Wednesday, 25 May 2011

JFK's moon pledge through the wrong end of the telescope

50 years ago today John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a new president struggling to capitalise on the 'honeymoon period' of his first 100 days in office stood before the two houses of Congress addressing both the US political elite and the nation as a whole. His 'Second State of the Union' speech is best remembered for his pledge to send a man to the moon and return him safely to the earth before the decade ended. But perhaps that's because Kennedy was dead two and a half years later and because Johnson ensured his legacy was, indeed, to take America to the moon.

For historians, this popular recollection presents a problem. Kennedy didn't stride to the lectern in triumph - and at the time, the moon pledge did not hugely stand out in a speech that covered an awful lot of other ground before turning to the heavens.  The reality of what Kennedy had to say that day has been distorted by subsequent events and it's important to separate the veneration of a presidency unfulfilled from the nuts and bolts of a middling Kennedy speech.

The following is a portion of my Masters Dissertation, completed for Brunel University in 2009 and is copyright Mark Shanahan 2011

Hindsight would have it that Kennedy stood before Congress on May 25th 1961 with the moon landing at the centre piece of a directive that swiftly galvanised 400,000 Americans in every state of the Union into a relentless drive to the moon where this time, the Soviets would finally be beaten. However, it is worth deconstructing the myth to look at the reality of Kennedy’s speech and the degree of direction it actually provided.

Undoubtedly the speech was meant to revive the spirit of optimism of the early weeks of the Presidency and, in the run-up to the June summit with Khrushchev was planned to show Khrushchev that Kennedy was not the callow youth the older leader took him for. But the speech gained so much resonance across the world and across four decades of regular repetition not as a whole, but because one section, towards the end, was pounced upon by the media and endlessly replayed – especially after Kennedy’s death, and most especially once the pledge to put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth before this decade is out had been achieved.

The speech was a set-piece: it was unusual for the President to address Congress directly, but Kennedy valued the public platform and knew it was essential to recapture the high ground at a time when his new presidency could lose all momentum and credibility due to the body blows inflicted on it by the Bay of Pigs failure and Gagarin’s success.

On May 25th, the Washington Post remarked on the short notice given that the President would address Congress in person saying: “There was no public expectation that the President would speak on urgent national needs.” The article later stated: “Ever since the Cuban invasion fiasco, the bloom has been off the bright rose of the early days of the Administration. Now may be the time to recreate the spirit of the January 30th State of the Nation Speech.” The networks were primed to take the speech live and transcripts were made available for print journalists to have as soon as Kennedy stepped down from the podium.

But the moon announcement actually comprised only the last fifth of the speech. Before reaching that most famous passage, Kennedy had talked about stimulating the economy at home, fostering global progress by fighting the advance of communism, extending the US Information Agency and tripling the budget for fallout shelters at home – essentially all the issues raised in the media and rejected by Eisenhower a little over two years previously. The space passage came after calls for an Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, almost as an afterthought. That’s certainly how the Los Angeles Times reported it the following day, in an editorial that was distinctly critical of Kennedy’s address. Robert T Harman wrote: “We expected extraordinary proposals....but he outlines rather ordinary plans...leaked to favourite TV and newspaper reporters days and weeks ago, so there was little impact of surprise. (The speech) was something of a dud....slightly spiced with a 10-year space adventure which Mr. Kennedy didn’t seem too certain of himself.”

The speech did receive national front page coverage and the space pledge drew the headlines. But equal focus on the analysis was placed on the other elements of the speech. Don Shannon, writing the lead news article for the Los Angeles Times, for instance noted that Kennedy had “urged Congress to back a multi-billion programme to put an American on the moon and counter the Soviet Union on earth.” He reflected Congress was split on the ‘omnibus’ plan and “noticeably cool on all except his call for a US challenge in space.” It is perhaps unsurprising that the Los Angeles Times was critical of Kennedy’s speech. California had backed Nixon in the 1960 election (just), and the Times was noted for its conservative stance.

The Democrat-leaning Washington Post was slightly more positive – but only slightly. In its news lead, John G Norris reported: “He (Kennedy) committed the United States to an all-out race to overtake Russia in space and to be the first to put men on the moon...”It is time”, said the President, for a great new American enterprise; time for this nation to take a clearly-leading role in space achievement.”

The news report chimed with the intent of the President, picking up on his request for a spending boost for space, arms and the jobless, but undercut this when stating that the proposals would be unsatisfactory to liberals since they favoured big business. Equally Norris noted, they would not satisfy conservatives since the spending boosts would not go far enough. Interestingly, in the ‘Freedom Doctrine’ editorial within the same issue, going to the moon does not even rate a mention.

That pledge is often reported today as a directive for NASA. But that was not within Kennedy’s power. Instead Kennedy was posing a question – would Congress agree to the proposal and would it authorise the funding? Congress could have said no, indeed with just 15 minutes of actual space flight behind them and a very uncertain path to the moon, logic appears to have been outmanoeuvred by the strength of Kennedy’s rhetoric.

Two Republican Representatives are quoted opposing Kennedy’s call for support: The Los Angeles Times reports Representative Steven Derounian from New York saying: “Not once did I hear him say a word pledging that we would not retreat one inch from the communist tyrants. This was a tired speech full of apologies.” Fellow member of the House, Representative Glenard P Lipscomb added: “This was a lot of words with not enough justification of needs.”

A counterview comes from James Baughman, biographer of American media giant Henry R Luce, the proprietor of Life, Time, and Fortune magazines. In an email exchange with this writer, Baughman recalled his research on Luce and the space programme, noting: “I’m struck, even now, by how few sceptics I could find, in the press and politics, regarding the space programme. I can think of only one senator, Norris Cotton of New Hampshire, who gently questioned JFK’s man on the moon proposal.”

With the hindsight of the President’s assassination and the subsequent success in landing a man on the moon in 1969, the rest of the speech has been forgotten. The final section has been raised to a mythical level at odds with its immediate reaction. It actually took a lot of legwork on Capitol Hill by Vice President Johnson, already the father of space legislation, to ensure that Congress supported Kennedy’s man on the moon funding request. This was achieved by promising a space-industry job boost, with the programme of works for Gemini and Apollo divided up among contractors in every State of the Union.

Kennedy was driven by political motives unrelated to any commitment to a moon landing. He had no great scientific or even romantic attachment to the race to the moon, but had done his homework prior to the May 25th speech. On April 20th, just after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy wrote to Johnson, the space expert in the Administration, asking for the answers to five questions: “Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets by putting a laboratory in space, or by a trip around the moon, or by a rocket to land on the moon, or by a rocket to go to the moon and back with a man? Is there any other space programme which promises dramatic results in which we could win?” Johnson assembled a committee of advisors including Frank Stanton, head of the broadcaster CBS, Donald Cook of American electric Power, George Brown from engineering company, Brown and Root, Air force Missile Chief Bernard Schriever, Senator Kerr, the newly-appointed chairman of the Senate Space Committee and NASA Administrator Jim Webb. In both a telephone conversation with Johnson and through a detailed five page memo, Von Braun provided a detailed argument to go to the moon. Johnson was convinced, and pulled the rest of the panel towards his view.

By April 23rd, Johnson had provided the answers and Kennedy had shifted his position from his immediate comments following Gagarin’s launch. At his press conference that day, he said: “If we can get to the moon before the Russians, then we should.” Johnson’s panel had convinced Kennedy that a lunar landing was viable for the Americans – but not for the Russians who were way behind on technology and would need an unfeasibly large rocket to lift their larger, heavier technology out of earth orbit and on the way to the moon. That panel was probably swayed more by Johnson’s strength of feeling than by a logical belief that a moon landing could be achieved within a decade. Even his phrasing: “Before this decade is out”, gave Kennedy a get-out card. Even if he fulfilled a complete two-term presidency, Kennedy would almost certainly be out of office before the moon landing. If it failed, it would not be on his watch – and potentially could be laid at the feet of Johnson, the Administration’s most persuasive space advocate. And that would likely be the case if the Soviets got there first as well.

Whereas the media had initially set the space agenda for Eisenhower, Kennedy had turned the tables. He was now attempting to set the agenda, using the New Frontier of space as a way to regain standing and challenge the Soviets to what Wolfe describes as ‘single combat’ on the Cold War battlefield. Domestically, the speech coalesced all thinking around space on one goal. The public, press and networks were now focused on one message that summed up the “invention, innovation imagination, decision” of Americans.

The President’s claim that: “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long range exploration of space, and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish” recalled the romance and adventure of Lewis and Clark. Coupled with the relief and outpouring of positivity that Shepard’s successful Mercury flight had achieved, and the carefully-nuanced image of an All-American Astronaut elite ready to struggle against the unknown travails of space, the mixture was potent. Congress would never turn Kennedy down, and the perceived failure to get an American into space first could be turned into a positive: a catalyst for America’s next great adventure. However, not all the elements were truly aligned yet, and a Gallup poll completed as Kennedy spoke showed that the public remained sceptical of the President’s pledge being delivered. Asked whether participants viewed the US or Russia as being ahead in the Space Race, the response was evenly split. And on which would be first to send a man to the moon, 34% said the US, 33% said Russia and 33% didn’t know . There was clearly still much work to be done on public opinion.

Rep. Lipscomb’s comments on the speech: “This was a lot of words with not enough justification of needs” were prescient. Kennedy had put the building blocks in place to turn the media and public opinion on space from adversary through ally to involved partner. He had set a goal that defined the next lap of the space race. He had made space a core part of the Administration’s policy. He had control of the agency that would deliver space success. But still there were sceptics in the media and in Congress. The US had just 15 minutes of space experience and was clearly still some way behind the Soviets. The moon seemed an awfully long way away.

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