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JFK at Cape Canaveral
President Kennedy stands under a Saturn I booster on its launch pad during his November 16, 1963, visit to Cape Canaveral. (credit: NASA)

Analyzing the new Kennedy tape


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Last Wednesday, on the fiftieth anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s May 25, 1961, “we should go to the Moon” speech, the Kennedy Presidential Library released a recording of a 46-minute meeting in the Oval Office between President Kennedy and NASA Administrator James Webb. The timing of the release, while clearly linked to the speech anniversary, is a bit unfortunate, since it catches Kennedy at perhaps the lowest point in his enthusiasm for the lunar landing program that he had announced 28 months earlier. The contrast between his 1961 clarion call to space leadership and his 1963 views on the future of the lunar landing effort is rather stark; the differences raise the question of what John Kennedy actually thought about his decision to send Americans to the lunar surface.

The contents of the tape are largely consistent with my assessment of JFK’s thinking in late summer of 1963, although he turns out to have been a bit more pessimistic about the state of the effort than I had thought him to be, and more willing to justify Apollo on military grounds than his public rhetoric suggested.

Some of those who have heard only the six brief excerpts from the meeting that the Library posted on its web site, JFK’s remarks suggest that he was looking for a way out of the Apollo commitment. That is not my interpretation. After having listened several times to the recording of the whole meeting, I conclude that Kennedy was very concerned about what he and Webb agreed was declining political and public support for Apollo, and was in fact looking for a way to keep the program moving forward in the face of increasing criticism of its costs and goals. At one point in the meeting, Kennedy remarks, “I think this can be an asset, this program. I think in time—it’s like a lot of things, this is mid-journey and therefore everybody says ‘what the hell are we making this trip for’—but at the end of the thing they may be glad we made it.” Kennedy’s primary concern was, “we’ve got to defend ourselves now.” At the end of the meeting, Kennedy tells Webb, “We’ve got to hold this thing.” There is little indication here that Kennedy was seeking to abandon his 1961 commitment; rather, he and Webb were discussing the best tactics to keep the program from falling victim to its critics and to the changed political and economic situation in the 1963–1964 time frame. What is surprising is the approach Kennedy thought necessary to achieve this objective: giving the Moon effort a military rationale.

I had long been aware that a recording of this September 1963 meeting existed. As I began almost a decade ago the research that led to my recent book John F. Kennedy and the Race to Moon (see “Review: John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon”, The Space Review, February 28, 2011), I requested the release of the tape. But the Kennedy Library was then and remained firm in its insistence that it was reviewing (slowly) the existing tape recordings of Kennedy’s meetings and telephone conversations in chronological order, and it was not willing to jump the chronological sequence to meet the needs of any particular researcher. This of course was frustrating. Fortunately, the contents of the tape are largely consistent with my assessment of JFK’s thinking in late summer of 1963, although he turns out to have been a bit more pessimistic about the state of the effort than I had thought him to be, and more willing to justify Apollo on military grounds than his public rhetoric suggested.

The tape in context: growing criticisms of Apollo

While there had been little criticism of the Apollo initiative in 1961 and 1962, as 1963 began the lunar landing program was being questioned on multiple fronts. This growing criticism concerned President Kennedy, and that concern is clearly reflected in his comments during the September 18 meeting.

As Kennedy sent his FY1964 NASA budget request of $5.7 billion to Congress in January 1963, The New York Times editorialized, “we do not think the matter [the lunar landing program] has been sufficiently explained or sufficiently debated.” Former president Dwight Eisenhower was vocal in his skepticism, calling for more “common sense”; in June he described Project Apollo as “nuts.” Eisenhower’s vocal opposition worried Kennedy; the former president was still widely respected. Congressional Republicans questioned the contributions of Apollo to national security and suggested that “if our vital security is not at stake,” a slower-paced program might make more sense. In its August issue, the widely-read Reader’s Digest included an article headlined “We’re Running the Wrong Race with Russia,” suggesting that the real threat in space was “Soviet strides toward military conquest of the space just over our heads.”

The scientific and liberal communities were also critical of the priority being given to Apollo, but it was the criticism coming from conservative circles that most troubled President Kennedy, particularly as he looked forward to his 1964 re-election campaign. In response to the Reader’s Digest article, he asked James Webb and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to prepare a response to the article; a week later, he asked Vice President Johnson to lead a quick review of the space situation, asking, “How much of our present peaceful space program can be militarily useful? How much of our capability for our moon program is also necessary for military control of space?” Kennedy added, “I would be interested in any other thoughts on how to justify the large amounts of money” being spent on space. In response, James Webb argued that “all” of the civilian space program “can be directly or indirectly militarily useful.” Secretary McNamara did not agree with this assessment; Webb told Kennedy that “the Secretary of Defense will not want to support the program as having substantial military value.”

Webb was noted for his verbosity, and this meeting is a good example of that tendency. Webb’s talking took up 90 percent or more of the 46 minutes of the meeting; at times it seems Kennedy had a hard time getting in a word edgewise.

While both houses of Congress had supported the exponential increases in the NASA budget that Kennedy had requested in the aftermath of his May 1961 speech and again in 1962, the House of Representatives, and particularly its NASA authorization and appropriation committees, were in August and September 1963 poised to make significant reductions in the NASA budget. The Committee on Science and Astronautics approved a NASA authorization of $5.2 billion, and NASA was anticipating that amount would be reduced by another $100 million in the House Appropriations Committee. This reduction in the budget—more than ten percent of Kennedy’s request—would put the “before this decade is out” deadline at risk, and would mean that there would be no lunar landing attempt while John F. Kennedy was president.

As he considered his options with regard to Project Apollo, Kennedy was also mulling over returning to a theme he had first raised in his Inaugural Address, where he had said to the Soviet Union, “let us explore the stars together.” As he met with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin on August 26, Kennedy reflected on the high costs of the lunar landing project, saying that “If outer space was not to be used for military purposes, then it became largely a question of scientific prestige, and even this was not very important.” Kennedy suggested that “if each [country] knew the other’s ambitions and plans, it might be easier to avoid all-out competition” and that “if Mr. Khrushchev thought that a cooperative effort was possible, he [Kennedy] would be interested.”

A meeting to plan political tactics

All of these factors provided the background to the September 18 White House meeting, which had been requested by James Webb. Webb’s goals were to bring the president up to date on the implications of the reduction in the NASA FY1964 that was about to emerge from the House Appropriations Committee, to discuss his difficulties in working with the Department of Defense in shaping a national space effort, and to report on indications that the Soviet Union might be increasingly open to expanded space cooperation. Webb also wanted to discuss with Kennedy how to reduce any potential political vulnerability in terms of Kennedy’s 1964 re-election stemming from the president’s support of Project Apollo. Most of the meeting ended up focusing on the tactics that the president and NASA might employ to deal with the lessening political support for Project Apollo and on how best to protect Kennedy from space-related attacks during the 1964 campaign. Possible ways of compensating for the Congressional budget reductions by asking for supplemental appropriations were also discussed.

Webb was noted for his verbosity, and this meeting is a good example of that tendency. Webb’s talking took up 90 percent or more of the 46 minutes of the meeting; at times it seems Kennedy had a hard time getting in a word edgewise. The excerpts that the Kennedy Library has posted include most of what the president said during the meeting; what is missing from the excerpts is the totality of Webb’s verbal barrage. In his presentation to Kennedy, Webb in the space of a few sentences moved from detailed analysis of Congressional personalities and politics (which Kennedy seemed to enjoy) to sweeping statements regarding the contribution of space capabilities to US power. If anyone emerges from this recording as a combination of pragmatic politician and visionary, it is Webb, not Kennedy. Webb’s vision, however, was not tied to long-term space science and exploration but rather to the impacts of space development on US global leadership and improved quality of life at home.

One of the president’s major concerns was what he described as a “still period” in space activity. Project Mercury had had its last flight in May 1963; the Soviet Union had launched the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, in June 1963. The first mission in the next US human spaceflight program, Gemini, was not scheduled until late 1964, and the US intelligence community could make no estimate on when the Soviet Union might launch its next mission. This lull in human spaceflight, thought President Kennedy, made the task of defending Project Apollo particularly difficult. Several times during the September 18 meeting he returns to this point, saying, “unless the Russians did something dramatic—and we don’t have anything dramatic coming up for the next 12 months,” there was “going to be an attack on the budget.”

At the time of the September 18 meeting, Kennedy appeared to be at a low point in his enthusiasm for the political impact of the effort. During the meeting he commented that “I don’t think the space program has much political positives” and “right now space has lost a lot of its glamour.”

What is perhaps the most surprising thing to come out of the tape release is Kennedy’s statements that “unless the Russians do something spectacular, the only way we can defend ourselves is if we put a national security rather than a prestige label” on Apollo and that “we’ve got to wrap around… a military use for what we’re doing and spending in space.” Kennedy at one point asks Webb, “How are we going to do that?” Webb suggests several possibilities, including considering the whole space budget, civilian and military, in a single review and having the Air Force take on the development of an experimental space station testing the impact of long duration flights on humans, a role he compared to military leadership in the exploration of Antarctica. Webb also offers to step aside as NASA Administrator before the 1964 election so that Kennedy could appoint a “military man” to be in charge. (Kennedy’s response to this suggestion is, “I don’t think that is what we ought to do now.”) Webb reports that the Department of Defense and the Air Force have not been cooperative in working with NASA, hoping that if they wait long enough they will recapture the space missions they lost in 1958 when NASA was created. Kennedy responds, “So they want to control it all?” At the end of the meeting, Webb offers to bring together a small group of trusted individuals to provide options to the president with respect to giving Apollo a more military aspect, providing what Kennedy had described during the meeting as a “military shield.”

Despite his public rhetoric in support of Project Apollo, Kennedy from mid-1962 on had worried about the benefits of the undertaking compared to its rapidly increasing costs. Webb had argued in late 1962 that the real goal was space preeminence, but apparently that argument had not convinced the president. At the time of the September 18 meeting, Kennedy appeared to be at a low point in his enthusiasm for the political impact of the effort. During the meeting he commented that “I don’t think the space program has much political positives” and “right now space has lost a lot of its glamour.” While still wanting to go on with Apollo, Kennedy during the meeting mused that “this looks like a hell of a lot of dough to go to the Moon… putting a man on the Moon really is a stunt and it isn’t worth that many billions. Therefore the heat is going to go on unless we say that this has some military justification and not just prestige.”

During the meeting, Webb asked President Kennedy, “What image do you want to present beyond this military image?” Kennedy’s response was revealing in terms of his viewing the space program primarily in domestic political terms: “Obviously you want to present… the kind of improvements in our national life which will come from this—the leadership of the United States and the national security we’ll get from it—all those factors.” Then he added that “the only thing that isn’t today particularly a plus” is the diminishing political support for the program compared to a year earlier.

It is impossible to say in retrospect how much of JFK’s questioning attitude toward the space program as of September 1963 reflected his thoughtful assessment of its long-term pluses and minuses, and how much reflected the shorter-term political situation as Kennedy worried about how he would defend the program as he sought a second term in office. I tend to think that it was the second of these considerations that was dominant. Within two months Kennedy regained his enthusiasm for the enterprise, as he saw in person during a November 16 visit to Cape Canaveral just what was being developed. Kennedy appears to have had some difficulty in valuing the massive space undertaking in abstract terms, but once he could get a hands-on sense of what was involved, he again became (if only for the few days remaining in his life) its ardent supporter.

To the Moon together?

As mentioned earlier, I had for many years thought that the main focus of the September 18 meeting was JFK’s wanting to sound out Administrator Webb’s reactions to the possibility of the president including a proposal for enhanced US-Soviet space cooperation, including a joint mission to the Moon, in his September 20 speech to the UN General Assembly. In reality, however, that cooperative offer was discussed for less than two minutes during the meeting. The president bemoaned the lack of information regarding Soviet intent, saying, “It would be a hell of a lot better if we knew what the hell they were doing—if we knew whether they were going to the Moon and when.” Kennedy told Webb that he intended to say something about US-Soviet cooperation in his UN speech, and Webb responded “I think that’s good; I think that’s good.” Kennedy asked again, “That’s all right?” Webb said, “Yes sir.” There the discussion ended.

Kennedy returned to his father’s home in Palm Beach for the weekend talking about little else than what he had seen at the Cape. His visit to the Cape seems to have resolved many of the doubts he had about the value of the program.

President Kennedy did indeed call for increased space cooperation in his UN address. Over the next month, he waited for a response from Nikita Khrushchev. An ambiguously positive response came on November 1, and on November 12 Kennedy directed James Webb to take the lead in preparing specific proposals for a joint lunar mission. Ten days later the young president was dead of an assassin’s bullet; with his death any chance of the United States and the Soviet Union going to the Moon together disappeared.

Kennedy regains his enthusiasm

In the aftermath of the September 18 Kennedy-Webb meeting, the White House launched in early October the kind of comprehensive review of the total US space effort that Webb had suggested was needed to understand how best to increase the national security justification for Project Apollo. That review concluded, eight days after Kennedy’s assassination, with a November 30 meeting between senior White House officials, James Webb, and Robert McNamara; the new president, Lyndon Johnson, was not present. Out of that meeting came the decision that Apollo would continue on its present course without a restatement of its objectives. Secretary McNamara continued to insist that there were no direct military applications of Apollo capability, but the participants agreed that the program indeed did have broad national security benefits.

With John F. Kennedy’s tragic death, Apollo became a memorial to a fallen president, and no longer a topic for intense political criticism. Whether, if Kennedy had lived to campaign for a second term as president, his support of the lunar landing program would have been a political vulnerability is a question that cannot be answered.

Six days before his death, on November 16, 1963, President Kennedy visited Cape Canaveral. There he was briefed on progress in Project Apollo as he sat before a scale model of the massive Vehicle Assembly Building and Saturn V Apollo launch vehicle. NASA Associate Administrator Robert Seamans, who accompanied Kennedy on the visit, later commented that “maybe for the first time, [he] began to realize the dimensions of these projects.” Kennedy also visited the launch pad where a Saturn I vehicle was being prepared for a December launch; for the first time, the booster’s S-IVB upper stage would be used. Kennedy was told that with this launch the United States would for the first time be able to lift more mass into space than the Soviet Union, and this prospect clearly excited him. Much to the discomfort of his Secret Service detail, Kennedy walked under the booster to get a closer look.

This visit re-energized Kennedy’s excitement about the space program. He returned to his father’s home in Palm Beach for the weekend talking about little else than what he had seen at the Cape. His visit to the Cape seems to have resolved many of the doubts he had about the value of the program. From the start of his time in office, Kennedy had been concerned about the disparity in weight lifting capability between US and Soviet launch vehicles. Learning as he stood before the Saturn 1 booster on November 16 that the United States was about to take the lead in lift capability seems to have convinced the president that the space program was on a positive path. In addition, Kennedy had just signed the order asking for a detailed plan for cooperating with the Soviet Union in going to the Moon. The doubts expressed in the September 18 meeting faded into the background. In remarks prepared for delivery in Dallas on November 22, Kennedy would have said, “the United States of America has no intention of finishing second in space. This effort is expensive—but it pays its way for freedom and for America.”


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