With all of the 50th anniversary, baby boomer-Cold War nostalgia over Sputnik the past month ...

... it was surprising to learn something new from Von Hardesty and Gene Eisman's Epic Rivalry: The Inside Story of the Soviet and American Space Race. The book is a very accessible account of traveling from the Earth to the Moon, as it were. It begins with the post-WWII scramble by the Russians and Americans for German scientists and their Peenemunde rocket technology, and it ends when the U. S. wins, in effect, by beating the Soviets to the moon. It's a popular history, so it's not meant to supplant the likes of Michael Neufeld's estimable biography Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War or an in-depth account of the initiating project in that cosmic conflict like Matthew Brezinzki's Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age -- although, obviously, because the three book releases were timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary, they all, more or less, are competing in a Bookshelf Space Race.

Nonetheless, Epic Rivalry covers some fairly complex bases (Von Braun's willingness to accomodate different ideologies to fulfill his rocket dreams, for example, and our willingness to sugarcoat him for PR purposes), while managing to include details that keep the familiar territory vivid. The passing detail that I should have known -- if I'd given it much thought -- was that the fear and uproar that Sputniks I and II triggered in the West extended into a spiritual crisis. That is, a miltary-technological feat -- launching a 22-inch wide, 184-pound, polished sphere containing two radio transmitters followed by a later one that contained the dog Laika -- led the Democrats to accuse the Eisenhower administration of losing a battle more important than Pearl Harbor. The fearfulness and political opportunism are hardly surprising. But the two launches also led to a great many prominent spiritual leaders and intellectuals such as Bernard Baruch to denounce our shiny '50s materialism -- the golden age of traditional family values for many conservatives, mind you -- and call for a new regimen of hard work and renewal. America had lost, Time magazine declared, its myth of superiority. So paradoxically, both painful soul-searching and steely resolve were the order of the day.

It's hard not to see much the same panicked, anxious doubts following 9/11 -- in fact, the entire "Muslim terrorists hate us because of our freedoms and beliefs" is a direct echo of what was once said of the atheistical Reds, even though radical jihadists and the Soviet Central Committee couldn't be further apart. The other echo, of course, is the righteous call to reject our flabby liberal-consumerism and return to our extra-manly Judeo-Christian-warrior traditions, a call that we've been getting these days from the likes of this guy and this guy, despite the fact that they disagree fundamentally about Bush's War: Self-proclaimed crunchy conservative Rod Dreher initially was gung-ho for invading but has since repented. This has not caused any wavering in his desire to crush the great Islamic evil, however, while neoconservative Norman Podhoretz, when it comes to calling for war in the Middle East, has never recanted anything, including his consistently bad wardrobe choices.

I am not saying that Red technological advances weren't a real threat. Nor that a military-government response wasn't what was required, in either circumstance. It's that it seems this is what America always draws on when threatened from outside: a crisis mentality that casts into doubt hard-won consumer prosperity and democratic rewards (the cultural attributes we normally tout as signs of our special providence) while asserting a militant Christianity and renewed masculine vigor as the only things to save us.

This all came to me in a flash, while reading about the post-Sputnik turmoil in Epic Rivalry. What also came to me, when I picked up the next book to read, was that if one added a lot of trenchant, feminist analysis, you'd get something like Susan Faludi's latest, The Terror Dream

October 14, 2007 4:58 PM |



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