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Setting the Stage

Following World War II relations between the United States and Soviet Union¹ spiraled downward. Each nation had emerged victorious from the war, but their ideological and economic systems were extremely different. The United States was based on a system of democracy and free enterprise. The Soviet Union employed a communist system ruled by a single political party.

At the end of the war, the United States had led the world in development of new military weapons such as the atomic and hydrogen bombs. American technological expertise had kept it ahead during an escalating military competition with the Soviet Union. In the fall of 1957 though, the United States was jolted into stark reality. On October 4, 1957 the nation learned that the Soviets had gained a technological advantage. A Soviet satellite known as Sputnik had been the first of its kind ever launched into space. The physical presence of Sputnik seemed relatively innocent. After all, it was nothing more than an aluminum sphere--about the size of a beach ball--that had two radio transmitters that emitted a loud beeping noise. Yet American politicians, defense analysts and even ordinary citizens came to a seemingly logical conclusion: if the Soviets could use a rocket to launch Sputnik into space then it was just a matter of time before they used the same rocket technology to strike the heartland of America with a nuclear warhead. Suddenly every community in the United States was vulnerable.

A sort of psychological hysteria gripped the American mindset. Top scientists and military planners believed America had fallen far behind the Soviets in science and technology. Such scientific luminaries as Edward Teller, the physicist who had helped develop the hydrogen bomb, said that the United States had "lost a battle more important and greater than Pearl Harbor."² Government reports called for a massive increase in the funding of the development of a U.S. missile force. President Dwight Eisenhower responded by raising financial support for intercontinental ballistic missile development to record levels. Over the next few years the U.S. was able to create and deploy a series of groundbreaking missile systems across the heartland of the United States. The most powerful and advanced of these, known as "Minuteman," would give the U.S. a decided military advantage over the Soviets for years to come as the first solid-fuel missile system deployed. It would take the Soviet Union another 11 years to develop its equal.

¹ The Soviet Union was created and expanded as a union of Soviet republics formed within the territory of the Russian Empire. Its geographic boundaries have varied over time.
² Isaacs, Jeremy and Downing, Taylor.
The Cold War: An Illustrated History 1945-1991 (Little, Brown and Company, 1998) p. 155.



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