By Sam Garfield
August 25, 1958
(Jackson Park Harbor)- It’s a beautiful August night, too peaceful for sleeping, and I’m writing this column in my car. I’m parked on a dark patch of land where Chicago’s Jackson Park harbor empties into Lake Michigan. It’s well past midnight, the windows are open, and the solitary horn of Miles Davis from the car radio is keeping me company. I’m sure the couples in the cars nearby don’t notice the middle-aged man writing in his notebook; if they do, they shouldn’t be here.
In the days of old, the scribes looked to the stars for the answers. I guess that’s what I’m doing here tonight. Without much success, I might add. Somewhere out there our Explorer IV satellite, a modern-day scribe, continues to circle the globe every 110 minutes. Explorer IV will collect mysterious radiation data that may tell us how soon man can safely travel in outer space. Its orbit will carry it over the lower portion of Russia, all of the United States and most of the Southern Hemisphere. It’s the first U.S. satellite to travel over Russia. And, as you know, it has company up there: the Soviet’s much larger Sputnik III and our Explorer I and Vanguard satellites. The human eye can’t see Explorer IV in the skies, but since last October we’ve been able to spot the Sputniks as they pass over our towns. And that’s the problem, my friends.
Not the Sputniks themselves but what they leave in their heavenly wake. Fear. Each time we see the whirling dot in the faraway sky that is a Soviet Sputnik we sink into a universal malaise, a groundswell of impending doom. Neighbors talk, then they build bomb shelters in their backyards or basements. Like crazed squirrels, they hoard dry food and nuts. All in the name of fear. And then there’s retired generals like James Gavin, former chief of army research, who write books (War and Peace in the Space Age) claiming space will soon constitute a serious threat to world peace. And if that doesn’t scare the satellites out of you, Gavin writes: “We are in second place militarily (to the Russians) and in the exploration of space.” The balance of power, he suggests, lies with the Soviet Union.
And he’s not the only gloom-and-doom fellow out there. Massachusetts Senator John Kennedy recently told colleagues: “Once the Soviets are in the driver’s seat, the question arises as to what basic strategy we employ. The classic strategy is that of the underdog –and soon we will be the underdog.” Even our own army seems to agree. The Soviets have a “formidable war machine,” and its recent formal assessment of the Red army concludes…”the threat to the free world which the Soviet army today presents is obvious.”
If this were a political debate, I’d be forced to give equal time to the optimists out there. Maybe some facts, too. We have three U.S. satellites in orbit, each one having, according to the other Senator from Massachusetts, Republican Leverett Saltonstall, better scientific technology that the Sputniks. Also, he says, our I.C.B.M. Thor is in full production and Atlas has already passed full-power tests.
The stars aren’t telling me anything this night, so you be the judge of your own destiny. The next time you see a Sputnik skip across the stars are you going to let fear take over, maybe even “Duck and Cover?” Are you going to grab your transistor radio and dial-in Conelrad? Or are you going to tell yourself, “Hey, we’ve got three up there now, so what’s the big deal?”
Dick Daley doesn’t seem worried about it all. Our Mayor is busy planning the future of our city. Sure, it’s going to take twenty-two years and a-billion-and-a-half dollars. But the plans are grand: a new University of Illinois campus in the heart of Chicago; 50,000 apartments to lure people back to “the core of the city;” a giant convention hall to bring in big business; two new government buildings in the Loop; and a makeover of the silly “S” curve on the Outer Drive.
A Mayor’s starry-eyed dream, you say. Maybe so, but I’d rather think big than think scared.
Copyright © 2011. John Theodore — All Rights Reserved. Text may not be reproduced without permission.