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At dusk one day in early October 1957, Paul Dickson—then a freshman at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.—stood on the campus football field, squinted his eyes at the rapidly darkening sky, and spotted the rocket that had lifted the 184-pound aluminum spacecraft known as Sputnik into orbit. “It was a defining moment,” recalls Dickson, 62. “It was one of those times when you had a sensation of being at Fort Sumter at the beginning of the Civil War or on the battlefield at the Battle of Hastings.”

Over the past three decades, Dickson has penned more than 40 books, ranging from Think Tanks to Slang to Baseball’s Greatest Quotations. His latest, Sputnik: The Shock of the Century, covers the lead-up to the launch of the first man-made object to ever circle the earth, as well as the event’s far-reaching consequences for American history. Dickson dissects the conflict between top U.S. military officials—who had long sided with Nazi-turned-American engineer Wernher von Braun in urging an aggressive effort to beat the Soviets into space—and civilian officials, led by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who feared the consequences of militarizing outer space. “As a lifelong liberal Democrat, I always thought of Eisenhower as a nice fellow who played a lot of golf and slept through his last few years in office,” says Dickson, who lives in Garrett Park, Md. “But when I finished the book, I concluded that he had done more to prevent World War III than anyone else.”

Though Eisenhower at the time faced congressional and media criticism for his seemingly lackadaisical approach to the space race, Dickson argues that the president’s apparent weakness was actually purposeful and based on the deep conviction that—in Dickson’s words—”nuclear war is unthinkable, and the U.S. will never start one.” Eisenhower’s efforts to sharply limit the military’s role in space, Dickson says, may also have been a reaction to the carnage that he had seen as a military commander in World War II.

Eisenhower focused instead on jump-starting the American educational system—a decision that had more far-reaching consequences than he could have predicted. “Before Sputnik, our best engineers were making Princess phones and big cars,” Dickson says. The post-Sputnik educational reforms, by contrast, helped inculcate the kind of higher-order thinking that secured America’s lead in science and technology for decades to come—and laid the groundwork for everything from satellite communications to the Internet.

The timing of his book’s release—less than a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks—strikes Dickson as eerily appropriate. Though the launch of a primitive satellite is wholly unlike a meticulously planned assault on New York City, both events shattered America’s cocoon of security. To Dickson, the can-do spirit mustered by Americans in response to Sputnik provides a reason for optimism. “The Cold War was not won by force but by ideas,” Dickson says. If America’s mission this time, he says, is to change the mind of an enemy “who hates our guts, we should be able to find some way to turn that person around through the force of ideas.” — Louis Jacobson