What Would Eisenhower Think of the U.S.-China Space Rivalry?

News Abroad
tags: China, Eisenhower, Space Rivalry

Yanek Mieczkowski, Ph.D. is the author of Eisenhower’s Sputnik Moment: The Race for Space and World Prestige (2013), Gerald Ford and the Challenges of the 1970s (2005), and The Routledge Historical Atlas of Presidential Elections (2001). He is currently a visiting professor at the University of North Florida.


“Experts Warn of China’s Space Threat,” a USA Today newspaper headlined last month. Having sent its first man into space in 2003, China has announced ambitious plans to build a space station, land an unmanned rover on Mars, and send men to the moon during the 2020s. Observers are ringing alarm bells. In September 2016, while testifying before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, Dr. James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said, “Space is part of being a superpower. It’s part of being able to influence global politics. It’s part of being able to shape how the world works. And if I had to choose, I’d rather have the U.S. shape the world than China.” Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, warned, “The reality is the day the Chinese are able to do the same thing [land men on the moon] is the day that American uniqueness will be openly challenged and Chinese prestige will be put on the same level as that of the U.S.”

Americans have been here before, and space competition invokes an instructive lesson from history. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, stunning Americans, who suddenly felt their country had fallen to second place in the world. The media pummeled the point home; Newsday’s page-one headline proclaimed, “Russia Wins Space Race.”

What troubled Americans was something intangible yet real: their world prestige had slipped. The Cold War involved races—an arms race, a space race, an economic race—but it also featured a prestige race, and much was at stake, because world prestige translated into power, such as the ability to attract international media attention, a Third World following, U.N. votes, and foreign investment, trade, and tourism.

Yet President Dwight Eisenhower seemed unfazed by Sputnik, reacting with an eerie calm. He insisted that the Soviet satellite “does not raise my apprehensions, not one iota.” At White House meetings, he stressed that the U.S. need not be number one at everything, nor should it try, scoffing at the notion that space spectaculars would enhance America’s prestige. Famous for his temper, he snapped at anyone who impugned America’s reputation. At a 1960 press conference, when a reporter questioned him about failing to accelerate the U.S. space program “in view of the international prestige at stake,” Eisenhower challenged him, asking him to repeat his premise. When the reporter did, Eisenhower denied that the country’s global standing was imperiled. He acknowledged Soviet “spectacular achievements” but added that Americans should not “bow our heads in shame” because the U.S. had made notable gains in space and science.

Yet a young politician eyeing the White House, Senator John Kennedy, latched onto the idea of world prestige and used it to gain traction in the 1960 presidential race. Charging that the U.S. was “second in space” and that the country’s world image had slipped under Eisenhower, Kennedy said, “I have premised my campaign on the single assumption that the American people are uneasy at the present drift in our vitality and prestige.” Many Americans found his position persuasive; Kennedy won the election and, just five months into his presidency, he laid down the gauntlet for the ultimate prestige test, challenging Americans to land men on the moon by decade’s end. Kennedy’s gambit had a cynical edge, because he privately admitted that he was “not that interested in space.” But he knew the stakes, insisting that “in this matter we have no choice. The Nation’s prestige is too heavily involved.”

Former president Eisenhower called Kennedy’s race to the moon “nuts,” never publicly acknowledging any connection between space and prestige. To him, sending humans into space was a boondoggle. As his vice president, Richard Nixon, observed, Eisenhower was “the coldest, most unemotional and analytical man in the world,” never letting raw feelings creep into his decisions. Perhaps because of this, Eisenhower failed to grasp that a concept like world prestige hinged on visceral, emotional responses, such as the pride people felt worldwide when Apollo astronauts eventually walked on the moon (which Eisenhower, who died in March 1969, never got to see).

While Eisenhower downplayed glamour projects, when it comes to world prestige and competition, his leadership still offers important lessons, especially as the U.S. faces increasing international pressures. Eisenhower presided over eight years of relative peace and prosperity, the goal of any president, knowing this record would burnish the country’s image. “The United States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground in my administration. We kept the peace,” he said proudly. He espoused clear principles for enhancing economic strength, believing the world citizenry would respect that. The U.S. should promote individual initiative, free trade, and foreign aid. It should limit military spending, striving for “the most defense we can get for the least money.” Above all, the federal budget should be balanced. “Thrift is one of the characteristics that have made this nation great,” he argued. “Why should we abandon it now?” He lamented the prospect that future generations “will inherit, not a free country with bright opportunities, but a vast wasteland of debt and financial chaos.” What he called “the phantom of insolvency” haunted Eisenhower more than the prospect of placing second in any competition.

There was more. Rather than spectacular projects that garnered world attention, Eisenhower focused on the practical. He wanted an efficient transportation network, and thus he supported the massive interstate highway system that today bears his name. He believed that robots were more cost-effective than humans in space, and by the time he left office, the U.S. had launched thirty-one satellites compared to just nine for the Soviet Union. Spurning men on the moon, he preferred instead to see “our cars for almost everybody instead of just the favored few, our remarkable agricultural productivity, [and] our supermarkets loaded with a profusion of appetizing foods.” Were he alive today, Eisenhower would applaud Blue Origin, Boeing, and SpaceX for building and launching rockets, because they demonstrate the vitality of American private enterprise while sparing taxpayers the cost of space ventures.

These ideas pivot back to China. The days when the U.S. dominates other nations in all attention-grabbing arenas are gone. (During Eisenhower’s era, for example, the tallest skyscraper in the world was the Empire State Building and the longest suspension bridge was the Golden Gate. Today, those honors go to Dubai and Japan, respectively.) Someday, other countries will land men and women on the moon. Eisenhower probably would shrug. Concentrate on the fundamentals of fiscal health, economic growth, and a vibrant trade and consumer goods market, he might say, because a strong economy will always promote world prestige—and better lives for all.

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