Sputnik’s launch by the Soviet Union just over 50 years ago prompted a review of American science, foreign policy, technology and industry. It also prompted a review of the foundations of those practices — education.
Over the next four years, with the leadership of the National Science Foundation, Americans revamped education in each locality, beefing up academic standards, adding new arts classes, new science classes, new humanities classes especially in history and geography (1957-58 was the International Geophysical Year) and bringing up to date course curricula and textbooks, especially in sciences.
On the wave of those higher standards, higher expectations and updated information, America entered an era of achievement in science and technology whose benefits we continue to enjoy today.
We were in the worst of the Cold War in 1957. We had an enemy that, though not really formal in a declared war sense, was well known: The Soviet Union and “godless communism.” Some of the activities our nation engaged in were silly — adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance smoked out no atheists or communists, but did produce renewed harassment of Jehovah’s Witnesses and anyone else opposed to such oaths — and some of the activities were destructive — Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s excessive and ultimately phony zeal in exposing communists led to detractive hearings, misplaced fears of fellow citizens and serious political discussion, and violations of Americans’ civil rights that finally prompted even conservative Republicans to censure his action. The challenges were real. As Winston Churchill pointed out, the Soviet Union had drawn an “Iron Curtain” across eastern Europe. They had maintained a large army, gained leadership in military aviation capabilities, stolen our atomic and H-bomb secrets, and on October 4, 1957, beaten the U.S. into space with a successful launch of an artificial satellite. The roots of destruction of the Soviet Empire were sown much earlier, but they had barely rooted by this time, and no one in 1957 could see that the U.S. would ultimately triumph in the Cold War.
That was important. Because though the seeds of the destruction of Soviet communism were germinating, to grow, they would need nourishment from the actions of the U.S. over the next 30 years.
Photo from the Kennedy Library: “PX 65-105:185 Hearing of the Select Committee to Investigate Improper Activities in Labor-Management Relations (“McClellan Commitee”). Chief Counsel Robert F. Kennedy and Senator John F. Kennedy question a witness, May, 1957. Washington, D. C., United States Capitol. Photograph by Douglas Jones for LOOK Magazine, in the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LOOK Magazine Collection.”
Fourteen days after the Soviet Union orbited Sputnik, a young veteran of World War II, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy, spoke at the University of Florida. Read the rest of this entry »