Sputnik and Little Rock

I just discovered that two things that happened when I was 4 1/2, external to my immediate surroundings, but with long-lasting effect on me, both took place within a two-week span.

September 25, 1957: Nine black students safely entered Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, after President Eisenhower sent in federal troops to deal with a mob that interfered with a federal court order for the school to integrate. At the beginning of the school year, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus had ordered the state’s National Guard to stop any black students from entering the school, a decision that was countermanded by the federal judge in the case. The story is well told in a son made popular by Pete Seeger, and performed for a time by my father, State of Arkansas; the third verse I especially remembered without assistance:
“Three hundred National Guard were there
Dressed up to fight a war.”

Even at that age, I knew that race mattered. I was also vaguely aware that the federal government was doing an extraordinary thing that was not universally popular. This led me to believe in the innate goodness of the federal government, a notion that has been dashed time and time again in the intervening years.

October 4, 1957: Sputnik was launched, beginning the space race, which was seen, in part, as an extension of the arms race.

As writer John Noble Wilford put it: “Sputnik changed everything – history, geopolitics, the scientific world.” Certainly, the headway made by the “Commie Ruskies” colored my entire time in school. It fueled competitiveness to learn, but also exacerbated a Cold War paranoia that we’d all die by some entity, unseen until it was too late. I used to do these “Duck and Cover” exercises:

My wife was listening to the “duck and cover” drill that I played, and it was scary to her.
I’ve complained that current politicians like to deal in fear mongering, but on reflection, I grew up learning to be afraid of the Commies. It may be that the “counter culture” of the late 1960s was as much a reaction to that paranoia of the 1950s and early 1960s as it was to the promotion of civil rights and opposition to the Viet Nam war.

These two events, one of civil rights and the other a specter of war, taking place before I was in kindergarten, had a huge, and continuing effect on me that I hadn’t fully appreciated until now.

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