Teaching With Documents:
Memorandum of a Conference with President Eisenhower after Sputnik
This lesson correlates to the National History Standards.
- Era 9 -Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)
- Standard 2A -Demonstrate understanding of the international origins and domestic consequences of the Cold War.
This lesson correlates to the National Standards for Civics and Government.
- Standard III.B.1. -Evaluate, take, and defend positions on issues regarding the purposes, organization, and functions of the institutions of the national government.
- Standard III.B.2. -Evaluate, take, and defend positions on issues regarding the major responsibilities of the national government for domestic and foreign policy.
- Standard III.B.3. -Evaluate, take, and defend positions on foreign policy issues in light of American national interests, values, and principles.
- Standard IV.C.2. -Evaluate, take, and defend positions about the effects of significant international political developments on the United States and other nations.
This lesson relates to providing for the common defense as stated in the Preamble
and to Article
II, Section 2, Paragraph 1, of the U.S. Constitution, in which the president
is charged to serve as commander-in-chief of the nation's military forces.
Share this exercise with your history, government, and American literature colleagues.
Document Analysis, Research, and Class Discussion
- Distribute copies of both pages of the document to your students. Ask one
student to read the document aloud while the others follow along. Lead the class
in a discussion of the following questions: What type of document is it? What
is the date of the document? Who wrote the document? Why was the document written?
Why is the document's date important? What was the IGY? What is the tone of this
memorandum? Why do you think it was classified? When was it declassified?
- Direct students to read the document and list excerpts from it that show
how calmly officials in this particular meeting reacted to the launching of Sputnik.
Next, direct students to research contemporary magazines and newspaper articles
that describe how others reacted to the launch of the satellite. Lead a class
discussion comparing the lists they generated with the information their research
- Lead a class discussion on how this document reveals the president's responsibility as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, his response to the launch, and his knowledge of the abilities of the U.S. military's space programs.
- Assign students to assume the identity of one of the president's advisors (perhaps one of the individuals who attended the October 8, 1957, meeting) and write a one-page memorandum to the president expressing his or her reaction to the launch of Sputnik.
- Arrange for staff members or community members who have memories of the Sputnik launch and American responses to come to your class. Assign students to write three questions they might ask participants prior to the session. Show your guests the document and ask them if their memories of the event seem as calm as shown here. Videotape the session for future use.
Create a Timeline
- Divide the class into five groups. Assign each group one of the decades between 1950 and 2000. Direct student groups to research the U.S. and Soviet space programs during their assigned decade. Ask students to identify the most significant events that occurred and list them on the board (or on posted butcher paper) in chronological order, creating a timeline visible to the entire class. As an extension of this activity, direct students to research other major events that occurred during the same period between the two countries and discuss with students to what extent space-related activities were influenced by diplomatic activities.
Research Assignment and Essay
- Assign students to research and write an essay about what the United States government did in response to the launch of Sputnik. Possible topics include the formation of NASA, the race to the moon, and the National Defense and Education Act.
You can perform a keyword, digitized image and location search in the National Archives Catalog. The online catalog's advanced functionalities also allow you to search by organization, person, or topic.
The online catalog is a searchable database that contains information about a wide variety of NARA holdings across the country. You can use the online catalog to search record descriptions by keywords or topics and retrieve digital copies of selected textual documents, photographs, maps, and sound recordings related to thousands of topics.
Currently, about 80% of NARA's vast holdings have been described in the online catalog. Thousands of digital images can be searched in the online catalog. In keeping with NARA's Strategic Plan, the percentage of holdings described in the online catalog will grow continually.
This article was written by David Traill, a teacher at South Fork High School in Stuart, FL.