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What Didn't Happen on September 12th: 9/11, Sputnik and the Interstate Highway System

On October 5th, 1957, America panicked. The day prior the USSR launched the first satellite into space, Sputnik 1. Soviet space technology threatened America, and the world. Under the leadership of President Eisenhower, America responded.

And the response was staggering. In less than a year, Congress created the Advanced Research Projects Agency, that would become DARPA. After that, President Eisenhower established funding to start NASA. Both the Army and Navy immediately prepared to launch satellites into space.

Congress also realized that America needed the long-term edge that science and engineering education provided. President Eisenhower and Congress set out to build the lasting intellectual advantage needed to win the Cold War. The National Defense Education Act poured billions of dollars (in the 1950s) into education. The National Science Foundation received an increase of a 100 million dollars for extra grants.

Less than twelve years after the launch of Sputnik, America became the first, and only nation, to put a man on the moon. In the long term, America became the world's foremost intellectual and scientific power, in space and beyond.

On September 12th, 2001, America panicked. Terrorism became a reality, and our national security priorities changed in an instant. Terrorism had replaced the USSR as the gravest threat to America’s national security. Under the leadership of President Bush, America responded.

Immediately, America invaded Afghanistan. Then a year and a half later, America invaded Iraq.

While all this was going on, America reorganized its homeland defense and created the third largest cabinet organization, the Department of Homeland Security. It again reorganized the intelligence services, but only by adding an additional job to the top of the pyramid.

A two-fold approach, foreign and domestic. The deployment of troops overseas, the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars, the employment of millions of people to confront terror. And the result? Terror attacks have been stopped, but not eliminated; two countries descended into insurgency and civil war; and in 2008 we entered the deepest and most severe recession of my lifetime, if not since the Great Depression. And the organization to respond to terrorist events and disasters, the Department of Homeland Security, utterly failed to help during Hurricane Katrina.

Worst of all, in my opinion, America did not grow. Our foreign policy invaded those countries we believed had attacked us; domestically we created a super-bureaucracy to fight terrorism. We didn’t invest in our people or infrastructure. This is not meant as a left/right, conservative/liberal, democrat/republican comment; it simply states the fact our government failed to invest in America's long term growth.

When President Eisenhower pushed to expand the Interstate Highway System, the year prior to the Sputnik launch, he used the Cold War to promote his agenda. While he was worried about a nuclear attack, he knew that America needed a robust transportation system for the future. Whether improving education, or building infrastructure, President Eisenhower used the threats facing America to invest in our future.

I truly believe we had a golden opportunity to invest in America's future on September 12th, 2001, but it didn't happen. On Wednesday I will describe how I think we should have done so, and where we can go from here.

six comments

The squandered opportunity of September 12th will haunt us for a long time to come. I’ll be interested to see where you go with this.

If I’m being honest, I don’t think that the FP decisions should be the focus of this piece as much as the mismanagement of resources and good will after 9/11.

Nevertheless, it is all very frustrating.

To be fair, defense education did increase a whole lot. A lot of my education went through Studies of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism Consortium (START) which was gov’t-funded to do research into security studies.

This isn’t to say that START was funded and its all flowers and rainbows from thereon out, but there was at least an attempt to push education forward from thereon out.

@ AJK – That’s true, and as a whole a lot of money has gone into disaster prep, but nearly ten years out, I don’t think we’ve seen as much effect as we’d have liked.

I’ll make two comments. First, I realize this is one of my more overtly political articles. Overall I consider myself fairly moderate across the board. However, after 9/11 I feel that we missed a huge opportunity, and I have to blame the commander in chief for that failure. It just happens to be former President Bush.

Second, related to AJK’s point, after 9/11 we did increase some defense spending, but compared to how much we wasted in technological fixes, the DHS, Iraq, and Afghanistan, it just pales in comparison. Tomorrow I’ll get into my fixes, or the one area I think needs billions of funding, but won’t likely ever get it.

At its very core the Cold War was very competitive in nature. If the superpowers couldn´t fight against one another directly (just through proxies) they could compete in education, military spending, the space race, and sporting events like the Olympics. With such large investments being made in these areas there was inevitably significant progress made. One thing to note is that the Montgomery GI Bill has been given a large amount of credit for the prosperity of the 50´s by helping ensure the US had a large qualified college educated population. Now let me go on an opinionated rant.

How could the US compete with transnational terrorist organizations? I would have to say the US started competing with them in ruthlessness. To my knowledge only against terrorists has the US tried to create a legal framework for what a civilized nation would call torture. Only in the name of terrorism has a US president himself directly ordered a hit on a US citizen, or been so willing to blatantly systematically invade the privacy of its own citizens.

On the other side of these present day conflicts, a new GI bill has come out with benefits that may be seen a few years down the line however the wars have been funded almost entirely on debt. There are investments that need to be made not only for America´s future but for the future of the human race. Concretely the US will need more investment in new energy technologies and making them more practically applicable, new infrastructure like roads, mass transit, construction, the power grid, conservation projects, and long term space exploration in order to remain competitive in an increasingly competitive world. In order to make that happen there needs to be an overhaul in public education as well as programs to make college more affordable and accessible to the general population. (Here in Germany, income has very little to do with whether or not you will make it through college but rather academic ability, but they keep the bar very high often times with more than 4/5ths of a class dropping out depending on the major and the college). The US is already falling behind in education in relation to several other nations and will be particularly bad for the nation since apparently the US has started to exhibit a small brain drain already in mid 2009 (instead of immigrants doctors, engineers, businessmen, and scientists coming to the US more and more are going to other locations or helping their own nations develop).

Instead the war has lead from a budget surplus to start another massive pile of government debt, and largely deprived the US of the capability to be able to invest in such initiatives whether it be privately or government subsidized. Its moved so much taxpayer money into the hands of contractors and the military industrial complex as a whole its unbelievable, and there is very little to show for it except for Saddam Hussein dead, better technology for bomb resistant trucks, and KBR stock that is doing fine even through a recession. Thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars later Osama bin Laden still hasn´t been caught, Al Qaeda is not estimated to be any weaker, and the US is stuck in two occupations. These wars may well have bee the squandering of the US´s future in the name of a questionable level of security.