In a speech given yesterday (December 6) at Winston-Salem, North Carolina’s Forsyth Technical Community College, President Barack Obama stated that “… our generation’s ‘Sputnik Moment’ is now …” (Note 1). He was referring, of course, to Dwight Eisenhower’s response to the national cultural shock caused by the launching of the first artificial satellite by the Soviet Union in 1957 and the subsequent infusion of federal funding geared at improving science education at all levels of the American educational system.
One might think that, given my unwavering support of science education in US public schools, I would be one of the first to praise President Obama’s position. Unfortunately, upon reading his remarks in the morning newspaper, the first thing that popped into mind was “Dr. Strangelove” and the era of the “Gaps.” For those who are unfamiliar with what I mean by “Dr. Strangelove” and/or the “Gaps,” I will provide a not-too-brief explanation.
The “Bomber Gap”
The “Bomber Gap” refers to a mistaken assessment by the CIA and military intelligence that the US was lagging behind the Soviet Bloc in the number of bomber aircraft capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to the other side’s homeland. The reason for this mistake is still cited as an example of intelligence-gathering gone wrong.
In July, 1955, western observers that had attended a Soviet Air Force Day demonstration reported that they had observed six formations, of ten large aircraft each, that had participated in overhead “flyby” demonstrations Using the logic of “six formations of ten each equals at least sixty aircraft,” western intelligence services determined that the Soviet Union was rapidly pulling ahead in the production and deployment of long range bombers and thus placing the west on the short end of a “Bomber Gap.”
These fears were reinforced a few years later when a CIA-sponsored U-2 spyplane photographed twenty bombers parked ay an airfield deep inside Russian territory. The CIA used the logic of “20 bombers times 100 airfields” to arrive at the opinion that the Soviet Union had at least 2,000 nuclear-armed bombers ready to attack when given the order.. It was only after the collapse of the old Soviet Union that the truth became known.
After reviewing the files of the Soviet Air Force, western analysts learned that what they had thought to be 60 bombers were actually only 10 bombers (representing all the bombers available to the Soviet Air Force at the time) that had flown by, circled back, and then again flew overhead. In the second incident, the U-2 had indeed photographed 20 bombers, but those 20 represented the entire Soviet bomber fleet at that time.
The public’s perception of the Eisenhower Administration as being “soft” on Eastern Bloc militarism was later successfully exploited by the Democratic Party (and an influence-peddling senator from Texas named Lyndon Johnson), making it a significant factor in the defeat of Richard Nixon (Eisenhower’s Vice-President) in the presidential election of 1960.
The “Missile Gap”
With the supposed “Bomber Gap” accepted as a fact by the west, the successful launch of Sputnik in October, 1957 convinced western intelligence agencies that the Eastern Bloc would soon have more ballistic missiles than it had bombers. This perception was reinforced by Russian Premiere Nikita Khrushchev, who repeatedly boasted that his country was mass producing intercontinental missiles as if they were “sausages falling off the assembly line.” As noted, NATO and the US military were more than ready to believe almost anything. The better part of the next 30 years was devoted to an arms race that eventually led both East and West to produce a total of 25,000 nuclear weapons.
The impression that “military intelligence” is an oxymoron was firmly established years later when it was revealed that, even at the height of the Cuban Crisis, the Soviet Union had no more than a dozen or so intercontinental missiles with sufficient range to reach the United States and that it would have taken three days to fuel and arm those few missiles before they could have been launched (see Note 3). This observation brings me to:
As an affectionado of satire as a literary genre, I rate “Dr. Strangelove” as number two on my list of the greatest movie satires of all time, placing it between Charlie Chaplan’s classic, The Great Dictator, and Planet of the Apes (the original , 1968, version).
Much of this movie takes place in a military bunker identified only as the “War Room” after cigar-chomping General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden, bearing more than a casual similarity to cigar-chomping General Curtis “Bomb them back into the Stone Age” LeMay) orders a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. A comically-dysfunctional group composed of President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), General “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott, as inspired by Kennedy-family loyalist General Maxwell Taylor), and the title character (Sellers again, bearing more than a passing resemblance to German refugee rocket designer Wernher von Braun) try, and fail, to prevent the automatic detonation of the “Doomsday Device” which, ironically, was supposed to insure that the United States would not attack Russia.
Ending my digression into the past. Although I would like to give President Obama credit for the “Sputnik Moment” allusion, I must point out that the phrase (and much of the President’s remarks surrounding his use of that phrase) appear to have been taken, with only cursory changes, from an obscure “while paper” (“Have We Hit a ‘Sputnik Moment’ Again”) by David Thornburg PhD, which was first published in 2009 (Note 2).
Although I do insinuate that President Obama, or any of his staff, engaged in any form of plagiarism, I find it most unlikely that a simple “Google” of the term “Sputnik Moment” would have failed to return a reference to Dr. Thornburg’s original paper (Note 4). Since such careless “borrowing” would not be tolerated in a freshman expository writing class, I cannot help but assume that this omission reflects at least some lack of intellectual honesty on the part of the current administration.
1. Lee, Jesse. “President Obama in North Carolina: ”Our Generation’s ‘Sputnik Moment’ is Now.” White House Blog. Posted December 6, 2010.
2. Thornburg, David. “Have We Hit a ‘Sputnik Moment’ Again?” (2009). Thornburg Center for Space Exploration, accessed December 7, 2010.
3. Although it has never been confirmed by “official” sources, at the time of the Cuban Crisis the United States’ CIA and Great Britain’s MI 5 had a spy (Oleg Penkovsky) inside the Russian Hugh Command. According to such unconfirmed reports, John Kennedy knew exactly how far he could “push” his Russian counterpart thanks to a Russian spy.
The best online resources describing East / West military postures during the Cold War’s “Gap Years” are to be found at George Washington University’s National Security Archives. In particular, see the Nuclear Vault collections
For documents relating to Soviet Union / Warsaw Pact war planning, see A Cardboard Castle? (Review and supporting documents of the book by the same name). Documentation of US / NATO war plans from the same period is available at US Planning for War in Europe, 1963-1964; Launch on Warning: The Development of US Capabilities, 1959-1979, and Air Force Histories … Show Cautious Presidents Overruling Air Force Plans for Early Use of Nuclear Weapons.
4. When the author “ran a Google” for “Sputnik Moment” during the preparation of this essay, Dr. Thornburg’s paper was the first non-news item reference to be returned.