UF Professor: Terrorist Attacks Akin To Launching Of Soviet Satellite
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Americans’ reactions to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has been reminiscent of the alarm and panic the nation felt after the launch of the Soviets’ Sputnik more than 45 years ago, but a University of Florida researcher says there’s one key difference: Sputnik prompted far more national soul-searching.
When the Soviets sent Sputnik aloft on Oct. 4, 1957, for peaceful scientific purposes, many Americans believed the orbiting satellite posed a threat potentially more serious than that presented by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, said Robert Zieger, a UF history professor. Indeed, some believed the Soviet achievement posed the most pressing national crisis since the Civil War, he said.
“People thought that if the Soviets could shoot an Earth satellite up into the atmosphere, they could surely put an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) on the end of it and hit Washington (D.C.), New York or Peoria (Ill.),” Zieger said. “I was struck how people talked about Sputnik and 9-11 with the same sense of alarm and widespread panic, but how the country’s reaction to these episodes is intriguingly different.”
Sputnik triggered a nationwide crisis of conscience and confidence that called into question the American way of life, including materialistic values, which in the long term resulted in more federal aid to education and improvements in scientific training, he said. But in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the public was told to spend money and consume goods as a means of upholding American values.
“Citizens then viewed government as a positive engine of social change and national improvement, whereas today many Americans regard government as the enemy,” he said.
Zieger published a paper comparing Americans’ reaction to the two crises in the most recent issue of the Canadian Review of American Studies titled “Uncle Sam Wants You…To Go Shopping: A Consumer Society Responds to National Crisis, 1957-2001.”
President George W. Bush insisted Americans get back to work, shop and go to the theater in order to help get the country back on a sounder financial footing, sentiments seconded by New York city Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Zieger said. In contrast, public figures in the late 1950s and early ’60s pointed accusing fingers at Americans’ appetite for consumer goods, contrasting it with the discipline and sacrifice that made possible the Russians’ stunning scientific achievement, he said.
The idea for Zieger’s paper came after a student journalist asked him within an hour of the first reports of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center to name the closest comparison in American history. Zieger said he found himself thinking back to his college days when Sputnik exposed feelings of vulnerability and defensiveness. Then U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy called it “the most critical peril since the time of Lincoln,” and then U.S. Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson said it was a deadlier danger than Pearl Harbor and “the most serious challenge to security in our national history.”
However much U.S. opinion leaders disliked the communist system, they had some genuine admiration after Sputnik’s launch for the Soviets’ scientific and educational achievements, Zieger said. Journalist Walter Lippmann and former Harvard University President James Bryant Conant, among others, unfavorably compared the hedonistic lifestyle of Americans with that of their seemingly more-disciplined Soviet adversaries, Zieger said.
Even Theodore Repplier, the director of the Advertising Council whose job was to get people to buy things, invited leading academics and businessmen to participate in discussions critical of capitalist excess, saying “people have had it too good for too long,” according to Zieger.
“The Soviets were looked on as Superman for making these technological achievements, educating their kids, being focused, and having purpose and national goals,” he said. “Did we have any? Was our national goal yet another car in the garage, a tail fin on the car and a split-level house?
“Right now, you wouldn’t find anyone who would say, ‘We can learn a lot from the Taliban, or we can learn a lot from Osama bin Laden, he’s got some good ideas,’ even though these groups might be credited with a certain diabolical cleverness and tenacity,” Zieger said.
President Dwight Eisenhower’s immediate response to Sputnik was to appoint business, academic and governmental leaders to a national commission to assess the country’s ability to meet the Soviet challenge, which stressed the need to improve American education, regain civic involvement, and address environmental problems, Zieger said. Other initiatives in the wake of Sputnik led to the expansion of the space program and the passage of the 1958 National Defense Education Act, which emphasized scientific training and provided substantial federal aid for education, he said.
In contrast, one of President Bush’s first responses to Sept. 11 was proposing the Patriot Act, granting federal police sweeping powers to monitor mail, bank accounts and credit-card records, along with unprecedented powers to detain and imprison citizens and aliens, Zieger said.
Strident expressions of patriotism exist today but little national introspection, he said. “Perhaps the most extreme example of going shopping to show one can’t be terrorized is seen in the continued public trend to buy SUVs,” Zieger said. “There seems to be almost a perverse embrace of the SUV in the face of threatened energy shortages and increasingly perilous developments in the Middle East.”
Alan Raucher, a history professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, said Zieger reminds people that unlike with the Soviet launch of Sputnik, when politicians called for sacrifice and reaffirmation of national purpose, contemporary leaders responded to the Sept. 11 attacks by urging consumers to keep spending. “Once the ‘arsenal of democracy,’ America has become the ‘shopping of democracy,’” he said.