Space is the race

Pub date August 13, 2008
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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When conservatives wax nostalgic for a family-values America that liberals are hell bent on destroying forever, they’re basically talking about the 1950s — that last oasis of prosperity for guiltless acquisitiveness, formulaic gender roles, and general agreement not to discuss any round peg not fitting into a square hole. It was a simpler era: a time when poor people were kept safely out of majority sight, racial minorities were politely ignored, the existence of gay people was nothing more than a distasteful rumor, and divorce and so-called illegitimate childbirth were properly discouraged by shame.

As far as some Americans are concerned (particularly in retrospect), the ’50s were happy days. One reason, no doubt, was that the enemy — communism — was easy to identify. Two decades ago, when communism in most territories ended with a whimper, the Cold War era officially died with it. But David Hoffman’s documentary Sputnik Mania turns the Way Back Machine to that long moment when it was overwhelmingly, virulently alive.

Sputnik Mania charts those halycon times when the threat of a communist takeover — or a communist-triggered doomsday — seemed so great that our great democracy might not survive. Our country’s women were sure to be raped, and all of our children certain to be zombified by propaganda. As mass delusions go, the Cold War fears of the ’50s were so efficient that you might swear they’re still being recycled.

Hoffman chronicles the history-changing hysteria that ensued when the USSR seemingly came out from nowhere to place a surprising first in the early stages of the space race. The 1957 launch of the Sputnik marked the first time a rocket circled the Earth. Like the Apollo moon landing a decade later, this achievement was celebrated as a great advance for all mankind. Then came panic. Comparing the event to Pearl Harbor, Sen. Lyndon Johnson later wrote, "Another nation had achieved superiority over this great nation of ours. The thought shocked me." The ever-levelheaded Vatican pronounced that such technology was "a frightening toy in the hands of childlike men without morals." Speculations ranged from the sci-fi paranoiac to the biblically apocalyptic and raged like wildfire. If the Russkies could orbit around us, why wouldn’t they soon bomb us to smithereens? (Admittedly, the USSR didn’t allay fears when it test-exploded a hydrogen bomb.)

Sputnik Mania shows how politicos, religious leaders, concerned mothers, and perhaps even your Uncle Fred clambered for the United States to wake up and smell the need to (as one Congress member puts it) "save Western civilization from annihilation." Backyard bomb shelters were dug and prayer groups assembled. Initial Yankee efforts at catching up in the space race went down in flames. Even more embarrassingly, racist protests against school integration in Little Rock, Ark., handed the USSR an easy "Who are you to talk?" riposte to any US accusations regarding communism’s oppressive reality. (As opposed to its originating ideology: Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky would surely have ralphed at the very idea of Stalin as a flag-bearer. Also, for all its internal crimes, post-czarist Russia was and still is a weak superpower — its perceived threat undercut by an economic condition that scarcely sustains elites, never mind the proletariat.)

One fact underplayed in history but underlined by Sputnik Mania is that both Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev sought to moderate the fearful rush toward space militarization. Ike created NASA as a civilian body committed to peacefully advancing all mankind, rather than as a vehicle for escautf8g defense buildup. Nonetheless, over the long haul, paranoia has proven a potent propagandistic drug, either because America needs enemies or because the corporate military-industrial complex must be fed.

History’s details change. Its patterns? Never.



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