With all of the contention surrounding Donald Trump’s young presidency, I can’t help but yearn for historical perspective on how presidents have responded to the stresses of the past. Many, including Trump himself, are arguing that America has fallen from greatness, and that the goal of the present term is to make America great once again. However you or I may interpret this claim today, it can be useful to remember how past presidents framed the concerns of their day and sought to preserve our country’s greatness back then. The more obvious examples we might unpack include Lincoln’s response to the Civil War and Kennedy’s manner of diplomacy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But a less obvious example, although one that is in many ways more relevant to our less dire situation in the present, was how Eisenhower framed the problem of the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik.
Sputnik, the first human-made object ever to reach space, was little more than a 185-pound metal ball containing a few primitive instruments and transmitters. And after barely three months in orbit, it listed out of its trajectory and drifted back toward the earth, only to be consumed in the inferno of atmospheric friction along the way. But, despite the modesty of the Soviet Union’s first attempt at space, the American people and the press interpreted the launch of Sputnik in October 1957 as nothing less than an existential threat, for if the Soviets could launch a satellite into orbit, they reasoned, what was to stop them from launching nuclear bombs across the world? Yet, despite any such pressure to frame the issue as an exclusively and immediate military concern, the Eisenhower administration reminded Americans that Sputnik symbolized the fundamental role of science and technology in determining global security. While thousands of Americans responded to Sputnik’s periodic presence up in sky by digging down into the earth to build shelters to survive a third world war, Eisenhower ensured that headlines also featured his decision to triple the national budget for science and technology. In early 1958, less than a year after Sputnik first sailed overhead, he created a new division in the Department of Defense entrusted to spearhead the nation’s progress: The Advanced Research Projects Agency, called ARPA.
Liberally funded and burdened with little oversight, Eisenhower authorized ARPA executives to cut checks in the millions for any projects deemed relevant to national competitiveness, no matter how long-term the potential payoff might be. And since a separate division of the Department of Defense called NASA would handle the activities of the space race, the leaders of ARPA found themselves free to fund any other field of research and development. Almost immediately, they chose computer networking as the most promising path to advance American science and technology, initiating a decades-long effort that would culminate in the The Internet. As far as Eisenhower was concerned, making America great again meant funding great science and technology.
For American power to remain super in the modern world, most people acknowledge that we need the world’s best scientists and engineers. But while Trump has so far framed our infrastructural decline in terms of worn out roads, bridges, and airports, the infrastructure of America’s of science and technology education is actually more decrepit today than it has been in nearly three generations. Luckily, we do not presently perceive the kind of existential threats we did at the onset of the Cold War, which might otherwise force this kind of failure to the fore of our political discourse as happened in 1957. But the example of Eisenhower’s leadership back then demonstrates that good presidential leadership is often a matter of reframing perceived paths to preserving America’s greatness to enable the Commander in Chief to pursue the protection and progress of America in the modern world.