Kennedy Proposes a Joint Lunar Mission
Mid-1963 developments—improved U. S.-Soviet relations, growing criticisms of the U. S. Moon program, White House concerns about its costs, and possible signals of Soviet openness to collaboration—formed the background against which President Kennedy decided in September 1963 to include a suggestion of U. S.-Soviet cooperation in going to the Moon in his September 20 address before the United Nations General Assembly.
JFK Still Interested
Whether or not Kennedy had ever given up on the idea of such cooperation during the difficult days of 1961 and 1962, the changed situation in 1963 made him again interested in actively pursuing the idea. As noted above, in his July 17 press conference, Kennedy for the first time had publicly stated his preference for a cooperative approach to lunar exploration.
The United States and the Soviet Union agreed to a Limited Test Ban Treaty on July 25, six weeks after JFK’s American University speech, and the relationship between the two nuclear powers was less tense then at any time since Kennedy had come to the White House. As part of
Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s agenda when he was in Moscow in early August to sign the treaty, Kennedy asked Rusk to raise the space cooperation possibility with Nikita Khrushchev. When Rusk did so, Khrushchev responded only with a quip: “Sure, I’ll send a man to the moon. You bring him back.”24 Kennedy himself discussed the possibility in an August 26 meeting with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. At the end of a wide ranging conversation, the president “raised the question of activities in outer space.” He talked about possible cooperative projects, “including going to the moon.” Dobrynin found this “an interesting thought” and told Kennedy he would raise it with Khrushchev, saying that he was aware that Khrushchev was interested in “more cooperation in outer space.” Kennedy told the Soviet ambassador that “if each 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 would be interested.”25
On September 10, U. S. ambassador Foy Kohler visited Soviet foreign minister Gromyko in Moscow. Kohler referred to President Kennedy’s August 26 conversation with Dobrynin, and asked whether the Soviet government “had given consideration to the President’s broad, imaginative proposal for joint cooperation in outer space projects and if he would be prepared to discuss this subject” during his forthcoming visit to the United States to attend the United Nations General Assembly’s opening sessions. Gromyko indicated that the Soviet Union “agreed in principle with the idea and he would of course be prepared to examine any specific proposals [that the] US might have in mind.”26
Kohler reported this conversation to the president at a September 17 White House meeting. Kennedy first asked Kohler for his views on the concept of a joint lunar mission. Kohler told Kennedy that Gromyko had found the suggestion “interesting”; however, Kohler thought that the “Soviets were both intrigued and puzzled by what the president might have in mind.” Thus Gromyko, while giving a “cautious welcome” to the president’s idea, had asked that “we come up with some concrete suggestions.” Kennedy replied that “while this was not an idea that he had considered in detail, he continued to be interested in developing it and thought it would in fact be useful, for example, and save a great deal of expense if we could come to some kind of agreement with the USSR on the problem of sending a man to the moon.” Kohler repeated that he thought that “there might be some real interest in developing cooperation in this field since Khrushchev had a problem of allocation of extremely limited resources” and that made carrying out Kennedy’s proposal “relatively simple.”27
Speechwriter Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., may not have been aware of these presidential initiatives and conversations when he inserted language proposing a joint U. S.-Soviet moon mission in his draft of the UN address, although it is hard to conclude that he independently came up with the same idea. But there is no doubt that the concept had been widely discussed by President Kennedy and others between July and September 1963.