Kennedy Accepts Recommendations

The recommendations contained in the Webb-McNamara report did not stay secret for long. In a story dated May 9, The New York Times, based on a leak from Senator Robert Kerr, headlined a page one story: “600 Million More Planned to Spur Space Programs.” The story reported in some detail the specific recommendations of the report, but did not mention the pro­posal to set a lunar landing as a national goal.12

By the time President Kennedy met on the morning of May 10 with his advisers, including Sorensen, Wiesner, and Bundy; budget officials Bell and Staats; Webb and Dryden from NASA; and Welsh from the Space Council, to review the Webb-McNamara report, his decision to accept the report’s recommendations was almost foreordained. McGeorge Bundy, who was somewhat skeptical of the validity of the arguments in support of setting the lunar landing goal, suggests that Kennedy “had pretty much made up his mind to go” and was not particularly interested in hearing arguments to the contrary.13 It was thus at this meeting that Kennedy finalized his policy decision to go to the Moon. Kennedy did ask the BOB to carry out its normal assessment of the financial and policy implications of his decision before committing to the specific programs and budget recommendations contained in the report.

In parallel with Lyndon Johnson’s review of the space program, others within the Kennedy administration had been reviewing issues related to the defense budget, military assistance programs, foreign aid, civil defense, and overseas information programs. Sorensen says that “since space, like these other items, obviously did have some bearing upon our status in the world, it was decided to combine the results of all those studies with the President’s recommendations [on space] in the special message to Congress,” which was billed as a second State of the Union Address on “Urgent National Needs.” Sorensen checked with the Library of Congress regarding whether past presi­dents had addressed a joint session of Congress at times other than the annual State of the Union speech, and was told that while President Eisenhower had done so only once in his eight years in office, President Harry Truman had made eight such speeches, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt five. There was this ample precedent for a second address to Congress less than four months after Kennedy had spoken on the State of the Union. The Kennedy address was originally scheduled for May 23, but then was postponed for two days, until May 25, 1961.14

There is some evidence that during the two weeks after Kennedy approved the Webb-McNamara memorandum his economic advisers evaluated the likely impact of the increased space spending Kennedy would propose. Their conclusion was that these expenditures were neither large enough nor prop­erly designed to inject enough stimulus into the economy to by themselves mitigate the ongoing recession. Walter Heller, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg proposed that Kennedy approve a substantial public works program rather than (or in addi­tion to) new space spending. Such a program, they thought, would provide the needed stimulus. Kennedy turned down this suggestion; it is reported that Heller viewed Kennedy’s decision to spend money on the space pro­gram rather than on public works as one of Heller’s worst defeats during the Kennedy administration.15