Obama's 'Sputnik Moment':Is That Really a Good Analogy?

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Barack Obama summoned the ghosts of Communist enemies past last night when he used the term "Sputnik moment" to describe the United States' current standing on the world stage, presumably with a particular comparison to China's rising status as a dominant force in the global economy. The original launching of Sputnik I by the dreaded Soviets in 1957--a satellite about the size of a beach ball--was enough to send the United States into paroxysm of science-fiction induced fantasies and paranoid delusions. "It really doesn't matter whether the satellite has any military value," wrote an aide to Senate Majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson in a memo to him at the time, "the important thing is that the Russians have left the earth and the race for control of the universe has started." Emphasis not added. But the original "Sputnik moment"-- be it from legitimate fear, or paranoia, or an uncomfortable hit to inborn American pride--did serve as a catalyst for all sorts of technological and scientific research and development in the United States, leading to the invention of things like the pocket calculator, the microchip and computers that kept getting smaller. And the rest, as they say...you can find on Wikipedia.

Obama's use of the term last night has everybody asking: is this actually an analogous moment? If so, who are the Soviets of today? Is it healthy to be inspired by bogeymen? Does this mean we'll finally be able to go to Mars, which is by most accounts a much more exciting planet? We took the pulse of Sputnik-mania and this is what we found.

  • 'Sputnik' an Apt Metaphor  The Boston Globe writes that Obama's emphasis on competition with countries like India, China and South Korea and theme of a "Sputnik moment" is "the kind of straight talk that should build confidence in people in economically struggling corners of Massachusetts and other states from which old-line manufacturing jobs have fled. Those jobs won’t come back. But with a real commitment to education and to rebuilding the economic landscape--from roads and bridges to the tax code--and to investing in the most promising industries, such as renewable energy, people in those places and all across the country will get better jobs and have better futures."
  • 'Sputnik' Moment Impossible Without Government Spending, reminds Slate's Fred Kaplan. Obama talked about the moment for Sputnik-era-esque research and development while emphasizing a domestic spending 'freeze' for the next five years. It's "hard to see how he or the Congress can resolve this contradiction--Kennedy-esque vigor and investment on the one hand, Ike-like torpor and penny-pinching on the other," says Kaplan. The innovations and invention spurred by the US's efforts after Sputnik, "started only because of government investment ... if the U.S. economy is going to do big things--and Obama said, twice, near the end of his speech, 'We do big things'--they often don't get there without a spurt of government funding," concludes Kaplan.
  • Can We Have 'Sputnik' Without an External Enemy? asks Chris Mooney at DeSmogBlog. "Can this approach--save the climate, the country, the economy, and pretty much everything through technological innovation--deliver on its own?" He notes that Sputnik "really did create a boom of investment in the sciences in the U.S., which in turn drove prosperity--but it was an investment centrally impelled by fear of an external enemy. ... President Obama wants us to recreate the same sense of urgency, and the same national unity, but without the same fear of another competitor country, unless that country is supposed to be China."
  • Can't Have 'Sputnik' Without Fear  "How do you have Sputnik without Sputnik?" questions Ann Althouse.
The Soviets launching their satellite shocked Americans into a period of intense activity and achievement. It's nice to want to do that again, but there's not an equivalent incentivizing advance by an imposing and feared foreign competitor. This is our generation's Sputnik moment. What is? Are we playing let's pretend? Nothing is scaring us and lighting a fire under us. In fact, it's hard for us now, with our long perspective, even to understand why Sputnik was such a huge motivation.
  • This Isn't Sputnik and We're Not Going to the Moon  "America's post-Sputnik experience almost certainly won't be repeated," argues Alan Boyle at MSNBC. "There's simply not enough money or political will to spend on an Apollo-scale engineering endeavor."

Recommended Reading

  • 'Sputnik,' Whatever...  "Whenever I hear about a 'Sputnik moment' from a politician, I shudder, because I can be almost certain that it will have nothing whatsoever to do with Sputnik, let alone space policy," says Rand Simberg at The National Review. "Sputnik was about pure, raw technological skill, in an area where we felt vulnerable at the time. It had nothing to do with what made America exceptional."

  • China Is the Russia of Today  "In the mid-20th century, the Soviet Union scared the daylights out of America, and those of us in elementary school back then found ourselves hiding under school desks or eating crackers and apple juice in nuclear fallout shelters during drills in school basements. Today, it is China that provides our national nightmare, with the presumed high-pressure child rearing practices of its "tiger mothers" and huge central government-directed investments in everything from bullet trains to solar power," notes Steven Cohen at CNN.
  • But That Doesn't Mean We Should Copy Them  Samuel Staley at Reason is not so sure that China's investments apply to the U.S. "How relevant," he asks, thinking of high-speed rail in particular, "are China's investments in infrastructure to the challenges of U.S. economic competitiveness?" While "China is really playing catch up, investing in all forms of transportation to match its unprecedented growth in the demand for mobility," the United States' "geography, transportation infrastructure legacy, and economic history undermine the factors that are likely to make high-speed rail a success," he concludes.
  • 'Emulation Nation'  That's what the Christian Science Monitor says we are now. The United States is "no longer the 'exceptional nation,' as in America's past, or a 'beacon on the hill,' the leader of the free world, or the sole superpower. It is a nation that must try to learn from its top competitors on why they are succeeding," they write.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.