Source: International Affairs Seminars of Washington, "American Reactions to Crisis: Examples of Pre-Sputnik and Post-Sputnik Attitudes and of the Reaction to other Events Perceived as Threats," 15-16 October 1958, U.S. President's Committee on Information Activities Abroad (Sprague Committee) Records, 1959-1961, Box 5, A83-10, Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kansas.

Meetings of October 15-16, 1958


Examples of pre-sputnik and post-sputnik attitudes and of the reaction to other events perceived as threats


DONALD N. MICHAEL, social psychologist and physicist; Senior Research Associate, Dunlap and Associates. He has served as staff social scientist for the Weapons System Evaluation Group of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advisor on attitude and motivation studies on national science policy for the National Science Foundation, and consultant to the National Research Council Committee on Disaster Studies

RAYMOND A. BAUER, Ford Foundation Visiting Professor, Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University. He has been at the Harvard Russian Research Center and at the Center for International Studies at M.I.T. He is a social psychologist whose research is generally concerned with international attitudes.

Michael told how on the morning following the launching of the first Russian sputnik, the New York Times announced the event in an unusual three-row headline with much supplementary information, while the Milwaukee Sentinel relegated it to a small headline and short article on the third page. These two responses represented the extremes in the responses of the American public itself, but Americans generally tended toward the attitude of the Milwaukee newspaper. For the purpose of describing these responses, one might divide Americans into l) the policy-makers in Washington, 2) the ³issue-makers² of the mass media and other ³authoritative² sources, and 3) the public at large. In general, the first two categories assumed that the public at large was much more aroused then it actually was. The statements of Administration and military leaders were contradictory and ambiguous. Many persons in groups l and 2 made use of the occasion to indulge in personal axe-grinding, and only some of them were able to appraise the situation calmly. The issue-makers used the occasion to launch their own accusations at the Administration and the military establishment. Furthermore, many in both groups responded with a ritualistic evocation of Puritan virtues, saying, for example, that we must pull in our belts and work harder. This response was similar to that of a large segment of the public at large, but the meaning for either group was unclear in the light of their ignorance about scientific and engineering matters vis-a-vis missile development.

Knowledge about earth satellites in general did not increase significantly after the first Russian sputnik, in spite of the large amount of scientific information published in popular form; and the news media regularly confused science with engineering. The Survey Research Center found that 6 months before this first launching, half of the American public had never heard of an earth satellite. A survey in Baltimore by Sidney Hollander Associates showed that while 60 percent of the population had heard of earth satellites, only about 17 percent had any realistic idea of what they were. Just about the same proportion understood what keeps a satellite in orbit. These percentages did not change to any considerable extent following the first sputnik, in spite of the immense volume of information already mentioned.

Reactions to the first sputnik are equally interesting. The Baltimore survey asked the public to explain how the Russians had managed such a feat. Fifty-four percent did not know at all, 25 percent said that the ³Russians try harder,² and 10 percent that the Russians are just better at that kind of thing. A Gallup poll showed that 30 percent ascribed the Russian success to the fact that the Russians worked harder, 20 percent to the work of German scientists, and 15 percent to better organization. One-fourth of the sample had no explanation. Gallup also found that only about half the people were surprised at the sputnik, even though many of those asked in this sample knew nothing about it previous to its launching. Two months after the launching, only an estimated 4 percent of the U.S. population had seen either sputnik.

Interpretations of the sputnik¹s significance likewise show that public concern was not great. Gallup found that. only 50 percent of a sample taken in Washington and Chicago regarded the sputnik as a blow to our prestige. Sixty percent said that we, not the Russians, would make the next great ³scientific² (actually technological) advance. A poll by the Minneapolis Star and Tribune found that 65 percent of a sample in that State thought we could send up a satellite within 30 days following the Russian success, a statistic which included 56 percent of the college-educated persons asked. In the sample of the Opinion Research Corporation, 13 percent believed that we had fallen behind dangerously, 36 percent that we were behind but would catch up, and 46 percent said that we were still at least abreast of Russia.

Anecdotal material tends to support these figures. An AP reporter in Sheboygan found that the typical response was a grin and a joke, meaning a refusal to admit that we were falling behind in any way. Allen Hynek of the Smithsonian Institution¹s Astrophysical Observatory gathered the impression that Americans felt we had lost the ball on our own 40-yard line but would still win the game. Samuel Lubell, however, felt that people in New Jersey, beneath a facade of unconcern, had certain misgivings and believed we must do something now to catch up.

If there was any trauma following the Russian sputnik, it occurred in Washington and not among the general public. Washington, for its part, took its cue from the newspapers and other issue makers. The misevaluation by leadership of the extent of public interest, as measured by the amount of news, coverage and the words of the issue makers, led to words and actions which further confused the issue. This situation points up the general problem for a democracy of: who is the ³public² to which leadership attends and who in fact do the issue makers represent?

Bauer told of a study of public opinion during the debate on the Reciprocal Trade Act in l953-55, which likewise illustrates public reaction to a fairly important national problem. In this case it was hard to know from the opinion polls just what public opinion was. Much depended on the kind of questions that were asked. In 1945, for example, polls showed that a majority favored the maintenance of tariffs. But at the same time a majority (75 percent) favored the extension of the Trade Agreements Act. Curiously, only 57 percent favored lowering tariffs under the Act. Many had no idea what tariffs are. The heads of business firms reacted as the broad public did. On the other hand, 90 percent of the mail addressed to Congress on this subject favored protection. What indices can a policy-maker use?

In 1953-55 the polls show a majority in favor of the Reciprocal Trade Act. But no such majority turned up when people were asked if they would favor the Act even if it hurt American firms. The Gallup poll showed some increase during 1953-55 in the number of people who knew about the controversy over the Reciprocal Trade Act, from 32 percent to 52 percent. These percentages are not impressive, however, and some of the answers given to questions about the Act have no particular meaning. Answers of ³leave tariffs where they are² were in many cases equivalent to no opinion at all.

Congress, for its part, paid little attention to public opinion on the subject. A few Congressmen were sending out questionnaires of their own, but in many cases the questions on them were hopelessly slanted. One Congressman found support for his protectionist stand at a meeting called on a weekday morning, ignoring the fact that at such a time it would be largely business representatives who could attend. It turned out that many people in this same locality did not attend the meeting or even communicate with the Congressman on this subject because they believed him to be inflexible. Another Congressman from a protectionist constituency sent out a newsletter so violently one­sided that it discouraged any answers or rebuttal from those who disagreed with him.

The public can be educated and led. The problem of the policy-makers is that of posing real issues, the issues which they themselves see. At the same time a growing body of data now indicates that behavior is apt to change attitudes more than the reverse situation. In daily life we do often operate by tapping something in individuals which will produce actions first, then eventually change their attitudes.

Bauer said that in our present program of space exploration we face a crisis in attitudes which could be described as a ³crisis of identity.² The present age has brought the kind of situation in which man ordinarily begin to ask who they are and what the purpose of their lives is. Eric H. Erikson is at work on a study of this same problem as it occurred in the age of Martin Luther. That age had its own East-West struggle, its crisis in the moral order, its revolution in economic life, and other events parallel to those of our century. In response to these events, men were seeking and finding a new identity. Our present reaching into outer space may pose for us the problem of finding a new identity to match the new dimensions of our world. Even the people engaged directly in building space vehicles often justify their work - or have to justify it - as a way of ³keeping ahead of the Russians.² It is true that space exploration is one form of pure scientific research, a well-established concept in our modern world, and that the resources spent on this research in excess of those needed for military rocketry are modest in comparison with the wealth of the country. Nevertheless, the problem of identity remains and will assume larger proportions with time.