Understanding Kennedy’s Commitment to Apollo

In the American public memory, John F. Kennedy stands as one of the most successful and important of U. S. presidents. This public image, however, is not universally shared by scholars of the presidency and of American gov­ernment. A half century after John Kennedy entered the White House, they disagree on how best to evaluate the Kennedy presidency. Some por­tray Kennedy as “a worldly, perceptive, strong, and judicious leader exud­ing confidence and charisma, deeply affected by the early crises of his administration, recognizing the rapid changes taking place in the world, and responding with a New Frontier of foreign policy initiatives.” Others have portrayed Kennedy as “a shallow, cynical, passionless and vainglorious politician, a traditional Cold Warrior, a weak and vulnerable president not always in control of his own foreign policy.” A more nuanced assessment is that President Kennedy was a “complex figure whose personality embraced elements of both images.”4

I believe that the narrative in the preceding chapters supports this last view, but also suggests that in the case of Kennedy’s commitment to the race to the Moon, it is the more positive of the two general portrayals that best describes his choices and behavior. In deciding to go to the Moon, and then reiterating that choice several times after extensive White House reviews, Kennedy demonstrated with respect to space a steadiness of pur­pose and a clear understanding of the arguments for and against imple­menting his choice. He had the flexibility to pursue a cooperative path if it were open to him, but his judgment that space leadership was in the U. S. national interest made him determined to compete if competition was necessary. Kennedy as he announced his decision to go to the Moon warned the American public and their congressional representatives that the undertaking would be “a heavy burden, and there is no sense in agree­ing or desiring that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space, unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful.” As his science adviser Jerome Wiesner commented, “I think he became convinced that space was the symbol of the twentieth century. It was a decision he made cold bloodedly. He thought it was good for the country.”5

The decision to go to the Moon was a choice that reflected particularly American characteristics, such as the assumption that the U. S. democratic system of government was superior to all alternatives, that the United States was rightfully the exemplar for other nations, and that meeting challenges to the U. S. position as the leading world power justified the use of extensive national resources to achieve success.6 Not only the security of the United States was seen at stake; the decision reflected an almost messianic, expansive drive, one resulting in a sense of destiny and mission, which has for a long time been part of the American world view. The validity of this assumption of American exceptionalism is, of course, open to challenge, but that is not my point. Rather, I conclude that it was this perspective that justified in the minds of President Kennedy and many of his key advisers the decision to begin, as Kennedy said in his speech announcing the decision, what they knew would be an expensive and difficult “great new American enterprise” aimed at winning the battle between “freedom and tyranny” for the “minds of men everywhere who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.”

President Dwight Eisenhower had come to a different judgment of the importance of space achievement (or rather its lack of importance) in terms of preserving U. S. global leadership, which he saw as being based more on a sound defense, fiscal soundness, and social stability. John Kennedy, with his much more activist approach to government, had an opposing view. Kennedy was not at all a visionary in the sense of having a belief in the value of future space exploration; rather, his vision was that space capability would be an essential element of future national power, and thus that the United States should not by default allow the Soviet Union to have a monopoly of large-scale capabilities to operate in “this new ocean.” I believe that this was a wise judgment, one from which the United States has benefitted over the past half century. Perhaps the technical capabilities developed for Apollo were in fact too large and too expensive for subsequent regular use, but the principle that the United States should be the leading spacefaring nation has served the country well.

As Walter McDougall observed, “perhaps Apollo could not be justified, but, by God, we could not not do it.” Even the fiscally conservative Bureau of the Budget (BOB) agreed, commenting in a 1963 analysis that “we are inclined to agree with the conclusion that the fundamental justification at this time for a large-scale space program lies. . . in the unacceptability of a situation in which the Russians continue space activities on a large scale and we do not.”