Eisenhower at the Dawn of the Space Age

Sputnik, Rockets, and Helping Hands

By (author) Mark Shanahan

Publication date:

14 November 2016

Length of book:

224 pages


Lexington Books

ISBN-13: 9781498528146

Historians have established a norm whereby President Eisenhower's actions in relation to the dawn of the space age are judged solely as a response to the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite, and are indicative of a passive, negative presidency. His low-key actions are seen merely as a prelude to the US triumph in space which is largely bookended first by President Kennedy’s man-to-the-moon pledge in 1961, and finally by Neil Armstrong’s moon landing eight years later. This book presents an alternative view of the development of space policy during Eisenhower’s administration, assessing the hypothesis that his space policy was not a reaction to the heavily-propagandized Soviet satellite launches, or even the effect they caused in the US political and military elites, but the continuation of a strategic journey. This study engages with three distinct but converging strands of literature and proposes a revised interpretation of Eisenhower’s actions in relation to rockets, missiles and satellites: namely that Eisenhower was operating on a parallel path to the established norm that started with the Bikini Atoll Castle H-bomb tests; developed through the CIA's reconnaissance efforts and was distilled in the Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 which set a policy for US involvement in outer space that matched Eisenhower’s desire for a balanced budget and fundamental belief in maintaining peace. President Eisenhower was not interested in joining a “space race”: while national security underpinned his thinking, his space policy actions were strategic steps that actively sidestepped internecine armed forces rivalry, and provided a logical next step for both civilian and military space programs at the completion of the International Geophysical Year. In reassessing the United States’ first space policy, the book adds to the revisionism under way in relation to the Eisenhower presidency, focusing on the “Helping Hands” that enabled him to wage peace.
Shanahan draws on extensive archival research to defend Eisenhower as a pragmatic leader who put national security ahead of partisan political advantage. He rebuts the still-widespread view that Eisenhower was caught by surprise by Sputnik. Ike had a robust plan for developing US rocketry and space reconnaissance capacity from 1955 on, and did not see any need to change that. Hysteria was fanned by Lyndon Johnson, scheming to become the Democratic presidential nominee, and by scientists and defense lobbyists seeking to boost the military budget. That led to Ike’s approval dropping from 79 percent to 57 percent in three months. However, Ike “had no interest whatsoever in weaponizing space nor in engaging in a fatuous race that seemed to define outer space only as a Cold War battlefield." He could not share information from secret U2 overflights that proved the USSR was lagging in missile capacity. It was a “misstep” for Ike to go golfing the weekend after Sputnik I, but he was much better at handling the media in the wake of Sputnik II. This is an important contribution to Cold War history and very relevant in the era of “fake news” and the chasm between media debate and sound national security policy. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty.