Scaring Up a Panic: Sputnik and The Military Industrial Complex

by Lucas Caron for Professor Henebry's Rhetoric course

On Saturday October 4, 1957, Americans all over the country listened at their radio sets to the sound of a beacon being projected from a 183-pound man-made satellite orbiting earth at 18,000 mph.1 Given their intensity, Americans might have been celebrating the first US satellite launch.2 Instead, the country erupted into a state of hysteria, as the fear was confirmed that the Soviet Socialist Republic had pulled ahead of the US in an event that what would later be referred to as the largest defeat of the Cold War. What occurred over the course the next year could be described as nothing short of a crisis in confidence of the American people and their way of life.

Historians agree that Sputnik forced Americans to come to grips with the notion that Soviet communist technology could rival the United States.3 They point to the launch of Sputnik as spurring a wholesale reformation of public education policy in America, ultimately leading to the enactment of the National Defense Education Act of 1958 and a new American ideology on education. 4

For all its strengths, this vision overlooks a crucial angle to the fallout from Sputnik. By following the reasoning of acclaimed sociologist C. Wrights Mills in his 1956 book The Power Elite we can see another possible explanation to the strong government response of education reformation Sputnik caused. 5 In this essay I will argue that the education reform occurring in 1958 may have had ulterior motives that followed the agenda of certain special interest groups Mills referred to as the Power Elite. By examining these motives we will uncover a possible darker side of the Sputnik response involving the escalation of the Military-Industrial Complex by the Power Elite.

After Sputnik it was no longer clear that a society built on free market capitalism was superior to a communist socialist regime.6 There was now undeniable evidence that a communist regime could pull its resources together to produce a major scientific breakthrough—a feat that, in reality, the US would not accomplish for 10 more years.7 News reporters quickly grasped onto the launch of Sputnik as the equivalent to a former and disastrous international invasion: The launch of Sputnik became referred to as “the Pearl Harbor of the Cold War.”8 The American public now strongly believed that the US must retaliate or risk falling to communism. In the words of George Price, a veteran scientist of the Manhattan project writing in and 1958 editorial for life magazine: “Unless we depart utterly from our present behavior, it is reasonable to expect that by no later than 1975 the United States will be a member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.”9 But what form should this retaliation take? In the end, the US would not retaliate with a military strike, but with a reformation of American ideologies.

Sputnik did not just cast doubt on the Capitalist society. The launch also pointed to a major weakness in America’s educational policies. On October 25th 1957 New York Times headlines read, “the Soviet Union is far outstripping the United States in its emphasis on technical and scientific education.”10 It seemed that since the conclusion of WWII America had focused its efforts more on brawn than brains. While Americans were basking in the glory of their victory from WWII, the USSR was quietly surpassing the US in public education standards.

Although criticism of the educational system had been called into question prior to 1957, the launch of Sputnik served as a wake-up call to the American public that they quickly needed to get their act together. In a poll conducted by Life Magazine in 1956, Americans were asked what they believed were the nation’s top problems: The number one answer was inflation and the number two answer was keeping out of war with Russia.11 Fast-forward a year when Sputnik was orbiting above their heads, and the poll showed American people with a new concerns and a new agenda. Now the number one response to the poll was catching the Russians in the defense race, and number two response: training for scientists. At the same time, scores for standardized science tests taken in Russia were being published in American journals, and the results baffled Americans. Students studying in Russia were on a fast track to a far superior education than American students. The consensus among Americans was that public education was becoming the Achilles heel of American society. Education was no longer a luxury, it was considered essential to national survival.

The US Government responded to the American people’s outcry for better public education less than one year after Sputnik launched. On September 2, 1958 Congress passed into law the National Defense Education Act (NDEA).12 The NDEA provided US educational institutions at all levels with increased funding from a total pool of 183 million dollars. The act came as a response to congress’ fear that schools in the Soviet Union were surpassing American educational institutions. The Act was designed with two purposes in mind. The first purpose was to provide Americans with a strong foundation in science and math that could lead them into a career in the defense industry.13 The Second of the laws was to provide students with financial assistance through a federal student loan program allowing them to attend colleges and universities around the country.14

The NDEA took hold immediately in America, and students all around the country began to notice a change in their schooling. Suddenly, with little explanation as to why or how, students would walk into school to find that they had been moved into an advanced math or science class. As Public schools began to dramatically reform, standardized tests scores in science and math began to rise. The NDEA also dramatically increased funding to the number to students who attend college and graduate level programs. By the year 1960, 3.6 million Americans attended college — seven times the half million that attended in the 1940s.15 Historians concede that the NDEA was paramount in the country’s ultimate victory of the cold war. Scientific achievements such as the Apollo program and16 the first moon landing in 1969 all have their roots in the NDEA.

The NDEA was a huge success in the United States. It successfully accomplished all of its goals. It had strengthened American Public education especially in areas of science and math, and provided scholarships allowing more Americans to peruse both undergraduate and graduate academic degrees. However, although the government pitched the NDEA to the public as a program to educate the American people and provide equal opportunity to all Americans, the US government had an ulterior motive in creating the NDEA. Though it was not immediately apparent to the American public, the NDEA had also become a means to strengthen the Industrial-Military Complex and its supporters.

When examining late 1950s rhetoric on subjects of the educational gap between the United States and the Soviet Union, it becomes clear that there are reoccurring patterns and beliefs. All of the articles submit that the Soviet Union far outstrips the United States in public education standards. They propose that a top-down demand for education rather than personal desire leads to a strong more militant country. Although the articles agree that personal choice is what make that American system morally great, they affirm that it is also it greatest weakness coming at and expensive cost, and a luxury that America can no longer afford.

In January of 1958 the New York Times section “The News of the Week” focused on the problems that Sputnik caused the United States and the response of the US Defense Policy. The article looked closely at how Sputnik caused doubt in different areas of US government. In the section of “Weapons” the articles claims “Sputnik demonstrated the Soviet Potential in missilery so clearly that nobody in the United States is arguing about the need to speed-up the American Missile Program.”17The article contends that the 1.2 billion dollars raised in defense spending was implemented to fix this problem. Conveniently, the next subject of this article is the position of Research and Education. The articles claim that “In the pre-Sputnik era the United States showed a tendency to skimp on basic scientific research,” and that Sputnik revealed the technological capabilities of the Soviet Union. The New York Times article provides us with the evidence that Education was now becoming a concern of national security.

Further, publication on the educational crisis can be seen in the March edition of Life Magazine in 1958. Life published an article titled “It’s Time to Close Our Carnival” exposes the crisis of the American educational system.18 Magazine correspondents had been spending time with two sixteen-year-old schoolboys Alexey Kutskov from Moscow and Stephen Lapekas from Chicago. Correspondents followed the two boys around and watched how they studied, what they were reading, and how they spent their free time. When the article’s finding was published, Americans were shocked at the result. Alexey was considerably more educated than Stephen. While Lapeakas enjoyed spending time with friends after school, Kutskov would be busy with his studies or playing chess with his father. The articles title “Time to Close the Carnival” hinted that the United States needed to stop playing around and get their act together. The article asserts “The facts of the School crisis are all out in plain sight-and pretty dreadful to look at.” The article found that only 12.5% of American students were taking mathematics and only 25% studying physics.

The article exposes that the true problem of education stems from the ideology and low standards of the American people. The article claims that the America education problem began when the US ideology on education reformed 50 years early form the previous, “age-old custom that: education beyond grammar school was a privilege of well-to-do.” The articles suggest that when public education for all became required it lessened the standard of education. “If poor Johnny could not learn chemistry or mathematics, the schools could not throw him into the streets. They would teach him woodworking; they would adjust him to life. Herein lies the problem: American education was being dumbed down at and expense of not just our children but of our national defense. What was the conclusion of the article? The United States, the land of free, was under attack by its antithesis, but this attack came not only from a military strike but also from an attack of academic superiority.

Prior to the start of WWII the United States had no standing armaments industry.19 In previous years, the United States would convert its production factories to factories of war in times of need. This was a slow process, however. After World War II, the US was forced to build a permanent arms industry in order to protect the United States form foreign invasion. Once the Soviets successfully detonated their first nuclear weapon in 1949, it was deemed necessary that the United States to build up its military arsenal.20

On January 17, 1961 President Dwight Eisenhower sat from behind his desk in the oval office and addressed the American people for the last time. In his final address, Eisenhower warned Americans and its future leaders to guard against the influence on an ever-growing arms industry and the Military-Industrial Complex (MIC).

As Eisenhower saw it, the Military Industrial Complex came from no single threat. Instead, it was a three-headed monster comprised of legislators, the national armed forces and the industrial sector, otherwise known as the “iron triangle.”21 The triangle formed when the industrial sector made political contributions leading to political approval for defense spending, support of bureaucracies, and legislation that would benefit the industry. In other words, money moved from the defense industry, to the legislature, to the armed forces and back around again. This left the control of the United States military agenda in the hands of a select group of top government and industrial officials.

President Eisenhower was not the first to notice the rising power of the MIC in America. The acclaimed sociologist C. Wright Mills also outlined Eisenhower’s theory. Mills theorized those select few who found themselves at the top of government, legislation, and the industrial sectors would form a group that he referred to as the “Power Elite.”22 In his 1956 book, The Power Elite, Mills focuses on the interwoven interests of the leaders of the political, corporate, and military elements of society. He claims that these entities form a power elite of modern society. Mills claims that the Power Elite heavily influence the citizens of average society to the point that the average citizen is powerless in society and inevitably falls subject to the manipulation of the Power Elite.

The Power Elite goes further than just telling us about the interests of The Power Elite. Mills also explores how the Power Elite is able to control society and manipulate the citizens into following along with their agenda. Mills claims that the Power Elite will use the façade of democracy to gain the trust of society. The Elite will make it seem like all of society is equal and sharing in the power, when in reality they are powerless in society. Mills argued that only through the exploitation and manipulation of the citizens would the Power Elite be able to maintain its firm grip of power on society and execute it agenda.

What is the agenda of the Power Elite? Mills argued that it could be anything that would directly benefit the Power Elite. For example, say that Military cooperation’s want to make more money. A corporate official will pay off politicians to vote for more money for military spending.30 Thus, the size of the Military increase and both sides ultimately win.. Although this situation may sound harmless with the worst possible outcome being that taxes are raised on citizens for increased military funding, there can be a much darker side to this interwoven agenda. For example, take the same situation as above but this time, instead of the legislator voting to increasing military spending, this time he votes to declare war on another country. Declaring war will also lead the armament industry to increase capital. But this time, instead only dollars lost, the lives of American soldiers are lost. It was these types of dynamics that Mills was desperately concerned about.

Mills argued that the manipulation of citizens was the largest factor in the success of the Power Elite. Without manipulation, the Power Elite would lose all of their legitimacy. In order for their agenda to be carried out, Mills claimed that society must be coerced to follow the same agenda. It did not matter if the end goals for the agenda were different, or if the motives behind the agenda were falsified, all that mattered was that that society willingly supported the agenda of the Power Elite. The agenda could also be made up by a complete fabrication, covered up with false evidence that would lead people to make false conclusions. So long as the people supported it the Power Elite could do whatever it pleases.

The world that C. Wright Mill illustrates in The Power Elite seems to be out of a horrific nightmare, something that could never come true in the real world. However, when we look at history, does C. Wright Mills world of the Power Elite really look that much different than the World of 1958 America?

The launch of Sputnik was the perfect opportunity for the Power Elite of America to strengthen their hold on the United States. The NDEA was a masterfully crafted program that followed the agenda of America’s Elite. Public education was the perfect façade. The American people believed that they were being given an opportunity at a better life while the Power Elite had their own expectations and motives for implementing the program.

In the first month after Sputnik’s launch, the public response to Sputnik as a crisis of education was very different than legislators hoped. By examining the rhetoric of the time we can see that Americans original concern with Sputnik were different in the short term and long term. In November of 1957 The New York Times Published a letter written to the Times titled “Sputniks Advent Appraised.”23 The letter blatantly stated that “The loss of prestige suffered by America and the free world resulting from Russian scientific victory is significant.” However, the letter suggests a response asserting “Russian victory will become even greater if we allow it to frighten us into all-out devotion to technology and neglect to the study of man and society. The article claims that we must not only educate ourselves on matters of technology but also educate people in the liberal arts. This claim provides evidence that US citizens were not as concerned about education influencing the United States armaments industry as they were about education extending a liberal education leading toward tolerance and brotherhood.”

It was clear that the consensus of American education at the time was not focused more on a progression of humanity and less focused or increasing military technology. When legislators realized this they knew that they would have to lobby for a new plan to get the public on board with the idea that the United States falling behind Russia was a matter of national security. To implant this idea in the heads of many Americans, propaganda was released that Sputnik had the ability to spy on Americans. People were actually told to close their blinds so that Sputnik could not watch them.

Ultimately, The Power Elite hoped that the NDEA would strengthen the Military complex, the Iron triangle from which their power originated. Through better educating Americans from a young age and providing monetary compensation to the brightest students, the NDEA was directly providing the brightest minds in the country with a direct pathway into the ranks of the Power Elite, the rulers of the country.

However, the Elite were not just concerned with enlarging the circle of power within their ranks, they were also looking to increase the industrial military complex. New science and math programs provided better-trained scientists, ultimately leading to new military advancements such as new weapons technology. The United States wanted more scientists like J.D. Oppenheimer, the man who revolutionized weapons technology with the creation of the Atomic Bomb in the 1940’s. Since the creation of the first atomic bomb the only progress in armaments made was with the hydrogen bomb first tested in 1951.24 American government knew that they had to keep producing new state of-the-art weapons technology in order to keep the Soviet Union at bay.

As soon as Sputnik launched and was orbiting earth, military scientists began to question whether nuclear warheads could be attached to the satellite. Sputnik brought with it the possibility of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). An ICBM could be launched from 100,000 miles away and reach its target within the hour. The fact of the matter was that if Soviets were able to successfully attach a nuclear warhead to an ICBM,25 the missile could reach anywhere in American within the half-hour.26

There was no question Americans had to get on board with the new military revolution or risk falling to the Soviet Union. For this to happen America needed better-trained scientists that would be able to create technology that would be superior to the soviets. The NDEA created these scientists, who in turn built up the United States armaments industry. By 1961 when President Kennedy took office, military scientists had already created an arsenal of American ICBMS and were in the production blueprint phase of the UGM-133 Trident II, a submarine-launched ballistic missile.27 US scientists also began to experiment with new types of Weapons of Mass destruction, but this time it wasn’t bombs but biological/chemical weapons including multiple types of sensory nerve gas.28

Military Spending can also be tracked to show a correlation between the NDEA and the size of the US Military Industrial complex. From 1957 to 1958 military spending rose from 10 to 10.1 percent of the United States GDP.29 In 1960, Eisenhower has proposed a 40.9 billion dollar cap set on military spending. However, by 1963 this number was far surpassed under the Kennedy administration. The Defense department was given a 53.5 billion dollar defense budget. Expressed in today’s currency, that is equal to 392 billion dollars or 9% or the 4.1 trillion GDP.31

The ramifications of the NDEA were felt into the early 1990’s with the conclusion of the Cold War. The US never stopped building its armaments industry and the result was the United States emerging from the Cold War the sole Military Superpower of the world.32 The Power Elite had gotten what they wanted; the American Military had been kept strong and the interwoven political, industrial, and military systems, the iron triangle was kept alive in America.

The presence of the United States Military-Industrial complex is very real and still very much in our world today. The MIC continues to have tremendous influence over our country and its citizens. September 11, 2001 is a case in point and compares to the Sputnik Crisis in several ways.33 Both Sputnik and the events of 9/11 led to drastic reform and response from the government that inevitably strengthened their military agenda. During Sputnik it was the NDEA, the perfect façade to build a larger military force. The terrorist attacks brought with it the Iraq war (even though the Iraqi’s weren’t the 9/11 terrorists), and a chance for the Military-Industrial Complex to extend its imperialistic hand across the sea and secure natural resources. The fact of the matter was that the plans for an Iraq invasion were laid out well before the events on September 11th transpired.34 After the horrifying events of 9/11 the US government made the American people thirsty for revenge and the Iraq war began before the American people could legitimate why we were fighting.

The American Military-Industrial complex is presently the largest and most powerful military apparatus in the world. The aftermath of the cold war left the United States the sole superpower standing on top of the world. However, even after the Berlin Wall fell, the United States continued to follow a military agenda and the Military-Industrial complex grew even stronger. President Eisenhower could not have envisioned our country –almost 50 years after his final address– so much in the grip of the military industrial complex that he warned against.


1. Robert A Divine. The Sputnik Challenge. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

2. Divine, The Sputnik Challenge), 68,70.

3. Barbara Barksdale Clowse. Brainpower for the Cold War: the Sputnik Crisis and National Defense Education Act of 1958. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981.) Divine, The Sputnik Challenge, 83,4, John Lewis Gaddis. The Cold War a New History. (London: Penguin Press [u.a., 2005.)

4. Boyle, “Red Moon Over The Mall” Clowse, Brainpower for the Cold War.

5. C. Wright. Mill Mills. The Power Elite. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956.)

6. Ryan Boyle. “A Red Moon over the Mall: the Sputnik Panic and Domestic America.” The Journal of American Culture 31, no. 4 (2008).

7. Divine, The Sputnik Challenge, 56.

8. Barbara Barksdale Clowse. Brainpower for the Cold War: the Sputnik Crisis and National Defense Education Act of 1958. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981.)

9. “Its Time to Close our Carnival” Life Magazine March 24, 1958.

10. The New York Times October 25th 1957.

11. Life Magazine, “Its Time To Close Our Carnival.”

12. Clowse, Brainpower for the Cold War, 45.

13. Clowse, Brainpower for the Cold War, 43.

14. Wayne J. Urban. More than Science and Sputnik: the National Defense Education Act of 1958. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010.)

15. Clowse, Brainpower for the Cold War, 47.

16. Boyle, Red Moon Over the Mall.

17. “The News of the Week in Review.” New York Times Jan 26, 1958.

18. Life Magazine, “Its Time To Close Our Carnival.”

19. Why We Fight. Directed by Eugene Jarecki. Produced by Eugene Jarecki and Susannah Shipman. By Eugene Jarecki. (United States: Sony Pictures Classics, 2005.)

20. Gaddis, The Cold War a New History, 25.

21. Urban, More than Science and Sputnik, 54.

22. Mills, The Power Elite.

23. Letters to The Times, New York Times; Nov 8, 1957.

24. Gaddis, The Cold War a New History, 25.

25. Boyle, Red Moon Over the Mall.

26. Divine, The Sputnik Challenge, 57.

27. Scientists in Time of War: World War II, the Cold War, and Science in the United States and France.

28. Sidney D. Drell. Nuclear Weapons, Scientists, and the Post-Cold War Challenge: Selected Papers on Arms Control. (Hackensack, NJ: World Scientific Pub., 2007.)

29. Andrew J. Bacevich. The Long War: a New History of U.S. National Security Policy since World War II. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.)

30. Andreas Wenger. Living with Peril: Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Nuclear Weapons. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1997.)

31. Bacevich, The Long War, 102.

32. Jarecki, Why We Fight.

33. Jarecki, Why We Fight.

34. Jarecki, Why We Fight.

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