Sixty years after Sputnik scare – how to react to foreign rockets

North Korea’s demonstrations this year of (perhaps) a thermonuclear bomb and an intercontinental ballistic missile could be America’s Sputnik event of the 21st century.

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite of Earth, on Oct. 4, 1957, it frightened many Americans. They suddenly realized that the Soviets were not the technologically backward people they had imagined, and it suggested to the American national security community that the Soviets might be able to hit a U.S. city with a thermonuclear bomb.

Comparing the similarities and differences between these two technological coups by communist adversaries, 60 years apart, helps place Kim Jong Un in a useful historical perspective.

As Sputnik I slipped into its low-Earth orbit in October 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower remained privately confident that the United States had already secretly taken all the necessary steps to meet the nuclear threat that Sputnik portended. He had accelerated America’s ballistic missile programs and intelligence-gathering capabilities, and he knew the Soviets needed to overcome additional technological challenges before they could deliver a nuclear weapon to a target in the United States.

The real surprise in Sputnik for the American national security community was not that the Soviets had rockets as powerful as the one that launched Sputnik, but rather that they had adequate guidance technologies to insert a payload into orbit. The same guidance system could direct a warhead to an American target.

Historian Walter A. McDougall has shown that Eisenhower intentionally slowed the comparable American satellite programs to allow the Soviets to be first. He wanted them to establish the precedent of international overflight of other countries’ airspace by satellites.

Eisenhower’s most serious misjudgment was to underestimate the public alarm Sputnik incited in the United States and elsewhere in the free world. That public alarm, amplified in Congress, forced Eisenhower to create the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, now DARPA) and the National Defense Education Act – all to reassure his fellow Americans that the United States would not allow the Soviet Union to outpace them in technological development.

Advances in North Korean missile and nuclear-weapons technology in 2017 have caused similar alarm within the American public, and perhaps even within the American national security establishment. If published reports are to be believed, the North Koreans have launched multiple missiles this year capable of reaching the United States. And this summer they conducted at least one underground weapon test of a device whose remotely detected signatures are consistent with a small thermonuclear bomb.

As was true with Sputnik, these demonstrations by themselves do not prove that North Korea now has the capability to deliver a nuclear warhead to an American target. But they do seem to show that the North Korean nuclear weapons program is maturing at a much faster rate than previously believed.

As Americans relive the shock of realizing that a hostile, backward country might soon be willing and able to land nuclear weapons on the United States, it is well to consider some of the differences in these cases. The American president in 1957 was a retired five-star general who had overseen the Normandy invasion, the entire U.S. Army and all Allied forces in Europe. The American president in 2017, Donald Trump, has none of that experience.

The Soviet Union posed a real existential threat to the United States; North Korea does not.

When Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev promised the West that “we will bury you,” Eisenhower refused to be baited. The American response to the Soviet nuclear threat was a prolonged and successful war of deterrence, just as Eisenhower predicted.

Trump and his advisers might revisit the panic of Sputnik I and the example of Eisenhower to help them see past this moment. Perhaps Generals James Mattis, John Kelly and H.R. McMaster can do for Trump what Eisenhower was able to do for himself.

Alex Roland, a professor emeritus of history at Duke University, is a former NASA historian.