Sputnik jolted the US into major investments in education and R&D. Yet despite repeated external shocks since 1957, America has never again matched this focus on future security requirements.

In his 2011 State of the Union speech, US President Barack Obama cast investment in research and technology as a strategic imperative:

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t even there yet. NASA didn’t exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.

Sputnik pushed the United States into major government investments in education and research and development in support of national-security priorities. Yet, despite repeated external shocks over the following five decades, America has never again matched the focus on future security requirements achieved by the original Sputnik generation led by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Why does the United States find it so difficult to realign priorities and make effective choices in strategic planning? Was Sputnik a unique case?

The Sputnik shock

In the early 1950s, the United States enjoyed an unprecedented supremacy of global power. Although the Soviet Union had tested nuclear bombs, and China had fallen to communism, the United States was dominant in nuclear-weapons numbers and delivery systems and had a range of qualitative advantages in the global military, economic and technological balance. The Soviet Union faced crises within its sphere of influence, and by 1952 the United States had achieved a balance in conventional military power in Europe and a stalemate in Korea. Washington also knew, via U-2 spy-plane flights over Soviet territory, that it held the advantage in nuclear forces. But in October 1957, both perception and reality changed. The successful launch and orbit of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union shocked the American system into a new mode of strategic thinking and action. It suggested that America’s leading challenger for global power had made a substantial leap forward in technology that posed a serious external threat to American national security. The Soviet Union was outpacing American capacity in space exploration and related technological spin-offs. Most immediately, it showed the USSR had the ability to launch a nuclear warhead into space. If Moscow could do this, it could deliver nuclear weapons to the United States.

The United States had already established parameters for maintaining a mobilised economy for peacetime national-security priorities in the classified National Security Council Report 68 (NSC-68) of 1950, which formed the military basis for US grand strategy during the Cold War.

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Sean Kay is Robson Professor of Politics and Government and Chair, International Studies at Ohio Wesleyan University and Mershon Associate at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at the Ohio State University. His most recent book is Global Security in the Twenty-first Century: The Quest for Power and the Search for Peace, 2nd ed. (Rowman and Littlefield, 2011).

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

April–May 2013

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