On this day in history, Tass, the official Soviet news agency of the USSR, announced that the U.S.S.R. had successfully launched a “super long distance intercontinental multistage ballistic rocket (ICBM).” Then, on October 4, the Soviets used the ICBM to blast into orbit the first artificial Earth satellite, a bundle of instruments weighing about 184 pounds called Sputnik, a combination of words meaning “fellow-traveler of the Earth.”
Sputnik was followed a month later with Sputnik II, weighing some 1120 pounds and carrying a dog named Laika.
Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, who was at his ranch in Texas the night of October 4 when he heard the news about Sputnik, called for a full inquiry into the state of national defense, opining that “[s]oon [the Russians] will be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses.” He wasn’t the only one whipping up public fear and paranoia for partisan advantage.
But Eisenhower had important national security reasons for keeping satellite and military information secret, and did not defend his Administration as vigorously as he could have. In 1960, as “The Atlantic Magazine” reported, Kennedy campaigned hard against the Republican “negligence” that had allowed the Soviet Union to overtake the United States in producing missiles. But as early as July 1960 the then-Senator Kennedy had received intelligence briefings about Soviet missile capabilities. (Johnson received these as well.) The intelligence Kennedy and Johnson received informed them that there was no gap, and that the United States was not lagging behind the Soviet Union in deployed ballistic missiles but was instead significantly ahead. Once Kennedy won the election, he used this knowledge to negotiate with Moscow from a position of strength.