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Eisenhower and the First Years of the Space Race

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The other day, I watched the documentary Sputnik Mania. It was an interesting piece about the impact of Sputnik and how it moved the U.S. and USSR closer to a nuclear war. Generally, a solid documentary.

But I am curious about one thing. The filmmakers essentially frame Dwight Eisenhower as the hero of the story, the man with a reasonable attitude about foreign policy and the Cold War that kept people like Curtis LeMay from going ballistic over Sputnik, holding the military in check and establishing NASA as a civilian agency, rather than giving our space program to the military. To a lesser extent, Nikita Khrushchev is also portrayed as reasonable, also wanting to keep his military men in check. The extensive interviews with Khrushchev’s son could have influenced this, but I don’t know.

I don’t know about this portrayal of Eisenhower. Now I am not really a historian of the Cold War, though I put myself through the last years of graduate school by doing historic preservation work at Los Alamo National Laboratory. So I have both basic and, in very small areas, extremely specific knowledge of the period. But as for this kind of policy, I am less certain. I kept wondering if they would end this documentary by talking about the Soviets shooting down of American U-2 plane in 1960 and how bad that incident made Eisenhower look, but they did not. Given that the space race and extremely high flying spy planes were hardly separated in the minds of people at the time, this made me wonder if this portrayal of Eisenhower was really accurate.

Thoughts?

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