In the middle 1950s, the United States seemed a victim of its own success. The economic and baby booms begun during World War II continued but were hindered by the nation’s “state of the art” 19th century rail, education and legal systems. Americans bought millions of cars annually, but lacked modern roads to drive on. The growing cohort of high school students expected to enroll in college attended classes in decrepit buildings with obsolete curricula. The demands of millions of African-Americans to end segregation were ignored by Congress and the courts.

After the Civil War, the federal government had tackled similar problems. Congress offered new western states and railroad companies land grants to support education and construct the transcontinental railroad. It enacted constitutional amendments and laws to assist freed slaves, before abandoning the cause. But politicians now seemed paralyzed by the scale of the challenges.

Should tax dollars focus on mass transit or highways? If Washington funded local schools, should it impose national standards, take a stand on segregation, or aid parochial schools? Since the 1890s the Supreme Court had allowed states to impose race-based separation in schools and public services. On what grounds could this be overturned? These questions divided Democrats and Republicans internally and across party lines. The nation’s leadership eventually found a way through this thicket — but only with an inadvertent assist from America’s principal Cold War enemy.

Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower admired the German autobahn highway system he encountered as Allied commander in 1945. After becoming president in 1953, he followed the advice of his defense secretary, former GM executive Charles Wilson, to appoint a transportation advisory committee led by retired general Lucius Clay with members linked to the automobile, construction, and petroleum industries. They proposed a single-minded focus on building a national highway grid partly justified as a defense program. In case of atomic war with the Soviets, highways would speed movement of military forces and allow rapid evacuation of cities. Anyone leaving New York or Los Angeles during a normal rush hour recognized this as nonsense. But the defense claim provided essential cover for politicians asked to enact the costliest spending project in history. In 1956, Congress approved the aptly named National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. Washington assumed 90 percent of the cost for building 41,000 miles of highways paid for by excise (sales) taxes on automotive products.

Construction firms, labor unions, car and petroleum companies, mall developers, truckers, vacationing families en route to Disneyland and Arizonans navigating I-8, 10, 17, 40, etc., celebrated the interstates even if they neglected to send a thank you note to the Soviet Union.

Americans panicked when the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, in October 1957. Somehow brutal and backward Communists beat the U.S. into space. A few months later, when American scientists rushed to launch a satellite on an untested rocket, it exploded on liftoff. Dubbed “Flopnik,” the televised failure made U.S. technology seem primitive. Social commentators blamed schools for the problem. A recent critique of American education titled “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” was informally reissued as “Why Johnny Can’t Read ... and Ivan Can.” It seemed Moscow had won the space race by winning the education race.

Rapid economic growth and population shifts had outpaced the nation’s educational system. Before WWII, relatively few students finished high school and fewer went to college. Primary schools taught only the most basic skills. Postwar prosperity greatly expanded the number of teens completing high school. Rapidly growing suburbs bursting with baby boomers required creation of entirely new school systems expected to prepare children for college and skilled jobs. Local governments, the source of most education funding, were overwhelmed.

Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, a former schoolteacher and presidential aspirant, understood a clever politician never “wasted” a crisis. He led a committee investigating the Soviet challenge that called for creating a “reservoir of trained and educated minds” through federal education funding.

Johnson united bickering factions in both parties behind the National Defense Education Act, passed less than a year after Sputnik. Johnson also pushed for the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to compete with the Soviets. By providing an initial billion-dollar fund for school construction, student loans and scholarships along with the teaching of science, mathematics and foreign languages at every level, the education act forged a modern education system.

The legacy of racism proved especially difficult to overcome. School segregation in the South, Midwest and Southwest was only the most visible example of racial divides in housing, employment and public accommodations. Since 1945, civil rights groups had mounted limited challenges to school discrimination, but not until 1953-54 did they bring a case before the Supreme Court challenging all school segregation as a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Many legal theorists questioned this strategy since public schools traditionally operated under state, not federal, jurisdiction. Unexpectedly, in 1954 the new chief justice, Earl Warren, mobilized a unanimous court to strike down school segregation as fundamentally unconstitutional. Warren hoped the ruling in the Brown case would begin unraveling the wider web of racial injustice. Although not part of the official record, Warren and his fellow justices considered how the Soviets highlighted segregation as a propaganda weapon in competition with the U.S. for influence in Africa and Asia.

This concern became clear in September 1957 when a federal court ordered desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. In defiance, Gov. Orval Faubus encouraged a howling mob, assisted by the Arkansas National Guard, to block enrollment by nine black students. The televised violence, the U.S. secretary of state complained, was “ruining our foreign policy.” Ike wrote that Soviet propagandists “by word and picture” portrayed a reign of “racial terror” in the U.S.

In spite of his past lukewarm support for integration, Eisenhower dispatched the 101st Airborne Division to enforce the court’s order. In the midst of the crisis, Lyndon Johnson pulled off a small miracle by overcoming a Southern filibuster to win Senate passage of a modest Civil Rights bill, the first since 1875.

In these instances, the external Soviet threat provided cover for national leaders to subordinate domestic policy squabbles under the guise of defending national security. Their response resembled the 1950s “creature feature” films where a threat from monsters or space invaders unites rival nations. In a crisis, change that had seemed impossible quickly became inevitable.

Michael Schaller is a Regents’ Professor emeritus of history at the University of Arizona. He has written several books on U.S. history, focusing on America’s international relations.