[Update Oct. 4: The CIA has released the Sputnik documents. You can find them on the CIA's website here.]
The CIA plans to release a new batch of secret documents about the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, which made history when it blasted into space 60 years ago Wednesday, Code and Dagger has learned.
An article published in the most recent edition of the CIA's latest unclassified "Studies in Intelligence" journal indicates the new documents, scheduled to be published on the CIA's website Wednesday, are intended to reveal more about the intelligence community's assessment of Russia's space plans in the 1950s and bolster the argument, as the article says, that there was no "intelligence failure" ahead of the first artificial satellite put into space.
"That Sputnik’s ascent surprised the U.S. public and press is now common knowledge, but not everyone in the United States was surprised. U.S. intelligence, the military, and the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower not only were fully informed of Soviet planning to launch an earth satellite but also knew a Soviet satellite would probably achieve orbit no later than the end of 1957," says the article (PDF), written by Amy Ryan, a CIA analyst, and Gary Keeley, a member of the CIA's History Staff. "For intelligence and administration officials, there was no surprise and no intelligence failure, but the Soviets achieved a political and propaganda triumph because Eisenhower had believed a rush into space was unwarranted and that a Soviet arrival there first would have little meaning. For Eisenhower, there was no 'space race.'"
Ryan and Keeley's article says the CIA "pressed" U.S. policymakers to initiate a U.S. satellite program, because they were well aware of the impact of a first Soviet launch on the "prestige" of the American military and scientific community.
As early as 1954, the CIA's Special Assistant to the Director for Policy and Coordination Richard Bissell "analyzed the psychological and military implications of a Soviet satellite launch and warned that 'a capability in this area, not properly anticipated and neutralized, would represent a serious threat to U.S. national security.'"
Sputnik was launched on Friday, Oct. 4, 1957 and in an early Tuesday morning meeting in the White House, Eisenhower asked why the U.S. hadn't gone first, according to a contemporaneous memo (PDF) previously released by the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library (and incorrectly dated Oct. 9, rather than Oct. 8). He appeared satisfied when told that the U.S. military could have been capable of the launch months ago, but officials felt they should not mix the military and civilian rocket programs, for perception and classification reasons.
A White House report a few days later is almost comically defensive about how the Sputnik launch was perceived as such a victory by the Soviets. The memo noted that officials in the Iranian government -- then friendly to the U.S. -- "considered the satellite such a blow to U.S. prestige that they displayed uneasy embarrassment in discussing it with Americans."
That confidential report (PDF), dated Oct. 16, 1957, goes on to note America's diminished stature among other nations before implying that anyone who thinks the Soviets achieved anything is an idiot.
"The satellite is, of course, most widely and readily accepted as proof of scientific and technical leadership by those with the least scientific and political sophistication," it says. "The degree to which informed scientific and political opinion believes that the U.S.S.R. has surpassed the U.S. in scientific capability can not yet be assessed. Sophisticated opinion is, of course, far less likely to be impressed by the drama of the satellite or its being a 'first.'"
It goes on: "It [Sputnik] will generate myth, legend and enduring superstition of a kind peculiarly difficult to eradicate or modify, which the U.S.S.R. can exploit to its advantage, among backward, ignorant, and apolitical audiences particularly difficult to reach."
Compare that to the U.S. State Department's current description of the launch and its impact:
Few in the United States had anticipated it, and even those who did were not aware of just how impressive it would be. At 184 pounds, the Russian satellite was much heavier than anything the United States was developing at the time, and its successful launch was quickly followed by the launch of two additional satellites, including one that carried a dog into space... The success of Sputnik had a major impact on the Cold War and the United States. Fear that they had fallen behind led U.S. policymakers to accelerate space and weapons programs.
NASA also regards the Sputnik launch a moment when "history changed."
The new CIA article and forthcoming documents appear to be something of a "told you so" 60 years in the making, but they're also an argument that it was the CIA's intelligence that allowed Eisenhower to make longer-term plans, whether they agreed with those plans or not.
"Although most Americans were not aware of it at the time and probably not today, the Sputnik episode was an instance of successful intelligence collection and warning," the article concludes.
Vince Houghton, an intelligence historian and current curator of the International Spy Museum, told Code and Dagger he's somewhat skeptical of the CIA's version of events. "Not to cast aspersions... but sometimes [documents] like this are intended for good, old-fashioned CYA [Cover Your Ass]."
"I like to think Ike [Eisenhower] cared, as much as most anyone else. He just understood the nuance of the situation," Houghton said. "Since he was privy to all the information, he knew why they beat us up there (and that it was less technical, and more political)."
Houghton said it's unclear if Eisenhower understood the propaganda and public relations implications of the Soviets getting into space first before the launch, but Eisenhower's understanding of the "bigger picture" may have "ironically blinded him to the [public relations] issues."
Primary Source: Sputnik and U.S. Intelligence: The Warning Record (PDF, CIA.gov)
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