Kennedy Decides to Make the Offer

The meeting with Ambassador Kohler on September 17 was apparently the final confirmation of Soviet interest Kennedy needed to decide to insert the cooperative offer into his United Nations speech. Kennedy kept a pre­viously scheduled September 18 appointment with NASA administrator James Webb to discuss a variety of space policy and budget issues. In a memorandum to the president in advance of the meeting, national secu­rity adviser McGeorge Bundy reported that Webb had called him to say that there had been “more forthcoming noises about cooperation from Blagonravov in the UN” and that “Webb himself is quite open to an explo­ration of possible cooperation with the Soviets” in the lunar landing effort. Bundy added that “the obvious choice is whether to press for cooperation or to continue to use the Soviet space effort as a spur to our own,” and that his “own hasty judgment is that the central question here is whether to compete or to cooperate with the Soviets in a manned lunar landing.” Bundy noted that:

1 If we compete, we should do everything we can to unify all agencies of the United States Government in a combined space program which comes as near to our existing pledges as possible;

2 If we cooperate, the pressure comes off, and we can easily argue that it was our crash effort on ’61 and ’62 which made the Soviets ready to cooper­ate.

Bundy added: “I am for cooperation if it is possible, and I think we need to make a really major effort inside and outside the government to find out in fact whether in fact it can be done.”28 Bundy’s preference for a coopera­tive approach was an important complement to Kennedy’s own inclinations, given the increasing reliance that the president was placing on Bundy’s views on national security and foreign policy issues.

By the time he met with Webb on September 18, Kennedy had all but finally decided to proceed with the cooperative proposal. According to Webb, “the President said that he was thinking of making another effort with respect to cooperation with the Russians, and that he might do it before the United Nations, and he said ‘Are you in sufficient control to prevent my being undercut in NASA if I do that?’ So in a sense he didn’t ask me if he should do it; he told me he thought he should do it and wanted to do it and that he wanted some assurance from me as to whether he would be undercut at NASA.”29

Robert Gilruth, the director of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, the NASA facility with the lead role in the Moon mission, on September 17 (at which point he had no idea that the President would pro­pose just that in three days) had “ruled out as impractical” the suggestion of a joint mission, even though the proposal “would be very interesting.” The article reporting Gilruth’s remarks appeared in The New York Times on the morning of September 18, and was probably the reason Kennedy asked

Webb at their meeting that day if he could control the NASA response to his cooperative proposal. Harvey and Ciccoritti suggest that “actually Webb had serious reservations about the enterprise, but felt that since the President was telling him and not asking him, it would be best to simply go along with the President’s wishes.” Webb’s fear was that damage might be done the U. S. program without any real prospect of achieving anything insofar as the Russians were concerned. Webb also felt that there had not been suf­ficient consultation within the administration and with congressional lead­ers. Indeed, given the last minute insertion of the cooperative proposal into the speech, no one in the Congress had been consulted. Neither, appar­ently, had Vice President Johnson or at least his Space Council staff; Edward Welsh called the proposal “startling” and wondered whether “it will have any impact other than to show our willingness to cooperate and possibly to suggest further slow-downs by the Congress.” The staff of NASA was also not happy to hear of the president’s intent; its effect was “to cause consterna­tion in the Space Agency because it had not been consulted on a matter so vital to its objectives and timetable.”30

On September 19, Soviet foreign minister Gromyko in his address to the UN General Assembly suggested that following the Limited Test Ban Treaty with additional steps in relaxing global tensions was desirable; this was inter­preted at the White House as a further indication that the time was ripe for a dramatic U. S. proposal on space cooperation. The cooperative proposal was incorporated in Theodore Sorensen’s final draft of Kennedy’s United Nations speech, prepared only on September 19. The same day, Bundy tele­phoned James Webb and told him that the president had decided to go ahead with the proposal. Webb “immediately telephoned directions around to the [NASA] centers to make no comment of any kind or description on this matter.”31

Thus the stage was set. Kennedy’s September 20 address was intended to set out the role of the United Nations in his strategy of peace. This was so because, he proclaimed, in the organization’s development, “rests the only true alternative to war, and war appeals no longer as a rational alterna­tive.” Kennedy noted that “the clouds have lifted a little” as result of various U. S.-Soviet interactions over the preceding months, leading to a “pause in the Cold War.” Such a pause, he suggested, could lead to the Soviet Union and the United States, together with their allies, finding additional areas of agreement. It was in this context that Kennedy proposed that the United States and the Soviet Union join together, so that the first people to travel to the moon “would not be representatives of a single nation, but representa­tives of all our countries.”32