Sputnik, 50 Years Later - Page 4

The Launch of Techno-Power

“I felt that the show purported to be real life, and it wasn’t. I regret that it was ever presented as a model to live by.” And he added: “I think we were all well motivated but what we did was run a hoax. We weren’t trying to, but that is what it was. Just a hoax.”


I went to the John Glenn parade in downtown Washington on February 26, 1962, a week after he’d become the first American to circle the globe in a space capsule. Glenn was a certified hero, and my school deemed the parade a valid excuse for an absence. To me, a fifth grader, that seemed like a good deal even when the weather turned out to be cold and rainy.

For the new and dazzling space age, America’s astronauts served as valiant explorers who added to the elan of the Camelot mythos around the presidential family. The Kennedys were sexy, exciting, modern aristocrats who relied on deft wordsmiths to produce throbbing eloquent speeches about freedom and democracy. The bearing was American regal, melding the appeal of refined nobility and touch football. The media image was damn-near storybook. Few Americans, and very few young people of the era, were aware of the actual roles of JFK’s vaunted new “special forces” dispatched to the Third World, where -- below the media radar -- they targeted labor-union organizers and other assorted foes of U.S.-backed oligarchies.

But a confrontation with the Soviet Union materialized that could not be ignored. Eight months after the Glenn parade, in tandem with Nikita Khrushchev, the president dragged the world to a nuclear precipice. In late October 1962, Kennedy went on national television and denounced “the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba,” asserting that “a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island.” Speaking from the White House, the president said: “We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth -- but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.”

Early in the next autumn, President Kennedy signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which sent nuclear detonations underground. The treaty was an important public health measure against radioactive fallout. Meanwhile, the banishment of mushroom clouds made superpower preparations for blowing up the world less visible. The new limits did nothing to interfere with further development of nuclear arsenals.

Kennedy liked to talk about vigor, and he epitomized it. Younger than Eisenhower by a full generation, witty, with a suave wife and two adorable kids, he was leading the way to open vistas. Store windows near Pennsylvania Avenue displayed souvenir plates and other Washington knickknacks that depicted the First Family -- standard tourist paraphernalia, yet with a lot more pizzazz than what Dwight and Mamie had generated.

A few years after the Glenn parade, when I passed the same storefront windows along blocks just east of the White House, the JFK glamour had gone dusty, as if suspended in time, facing backward. I thought of a scene from Great Expectations. The Kennedy era already seemed like the room where Miss Havisham’s wedding cake had turned to ghastly cobwebs; in Dickens’ words, “as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together.”

The clocks all seemed to stop together on the afternoon of November 22, 1963. But after the assassination, the gist of the reputed best-and-brightest remained in top Cabinet positions. The distance from Dallas to the Gulf of Tonkin was scarcely eight months as the calendar flew. And soon America’s awesome scientific capabilities were trained on a country where guerrilla fighters walked on the soles of sandals cut from old rubber tires.

Growing up in a mass-marketed culture of hoax, the baby-boom generation came of age in a warfare state.