A mural featuring Xi and Trump in Berlin, Germany, April 2020
Andrea Ferro / Redux

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, in October 1957, Washington finally understood that the Soviet Union was not solely a formidable ideological antagonist but also a technological and military rival. Sputnik briefly put the Soviet Union ahead of the United States in a crucial technological area, with vast ramifications for its ability to communicate and to wage war.

Sputnik changed not only the way the United States saw the Soviet Union but also the way it understood its own priorities. In response to the Soviet achievement, the United States invested in space technology and sought to better understand (and undermine) communist ideology. Universities expanded their Russian-language programs. Ultimately, some three decades later, a modernized U.S. version of the Sputnik program, the Strategic Defense Initiative, was credited with contributing to the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of communism—a kind of Sputnik

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  • BRANKO MILANOVIC is a Senior Scholar at the Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality at the CUNY Graduate Center and Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics.
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