On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union sent geopolitical shock waves across the planet with the launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite. Sputnik was only twenty-three inches in diameter, transmitted radio signals for a mere twenty-one days, then burned up on reentry just three months after first achieving orbit, but it literally changed everything. Not only were the dynamics of the Cold War permanently altered by what came to be dubbed the “Space Race,” but the success of Sputnik ushered in a dramatic new era for developments in science and technology. I was not quite six months old.
America was to later win that race to the moon, but despite its fearsome specter as a diabolical power bent on world domination, the USSR turned out to be a kind of vast Potemkin Village that almost noiselessly went out of business at the close 1991. The United States had pretty much lost interest in space travel by then, but that was just about the time that the next critical phase in the emerging digital age—widespread public access to personal computers and the internet—first wrought the enormous changes upon the landscape of American life that today might have Gen Z “zoomers” considering 1957 as something like a date out of ancient times.
And now, as this review goes to press—in yet still one more recycle of Mark Twain’s bon mot “History Doesn’t Repeat Itself, but It Often Rhymes”—NASA temporarily scrubbed the much anticipated blastoff of lunar-bound Artemis I, but a real space race is again fiercely underway, although this time the rivals include not only Russia, but China and a whole host of billionaires, at least one of whom could potentially fit a template for a “James Bond” style villain. And while all this is going on, I recently registered for Medicare.
Sixty-five years later, there’s a lot to look back on. In 1957: The Year That Launched the American Future (2020), a fascinating, fast-paced chronicle manifested by articulately rendered, thought-provocative chapter-length essays, author and journalist Eric Burns reminds us of what a pivotal year that proved to be, not only by kindling that first contest to dominate space, but in multiple other arenas of the social, political, and cultural, much that is only apparent in retrospect.
That year, while Sputnik stoked alarms that nuclear-armed Russians would annihilate the United States with bombs dropped from outer space, tabloid journalism reached what was then new levels of the outrageous exploiting “The Mad Bomber of New York,” who turned out to be a pathetic little fellow whose series of explosives actually claimed not a single fatality. In another example of history’s unintended consequences, a congressional committee investigating illegal labor activities helped facilitate Jimmy Hoffa’s takeover of the Teamsters. A cloak of mystery was partially lifted from organized crime activities with a very public police raid at Apalachin that rounded up Mafia bosses by the score. The iconic ’57 Chevy ruled the road and cruised on newly constructed interstate highways that would revolutionize travel as well as wreak havoc on cityscapes. African Americans remained second-class citizens but struggles for equality ignited a series of flashpoints. In September 1957, President Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and sent Army troops to Little Rock to enforce desegregation. That same month, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, watered-down yet still landmark legislation that paved the way for more substantial action ahead. Published that year were Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. Michael Landon starred in I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Little Richard, who claimed to see Sputnik while performing in concert and took it as a message from God, abruptly walked off stage and abandoned rock music to preach the word of the Lord. But the nation’s number one hit was Elvis Presley’s All Shook Up; rock n’ roll was here to stay.
Burns’ commentary on all this and more is engaging and generally a delight to read, but 1957 is by no means a comprehensive history of that year. In fact, it is a stretch to term this book a history at all except in the sense that the events it describes occurred in the past. Instead, it is rather a subjective collection of somewhat loosely linked commentaries that spotlight specific events and emerging trends that the author identifies as formative for the nation we would become in decades that followed. As such, the book succeeds due to Burn’s keen sense of how both key episodes as well as more subtle cultural waves influenced a country in transition from the conventional, consensus-driven postwar years to the radicalized, tumultuous times that lay just ahead.
His insight is most apparent in his cogent analysis of how Civil Rights advanced not only through lunch-counter sit-ins and a reaction that was marked by violent repression, but by cultural shifts among white Americans—and that rock n’ roll had at least some role in this evolution of outlooks. At the same time, his conservative roots are exposed in his treatment of On the Road and the rise of the “Beat generation;” Burns genuinely seems as baffled by their emergence as he is amazed that anyone could praise Kerouac’s literary talents. But, to his credit, he recognizes the impact the novel has upon a national audience that no longer could confidently boast of a certainty in its destiny. And it is Burns’ talent with a pen that captivates a markedly different audience, some sixty-five years later.
In the end, the author leaves us yearning for more. After all, other than references that border on the parenthetical to Richard Nixon, Robert F. Kennedy, and Dag Hammarskjöld, there is almost no discussion of national politics or international relations, essential elements in any study of a nation at what the author insists is at a critical juncture. Even more problematic, very conspicuous in its absence is the missing chapter that should have been devoted to television. In 1950, 3.9 million TV sets were in less than ten percent of American homes. By 1957, that number increased roughly tenfold to 38.9 million TVs in the homes of nearly eighty percent of the population! That year, I Love Lucy aired its final half-hour episode, but in addition to network news, families were glued to their black-and-white consoles watching Gunsmoke, Alfred Hitchcock, Lassie, You Bet Your Life, and Red Skelton. For the World War II generation, technology that brought motion pictures into their living rooms was something like miraculous. Nothing was more central to the identity of the life of the average American in 1957 than television, but Burns inexplicably ignores it.
Other than Sputnik, which clearly marked a turning-point for science and exploration, it is a matter of some debate whether 1957 should be singled out for demarcation as the start of a new era. One could perhaps argue instead for the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, or with even greater conviction, for the date of his assassination in 1963, as a true crossroads of sorts for the past and future United States. Still, if for no other reason than the conceit that this was my birth year, I am willing to embrace Burns’ thesis that 1957 represented a collective critical moment for us all. Either way, his book promises an impressive tour of a time that seems increasingly more distant with the passing of each and every day.