In October 1957, Soviet scientists shocked the world when they announced they had successfully launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik I, into orbit. They followed up on this landmark achievement several months later with the launch of Sputnik II. Although the satellites themselves posed no danger to the United States, Americans feared that the Soviet Union now had the ability to attack New York or Washington with nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, from anywhere on the planet. In reality, the Soviet ICBM development program lagged far behind its American counterpart.
Nonetheless, the fear that the USSR would win the “space race” before the United States even launched its first satellite spurred Eisenhower and Congress into action. Eisenhower created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 to spearhead the American space program. Congress, meanwhile, increased defense spending and passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958 to fund more science and foreign language classes in public schools.
For a brief period during Eisenhower’s final years in office, it seemed that the United States and the USSR might resolve their differences peacefully and perhaps even end the Cold War. Upon Premier Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, Stalin’s former enemy, Nikita Khrushchev, took control of the Communist Party and eventually became premier in 1956. Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s brutal treatment of the Russian people and halted nuclear testing in order to divert more money to the struggling Soviet economy.
U.S.-Soviet relations also improved dramatically after Khrushchev spent two weeks touring the United States in 1959. He and Eisenhower even had a cordial meeting at the woodsy presidential retreat at Camp David, in Maryland. Many Americans hoped that the so-called spirit of Camp David would ease tensions between the two superpowers.
After returning home to Moscow, Khrushchev invited Eisenhower to visit the Soviet Union and hold a multilateral summit in Paris the following year. The plans fell apart, however, after the Soviet Union shot down an American U-2 spy plane in 1960. Eisenhower and the U.S. government initially denied the existence of U-2 missions over the Soviet Union, but then the USSR produced the American pilot, whom they had captured alive. Embarrassed, Eisenhower refused to apologize or promise to suspend future spy missions against the USSR. The U-2 incident instantly repolarized the Cold War, reversing the thaw that Khrushchev’s visit had brought and forcing the abandonment of the Paris summit.
Facing a two-term limit, Eisenhower delivered his farewell address in January 1961. Ironically, he used his last speech as president to address a problem that he himself had had a hand in creating—the increasing dependence on nuclear weapons as a tool of foreign policy. By 1960, a growing number of Americans had begun to protest the United States’s apparent willingness to wage nuclear warfare. Eisenhower had also begun to see nuclear weapons as more of a threat to global security than as a stabilizer. Afraid that the U.S. government and even Americans’ civil liberties might succumb to the power of what he called the “military-industrial complex,” Eisenhower cautioned that “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Although little was made of Eisenhower’s words at the time, his words came back to haunt Americans during the Vietnam War.