John F. Kennedy and the two faces of the U.S. space program, 1961-63.

Author:KAY, W.D.

Although the competition between United States and the Soviet Union in the area of spaceflight may actually have begun with the launch of Sputnik I in 1957, most historians give John F. Kennedy the primary credit (or blame) for actually heating up the so-called space race. In sharp contrast to President Eisenhower, who showed little enthusiasm for engaging in any sort of "contest" with the Russians,(1) it was Kennedy who made racing with--and beating--the USSR the centerpiece of the U.S. space program. He even went so far as to establish a sort of finish line in his famous "moon speech" of May 25, 1961, in which the president declared a lunar landing before 1970 as an "urgent national need."(2)

There is, however, another side to Kennedy's space policy that has received much less attention. This same president, who in word and deed raised space competition to such unprecedented heights, was simultaneously engaged in an equally unparalleled effort to promote U.S.-Soviet cooperation in space. Here too, his approach was significantly different from that of his predecessor. Aside from some general statements about the peaceful use of space, President Eisenhower was never directly involved in any negotiations regarding American-Russian collaboration in space. The little movement in this direction during the late 1950s (usually between individual scientists or at lower levels of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA]) never advanced beyond the preliminary stage.(3) President Kennedy, on the other hand, made several concerted, personal attempts to interest Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in a variety of joint space projects.

Indeed, in one particularly important respect, the president's cooperative policy was virtually a mirror image of his competitive one: its culmination was a proposal for a lunar landing. On September 20, 1963, in a speech before the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, Kennedy invited the USSR to join the United States in developing a joint expedition to the moon, the same mission he had justified two years earlier primarily on the basis of American-Soviet rivalry. As might be expected, this proposal was met with incredulity, if not alarm, by a number of U.S. officials, including many members of Congress. The president would spend what were to be the last two months of his life trying--not altogether successfully--to reconcile what many saw as a blatant contradiction in his policies.

For the past thirty years, space policy analysts, historians, and even a few of the actual participants have sought to account for these apparent inconsistencies. Unfortunately, these explanations tend either to contain discrepancies of their own or else fail to account for or, in some cases, even mention all of the relevant circumstances. This article takes a somewhat different approach to the issue, arguing that from Kennedy's point of view, there was no contradiction. Competition and offers of cooperation were deliberate strategies, completely consistent with the way the president had defined the nature of the space race. The controversy generated by this approach--and subsequent charges of inconsistency--is a reflection of the fact that most other public officials (particularly in Congress) did not share or even understand this particular definition.

Kennedy and Competition

For President Kennedy, as for many Americans at the time, the USSR cast a very long shadow over the U.S. space program. Beginning with the 1960 presidential campaign and continuing up until the day before his death, Kennedy almost never referred to America's efforts in space without mentioning the Soviet Union as well.(4) Often, he adopted an explicitly competitive tone, complete with "racing" metaphors: "winning," "catching up," "being first," and so on. The 1960 Democratic Party platform, for example, claims that the Republicans had allowed the Russians to "forge ahead" in space.(5) The Kennedy campaign's position paper on space (the first section of which, significantly, is devoted to a direct U.S.-Soviet comparison) stated that "the [Eisenhower] Administration's initial attempts to go into space on a budgetary shoestring have made it difficult to compete."(6)

Such talk continued after Kennedy took office. In November 1961, he declared that there was "no area where the United States received a greater setback to its prestige as the number one industrial country in the world than in being second in the field of space in the fifties."(7) During a press conference in April 1963, the president stated that "we are behind now, and will continue to be behind. But if we make a major effort we have a chance to be ahead at the end of the decade, which is where I think we ought to be."(8) The day before his assassination, in a speech in San Antonio, the president proclaimed,

I think the United States should be a leader. A country as rich and powerful as this ... should be second to none.... While I do not regard our mastery of space as anywhere near complete, while I recognize that there are areas where we are still behind ... this year I hope the United States will be ahead.(9) In some cases, Kennedy's rhetoric bordered on the alarmist. During the campaign, when describing the consequences of failing to "win" the space race, he argued that

control of Space will be decided in the next decade. If the Soviets control space they can control earth, as in past centuries the nation that controlled the seas dominated the continents.... We cannot run second in this vital race. To insure peace and freedom, we must be first.(10) He would employ similar language--for example, the "battle between freedom and tyranny"--three years later when calling for the United States to send men to the moon. In defending that decision, the president would say that the United States's goal in going to the moon was "not only our excitement or interest in being on the moon, but the capacity to dominate space, which ... I believe is essential to the United States as a leading free world power."(11)

On other occasions, he avoided explicitly competitive rhetoric but still made use of the USSR's space program as a point of comparison. In a campaign speech in Texas on September 13, 1960, for example, candidate Kennedy asked, "Is our position in outer space compared to the communist position as strong as it was some years ago? I don't think it is. I don't think that we have done enough. I think that we can do better."(12) Ten days after his inauguration, in the 1961 State of the Union message, he claimed that "this country is ahead in the science and technology of space, while the Soviet Union is ahead in its capacity to lift large vehicles into orbit."(13) In 1962, he noted that "it's a tremendous job to build a booster the size that the Soviet Union is talking about."(14) Even when not mentioning the USSR by name, Kennedy still managed to maintain a comparative perspective, calling for American "leadership"(15) or for the United States to "assume its proper place" in space.(16)

Documentary evidence makes it clear that the president's public statements were an accurate reflection of the administration's internal concerns. The very first item on the agenda of a NASA Bureau of the Budget conference with the president, dated March 22, 1961, concerned "increasing the rate of closure on the USSR's lead in weight lifting capability."(17) The previous day, Kennedy heard a presentation from NASA Administrator James Webb that mentions in its opening sentence "closing the gap caused by Russian successes" and concludes that "we cannot regain the prestige we have lost without improving our present inferior booster capability, and doing it before the Russians make a major break through [sic]."(18)

Nowhere, however, is the president's competitive posture more evident than in the events surrounding the moon speech. Just as it had beaten the Americans into orbit with Sputnik in 1957, the Soviet Union scored another first on April 12, 1961, when it launched Vostok I with the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin, aboard. According to contemporary accounts, Kennedy was deeply shaken. In a meeting of key advisers two days after the Gagarin flight, the president appeared quite despondent about the state of the space race:

Now, let's look at this? Is there any place we can catch them? What can we do? Can we go around the moon before them? Can we put a man on the moon before them? ... If somebody can just tell me how to catch up.... There's nothing more important.(19) The following week (aided, perhaps, by the disaster at the Bay of Pigs), Kennedy directed Vice President Johnson to find a project, "regardless of cost," in which the United States stood a chance at "being first."(20) In an April 20 memo to the vice president, Kennedy repeated his questions of the April 14 meeting, asking whether "we have a chance of beating the Soviets" at putting a laboratory in space, a trip around the moon, landing an unmanned rocket on the moon, or sending a rocket to and from the moon with a man.(21)

In his public declaration of the lunar landing goal--in a speech before a joint session of Congress titled "Urgent National Needs"--Kennedy mentioned the Soviet program twice, clearly casting them as America's principal adversaries in both space and politics:

Finally, if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take. Recognizing the head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines, which gives them many months of lead-time, and recognizing the likelihood that they will exploit this lead for some time to come in still more impressive successes, we nevertheless are required to make new efforts...

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