When the Soviet Union launched the world's first artificial satellite on Oct. 4, 1957, American horizons darkened with self-reproach and fear. Sputnik was a shock to the system. "The fact that we have lost the race to launch the satellite means that we are losing the race to produce ballistic missiles," the influential columnist Walter Lippmann wrote. At a diplomatic party, when an official in the Eisenhower administration commented that Sputnik would be forgotten in six months, Washington's famed hostess-with-the-mostest Perle Mesta shot back: "And in six months, we may all be dead."
Yet we all know the fabled story line: A resilient America rose to the challenge and bested the Soviets in space. A dozen years after its propaganda perigee, the United States landed a man on the moon. And the nation's zeal for cutting-edge technology continues to shape the American experience.
But the triumphant story line bypasses a shadowy continuum of the last five decades.
Sometimes even authorities voiced misgivings. At the end of a presidency that proudly developed the latest doomsday weaponry, Dwight Eisenhower delivered a surprising farewell address that warned against a "military-industrial complex." Less famously, in the same speech, he also warned that "public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite."
In a 1967 speech, Martin Luther King Jr. aptly described a society going off-course: "When scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men." The U.S. war effort in Vietnam was making the most of new computer technology - on behalf of policy priorities that fueled a backlash from many in the baby-boom generation. Millions of young Americans began to view their elders as depraved and their upbringings as hollow. The poses of objectivity and science-based wisdom were losing their appeal for many who began to look at the customary straight-and-narrow path as a grim forced march.
The two most memorable accomplishments of the 1960s for American aerospace were the moonwalk and the high-tech bombing that, among other benchmarks, managed to decimate vast expanses of Southeast Asia. From 238,000 miles away or a few thousand feet above the ground, Uncle Sam's dominance of space and air was dazzling. The same patriotic persona taking a giant step for mankind on the moon was calling in nonstop air strikes on planet Earth.
But during the same decade, the preoccupations of more and more Baby Boomers ran directly counter to the emphasis that had shifted the U.S. space program into overdrive. Society's crash course on a science trajectory was about learning and training to think in ways that would boost the quest for new technologies. In contrast, a lot of the emerging counterculture had to do with efforts to open doors of perception - feeling instead of just calculating - discovering and not just trying to solve intellectual puzzles.
Yet the dominant American responses to Sputnik had enduring impacts that propelled a "scientific-technological elite" to new heights of power. Technology was harnessed to a political economy that pulled the talents and even the dreams of new generations toward intense digital consumerism and acquiescence to the warfare state.
Sputnik accelerated a process that was already well under way 50 years ago. Schools were to produce America's intellectual pistons for the space race and the broader arms race. As the atomic physicist Philip Morrison had predicted in 1946, federal largesse would deftly hook the nation's colleges into active compliance. "The now amicable contracts will tighten up and the fine print will start to contain talk about results and specific weapon problems," he said. "And science itself will have been bought by war on the installment plan."
Today, no educational institution more symbolizes the magnitude of that moral corruption than the University of California. The UC system avidly continues to provide key management functions - serving as a prestigious air-freshener for the stench of annihilation technology - at the Livermore and Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratories.
In the first years of the 21st century, a liberal script has hailed science as an urgent antidote to the irrationality of the Bush administration.
Such faith in science may be logical, but it is also ironic and ultimately unpersuasive. Pure allegiance to scientific truth has existed least of all in political domains, where pivotal findings are routinely filtered by power, self-interest and ideology.
For instance, the technical and ecological advantages of mass transit have long been clear; yet foremost engineering minds are deployed to the task of building better SUVs. And there has never been any question that nuclear weapons are bad for the Earth and the human future, but no one ever condemns the continuing development of nuclear weapons as a bipartisan assault on science. On the contrary, America's nonstop R&D efforts for thermonuclear weapons are all about science.
The Republican assault on science is cause for alarm when applied to the matter of global warming. But carrying a liberal torch for "science," currently in fervent vogue, leaves unchallenged the across-the-aisle embrace of scientific pursuits in the weaponry field that have never been benign. When it comes to designing and manufacturing the latest devices of mass destruction, only the most rigorous science need apply.
In practice, the value of science remains self-evident and ambiguous. Science is impartial because its discoveries are verifiable and accurate - but science is also, through funding and government direction, largely held captive. Its massively destructive capabilities are often seen as stupendous assets. In the case of ultramodern American armaments, the worse they get, the better they get.
Fifty years after Sputnik, the American love affair with cutting-edge technology has never been more torrid. Everyday digital achievements are so fantastic that they fill our horizons and often seem to define our futures. The emphasis on speed, convenience and technical capacity keeps us fixated on the latest new frontiers. But technology cannot help with the most distinctly human and vital of endeavors - deciding what we truly care about most.
Norman Solomon's new book "Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America's Warfare State" has just come off the press. For more information, go to: www.MadeLoveGotWar.com. The documentary film "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death" is based on Norman Solomon's book of the same title. For information about the full-length movie, narrated by Sean Penn and produced by the Media Education Foundation, go to: www.WarMadeEasyTheMovie.org
© 2007 San Francisco Chronicle