 100 minutes and emitting a regular pattern of beeps.

Photo

The front page of The New York Times on Oct. 5, 1957.

When Tass, the official Russian news agency, first broke the news about Sputnik — it was a Friday night in Washington — the Soviet Embassy in Washington was hosting a reception for rocket and satellite specialists.

The New York Times reported from the event that Lloyd Berkner, an American who was the president of the International Council of Scientific Unions, “beat on a glass” to get everyone’s attention.

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“I wish to make an announcement,” he said. “I am informed by The New York Times that a satellite is in orbit at an elevation of 900 kilometers. I wish to congratulate our Soviet colleagues on their achievement.”

The Soviet scientists in the room were beaming.

The launch surprised and worried many Americans, including politicians who criticized President Eisenhower for failing to take the space race seriously.

“Eisenhower’s reaction to the Sputnik’s launch contrasted sharply with the reaction of the American public,” the C.I.A. said in the report that was released on Wednesday. “He remained calm, and his much-quoted claim on 9 October that Sputnik ‘does not raise my apprehensions, not one iota’ — although borne out by the record — was met with skepticism.”

That calm was a result of the president’s being well forewarned, the C.I.A. report continued, detailing a number of agency correspondences and memos that suggested a launch was expected by the fall of 1957. (It even cited one C.I.A. officer, Eloise Page, who narrowed it down to a span of two weeks.)

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