The Space Race and American Diplomacy, 1957-1966


In my research project I seek to answer the question of how the space race impacted American diplomacy during the 1960s. Diplomatic historians have come to characterize the decade as a period of cooling tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, in which confrontations between Washington and Moscow shifted from Europe to the geographic periphery. The Berlin Ultimatum and the Cuban Missile Crisis brought Khrushchev and Kennedy to a realization of how close their nations stood to nuclear war. This realization produced a détente in Cold War brinkmanship, as Maoist China and Third World revolutionaries like Fidel Castro assumed a greater role in championing international communism. Here I argue that the space race reflected this dynamic.

My impression is that the space race catalyzed American diplomacy. Though traditional narratives of space exploration during the 1960s fixate on the paranoia that animated policymakers and the public in both the United States and the USSR, space actually presented an opportunity for American diplomats to pursue peaceful cooperation with their Soviet counterparts. Furthermore, it allowed the United States to demonstrate its earnestness in extending the benefits of space exploration to other nations. Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson established a policy of peaceful and multilateral cooperation in space to which American diplomats adhered throughout the decade. In this sense the space race not only became a part of the larger process of détente but also strengthened existing ties between the United States and its allies. I see this dynamic playing out in two ways.

First, America successfully resisted the impulse to militarize space. It did so by cooperating with the Soviet Union. The United States sought continually to guarantee that space would be used for peaceful purposes. This policy was not an idealistic stance on the part of American diplomats. Rather, it indicated a confluence of U.S. interests and ideals in space. A realistic appraisal of the likelihood that the moon and other celestial bodies could be converted into missile bases ensured that American policymakers would pursue a cooperative relationship with the Soviet Union in their efforts to prevent the arms race from expanding beyond the earth’s atmosphere.

Secondly, America made use of its unmanned satellite program to create a sense that other countries had a real interest in pursuing space exploration alongside the United States. The most common criticism of the American space program, both at home and abroad, centered on the irrelevance of a moon shot and its role as a bellwether in the U.S.-Soviet rivalry. By deploying satellites that provided immediate benefits to its allies and prospective benefits to the developing world, the United States sought to persuade other nations that it was not solely concerned with its own prestige. In this way the United States ensured that the diplomatic benefits of the space race would not pertain only to its bilateral relations with the Soviet Union.

My research consists of four parts. First, I look at the secondary literature on America’s efforts in space during the decade following President Kennedy’s special message to Congress in May of 1961. In that address, delivered three and a half years after the launch of Sputnik, Kennedy committed the United States to landing a man on the moon and returning him to Earth safely. Secondly, I look at newspaper coverage of the space race. This will give me some sense of how American efforts in space were portrayed to both domestic and foreign audiences, and how those audiences responded. Thirdly, I listen to a series of phone recordings between President Lyndon Johnson and NASA Administrator James Webb. These provide a window into where the space program fell within the context of other diplomatic and political priorities of the Johnson administration. Fourthly, I engage in archival research at the LBJ Library, focusing on confidential American discussions surrounding a series of outer space treaties and the administration’s public statements regarding American space achievement. These documents provide a behind-the-scenes look at the formation of American space policy and the extent to which the public rhetoric surrounding it reflected the priorities of American policymakers.

Secondary Literature Review

Popular conceptions of the space race, then and now, reflect a fixation on bipolar competition that American policymakers did not maintain. The narrative that these policymakers established and that came to govern U.S. actions in outer space has received short shrift. It is this historiographical shortcoming that I seek to address in my research paper. Those who have written about the space race view it primarily as a competition for prestige and technological advantage between the United States and the Soviet Union. With notable exceptions, they overlook its contributions to American diplomacy.

Bruce J. Schulman sees the space race as a key element in Johnson’s rise to the presidency. Johnson, argues Schulman, capitalized on Americans’ concern over the launch of Sputnik to bolster his national profile. Confronted by northern liberals’ suspicion of his southern roots, he meant to “prove himself presidential timber” by “establish[ing] himself as a leader in foreign policy and national defense.”[1] Space provided him with an opportunity to do so. “Sputnik alarmed the American public,” says Schulman. “Many feared that the Soviets had moved ahead in the arms race, that the United States faced a scientific crisis, and that Russian missiles would soon rain down on American cities.”[2] Spurred on by the prospect of bringing jobs to his native Texas and by a memo speculating that judicious management of the Sputnik issue would put him in the White House in 1960, Johnson walked a line in subsequent committee hearings between emphasizing the immediacy of space research and “reassur[ing] his fellow citizens that the United States would soon overtake its rival.”[3] In addition to legislation creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Johnson in 1958 pushed through Congress the National Defense Education Act (NDEA). For Schulman, then, the space race represented a marriage between Johnson’s presidential ambitions and widespread fears over America’s supposed technological inferiority.

The Lyndon B. Johnson Library’s Presidential Timeline adopts a similar narrative. Though it does mention Senator Johnson’s 1958 speech at the United Nations, in which he emphasized “American support for international cooperation and peace in space,” the Cold War looms large in its space age exhibit. After he requested that Congress place the National Aeronautics and Space Council under Johnson’s supervision, President Kennedy sent his vice president a memo “asking several questions on how the United States could achieve and maintain a lead over the Soviet Union in space.”[4] Johnson responded eight days later with a set of proposals that included landing men on the moon. This suggestion would make it into Kennedy’s May 25, 1961 special message to Congress. In this way the Presidential Timeline, like Schulman, locates the origins of the American space program firmly in the U.S.-Soviet rivalry. But the Timeline acknowledges in a way that Schulman does not later developments in the space race by observing, “Despite the tensions of the race to the moon with the Soviet Union, Lyndon B. Johnson throughout his career as Senator, Vice President, and President sought to assure that outer space was protected as a frontier of international cooperation and peace.” It adduces the two outer space treaties that were concluded under his tenure as evidence of this claim. The Presidential Timeline goes some way toward asserting that in actual practice the space race facilitated American diplomacy.

Sergei Khrushchev, Von Hardesty, and Gene Eisman do not. In his Foreword to Epic Rivalry: The Inside Story of the Soviet and American Space Race, Khurshchev dwells on the paranoia that motivated the launch of Sputnik from a Soviet perspective. U-2 flights over Moscow and Leningrad, begun in July of 1956, combined with America’s stockpile of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), B-52 bombers, and Polaris submarines to create a belief among Soviet rulers that “the Kremlin had no option but to oppose America’s offensive and destructive air power.”[5] Sergei Korolev, the Soviet counterpart to NASA’s Wernher von Braun, used these fears to garner support for an unmanned space satellite: he “knew that persuading the leaders of the Soviet state to spend funds on ‘nothing’ would be difficult. But they might be interested in setting a new world record.”[6] Concerned that American scientists might exploit a meeting of the International Geophysical Year coordinating committee to flaunt the successful launch of their Jupiter C rocket, “Korolev…ordered his staff to work day and night in order to launch his satellite ahead of the Americans.”[7] Khrushchev portrays a Soviet leadership frantic for any technological victory over the Americans.

In their introduction, Hardesty and Eisman shift the focus to the United States. Reflecting on “the tremendous impact the 1957 launch of Sputnik made on America,” they identify as one of its first casualties “their [i.e. Americans’] cherished sense of superiority in the realm of modern technology.”[8] Wayne Biddle uses these concerns to explain Wernher von Braun’s transition from director of Hitler’s V-2 program to NASA’s foremost astrophysicist: “Von Braun moved so seamlessly from Peenemünde, Pomerania to Huntsville, Alabama because millions of people wanted him to, because the secrecy and some of the obsessions of the Third Reich were not entirely different from those of postwar America.”[9] Kennedy, say Hardesty and Eisman, sought to rectify this imbalance: “While not personally interested in space, [John F. Kennedy] came to recognize its importance in the Cold War context.”

Foy D. Kohler, American ambassador to Moscow from 1962 to 1966, is unique in his appreciation for the peaceful and cooperative tenor of American efforts in space. He outlines his views in the foreword to U.S.-Soviet Cooperation in Space. Taking a broader look at how the space race reflects other scientific priorities of the American government, Kohler observes, “Science-technology is in itself the source and object for major international programs in which the U.S. has become increasingly engaged, as, for example, The U.N. Conference on Human Environment, the World Weather Watch, [and] the International Satellite Communications System,” among several other initiatives.[10] He goes on to say that “the U.S., although clearly heralding that it intended to develop capabilities ‘second to none’ in space, has consistently sought to join with the USSR in reducing the risks and costs of competition in space, as well as enhancing the worldwide benefits of the space endeavor, through some sort of cooperative relationship.”[11] Kohler incorporates into his narrative Concurrent Resolution 332, which in 1958 expressed the desire of both houses of Congress that “the nations of the world should join in the establishment of plans for the peaceful exploration of outer space,” as well as the National Space Act’s provision that NASA “engage in a program of international cooperation in work done pursuant to this Act.” Kohler sees the diplomatic potential of American space exploration encompassing both the Soviet Union and other nations. It is with this narrative that my research paper agrees. A desire to “beat the Russians” dictated public reactions to milestones of space exploration during the 1960s, but for those who had any influence over American policy space was primarily a diplomatic enterprise, and a productive one at that.

The Soviet Union and Demilitarization

The space race ameliorated American relations with the Soviet Union. It did so by creating opportunities for American and Soviet diplomats to work cooperatively towards the demilitarization of space. To a large extent, this was by design. President Eisenhower was reluctant to turn space into another front in the Cold War. In a February 15, 1958 letter to Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin, Eisenhower chided the Soviets for “belittling” American attempts to guarantee that “outer space should be perpetually dedicated to peaceful purposes.”[12] Citing a speech that Khrushchev delivered in Minsk, he challenged the Soviet line that America sought “to prohibit that which it did not possess”:

A terrible new menace can be seen in the making. That menace is to be found in the use of outer space for war purposes. The time to deal with that menace is now. It would be tragic if the Soviet leaders were blind or indifferent toward this menace as they were apparently blind or indifferent to the atomic and nuclear menace at its inception a decade ago.[13]

Eisenhower tempers this accusatory tone by hoping that the United States and the Soviet Union “may…consider and devise international procedures to give reality to the idea of use of outer space for peace only.”[14] Later in 1958, Eisenhower dispatched then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson to the United Nations in order to emphasize “American support for international peace and cooperation in space.” Eisenhower’s stance was not entirely idealistic. Budgetary concerns encouraged him to reduce the tension surrounding space exploration. Though “Eisenhower…feared an unbridled pursuit of technology for military or civilian ends,” he also “was hesitant to pursue expensive space programs, often preferring more narrowly defined scientific goals rather than manned missions.”[15] Eisenhower’s priorities when it came to space revolved around his broader effort to cut defense spending.

President Kennedy, though more eager than his predecessor to surpass the Soviet Union in space achievement, saw peaceful cooperation in that arena as the key to American supremacy. There can be little doubt that his initial interest in space was of an overwhelmingly competitive character. U.S. Information Agency polls conducted between 1957, the year in which Sputnik was launched, and 1962, when the Soviets put their first Cosmos satellites into orbit, showed a clear increase in Soviet prestige abroad. Furthermore, they betrayed “a corresponding decrease in the United States’ prestige.”[16] The concern such polls created became explicit in Kennedy’s special message to Congress in May of 1961. “They [i.e. the Soviets] make the most of their scientific resources,” said the president. The implications for the free world were grave:

If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks [i.e. Yuri Gagarin’s becoming the first man to orbit the Earth] should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of people everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination which road they should take.[17]

Kennedy had previously shifted the chairmanship of the National Aeronautics and Space Council from Congress to his vice president, asking Johnson in a memo shortly after his inauguration to come up with ways the United States might assume a lead in space. Johnson responded in a memo eight days later, suggesting that the United States land men on the moon. Kennedy made this proposal the linchpin of his address. Here we see Kennedy’s strategy of “Flexible Response” in action, an instance of his willingness to meet global communism on whatever terms it chose.

Yet, the goal of surpassing the Soviets in space having been firmly established, Kennedy came to see peaceful cooperation as a strategic imperative. The Cuban Missile Crisis must have played some role in altering Kennedy’s tone. The same spirit that animated his reconciliatory speech at American University and the exchange of telegrams between Castro and Khrushchev in October of 1962, in which Khrushchev tried to moderate the Cuban dictator’s fears of an American invasion and his frustration with a lack of Soviet zeal in fighting capitalism, came to influence America’s approach to space. In August of 1963, the United States and the Soviet Union concluded a limited nuclear test ban treaty that forbid all but underground tests, endorsing two months later “a U.N. resolution prohibiting nuclear weapons from space.”[18] Kennedy even went so far as to propose a joint U.S.-USSR moon shot on the floor of the U.N. General Assembly in September of 1963. When Representative Albert Thomas sent the president a letter asking if his proposal amounted to a change in U.S. policy, Kennedy replied:

The position of the U.S. is clear. If cooperation is possible, we mean to cooperate, and we shall do so from a position made strong and solid by our national effort in space…The U.S. will continually target on cooperation with other groups of nations, with or without the USSR.[19]

Former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow (1962-66) Foy D. Kohler comments on this exchange, “If the USSR did not join in from the first, it was anticipated that Moscow would find itself under increasingly strong pressures to change its policies as the U.S. attained success with other nations.”[20] Like Eisenhower, Kennedy undertook peaceful cooperation with the Soviet Union in space not out of pure idealism, but rather out of the consideration that peaceful cooperation served U.S. interests.

This fortuitous concatenation of circumstances would hold under Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy’s change of tone after the Cuban Missile Crisis combined with Khrushchev’s skepticism over a moon shot to push Johnson towards cooperation with the Soviet Union. “Khrushchev,” says the Soviet premier’s son Sergei, “was in no hurry to accept Kennedy’s [May 25, 1961] challenge.”[21] “It was one thing to set records with readily available R-7” missiles, one of which had sent Sputnik into orbit, but “it was entirely different to undertake another high-stakes project without any practical benefits.”[22] The Johnson White House saw diplomatic potential in this indifference. Johnson received a call from NASA Administrator James Webb four days after Kennedy’s assassination. Webb tells Johnson that space, “if approached…secretly and without too much fanfare out in the open,” was a topic on which he and Khrushchev “might be able to come closer on…than many other matters.”[23] He goes on to mention Kennedy’s proposal for a joint moon venture with the Soviet Union, saying “we should go ahead with it.” Then Webb complains that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara wants to sit down with the White House budget director, sequester funds for a military space station, and bring the Gemini program under the direction of the Air Force.

McNamara was not alone in his push to militarize space. In response to the Soviet Luna 2, the first unmanned spacecraft to reach the moon, the Army developed a program called “Project Horizon.” The declassified document outlining the Army’s proposals begins with this assertion: “There is a requirement for a manned military outpost on the moon.”[24] According to a CNN report, “George Washington University has collected the papers” pertaining to ‘Project Horizon’ “and published them on its National Security Archive website.”[25] These papers convey an interest in detonating nuclear explosives on the moon and in space. “The foremost intent” of such detonations, say the papers, was “to impress the world with the prowess of the United States.”

Webb’s concerns about these proposals meshed well with Johnson’s outlook on the Soviet Union and the American military. “Johnson’s own anticommunism was not particularly rigid or virulent,” at least as it pertained to Moscow.[26] “He truly hoped for some form of rapprochement with the Soviet Union,” and in his memoirs he listed a July 1, 1968 treaty on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons among his most important accomplishments. Furthermore, Johnson harbored suspicions of the military. Schulman credits him with a great deal of sympathy toward Undersecretary of State George Ball’s objections to escalating American involvement in Vietnam: “He too doubted that more men would carry the day, he too worried about fighting a white man’s war in Asia and defending corrupt regimes in Saigon, but he could not accept Ball’s argument that he could pull out without damaging America’s standing in the world.”[27] Johnson was fond of complaining that “Generals know only two words-spend and bomb.”[28] This outlook placed him alongside Eisenhower and Kennedy in his favorable outlook towards peaceful cooperation in space.

To a remarkable degree, American diplomats successfully pursued the course laid out by Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. A declassified memorandum from the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency outlined the American stance on an April 18, 1962 U.N. proposal “on peaceful cooperation in space.” It lists several benefits to peaceful cooperation, among which it might permit “joint use of some of the resources and talents of the several national space programs.”[29] President Johnson’s diplomats pursued this specific recommendation with an eye towards the Soviet Union. An April 1966 presidential draft statement announcing American efforts to conclude a U.N. treaty banning weapons of mass destruction from celestial bodies included the provision that “astronauts of one country should give any necessary help to astronauts of another country.”[30] This proposal was incorporated into the final treaty. Article 5 of the U.N. Treaty Governing Exploration of the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies stipulates that “States in a position to do so shall, where requested or required by the circumstances, render assistance to nationals of other states engaged in activities on celestial bodies.”[31] During the 1960s, the crews of every manned space flight were either exclusively American or exclusively Soviet. It is therefore tempting to read “two” for “several” in the USADA’s memo.

Backroom negotiations over the celestial bodies treaty at the United Nations headquarters in New York strengthen this inclination. In a confidential State Department memo from the U.S. delegation to Secretary of State Dean Rusk sent May 11, 1966, after the Americans had begun circulating a draft treaty among other delegations, Ambassador Arthur Goldberg recounts some reservations he encountered from Soviet ambassadors Morozov and Aldoshin. The two Russians asked “if past efforts on assistance and return, and on liability, should now be put aside and noted continuing concern [sic] of astronauts as well as specific mandate to continue in these areas.”[32] Goldberg responded that the Americans “did not intend to exclude anything” and that simultaneous discussions over multiple topics was possible. If returning the first lunar crew to earth safely was part of Kennedy’s initial challenge to the Soviets in May of 1961, the manner in which American and Soviet diplomats provided for the safe return of flight crews prior to that watershed assumed a much less confrontational character.

The most remarkable thing about the 1966 Celestial Bodies Treaty, emblematic of a contradiction underlying the entire space race, is the contrast between the competitive impulse that led to its promulgation and the cooperative impulse that dictated its passage. There can be no doubt about what precipitated America’s proposal of a celestial bodies treaty. A hand-written memo by Charles E. Johnson dated April 6, 1966 notes, “At lunch yesterday LBJ appr’d [sic] the treaty in principle and requested matter be kept completely confidential until he can use it in a speech at the end of the month.”[33] Charles Johnson spells out precisely what is meant by the last clause: “He’s writing to preempt other side moving first.” Speculation had been rampant that the Soviet delegation in New York was preparing to introduce a celestial bodies treaty of its own. A memo for National Security Adviser Walt W. Rostow had the day before admitted that “this item [i.e. the celestial bodies treaty] is urgent only because there are indications that the State Department believes point to an early initiative by the Soviets to preempt the subject.”[34] American ambassadors Sisco and Goldberg, reacting to a Soviet request for an early meeting of the Legal Subcommittee on the U.N. Committee on Outer Space, suspected that the Soviets might “have a treaty of their own to introduce.” These concerns were communicated all the way up the chain of command in an April 5, 1966 memo from Secretary Rusk to President Johnson. Rusk insists that the matter “has become urgent because there are signs that the Soviet Union may be planning to introduce its own treaty at an early date to preempt the subject.”[35] American diplomats, then, sought to outfox their Soviet counterparts in promoting cooperation in space.

But the Johnson administration did not use the celestial bodies treaty, once passed, as a propaganda victory. It drew no distinction between America’s peaceful intentions in space and those of its Soviet rival. In a May 7, 1966 press conference following Johnson’s announcement regarding the treaty, Robert Fleming provided vague explanations for why the Johnson administration felt compelled to pursue the treaty at that particular time. Asked if the presidential statement “reflect[ed] any new concern by the President that the Russuans [sic] are going to beat us to the moon,” Fleming initially responded, “I don’t see that conclusion out of it at all.”[36] When the same question is posed later in the conference, Fleming says simply, “I haven’t talked to him about that.” Asked explicitly why “the time is ripe for action now,” Fleming says, “Because studies have been completed and the President is ready to add his endorsement.” The straightforward and seemingly expedient answer that American diplomats were more eager, or at least more able, than their Soviet counterparts to pursue the demilitarization of space is suppressed.

The reasons for this omission were strategic. American statesmen sought to use the demilitarization of space as a preliminary step towards peaceful cooperation with the Soviets on the issue of terrestrial disarmament. In his opening statement to the First Committee of the United Nations on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, Representative Adlai Stevenson said, “While attempting to realize our ultimate objective of general and complete disarmament, we have sought continuously to implement less ambitious measures which could help to lessen international tensions and to facilitate our larger task.”[37] The extent to which this mindset had permeated the American government can be gauged from the USADA’s confidential position paper regarding the April 18, 1962 U.N. proposal. “The United States’ support of the October 17, 1963 U.N. General Assembly Resolution [reserving space for peaceful, scientific inquiry],” it says, “[also] reflects our recognition that armaments already available to both sides carry the threat of mutual destruction and that a sounder basis must be found for U.S. security interests than is offered by the further multiplication of the techniques of destruction.” As we will see, pragmatic assessments of the likelihood that space could be militarized effectively facilitated cooperation with the Soviet Union. But, “however remote or irrational the possibility of orbiting weapons of mass destruction seem in today’s environment, it [i.e. the 1963 resolution] will be essential to ensure against such a possibility in connection with general disarmament.” “It [would] be essential” as a reassurance to parties of future arms control agreements: “Especially as levels of strategic deterrent capabilities are reduced, safeguards must be introduced to assure Parties of the treaty that neither side seeks this new type of delivery vehicle in order to gain real or supposed military or psychological advantage.”

A realistic assessment of space’s military potential undergirded this policy. The USADA paper quoted a September, 1962 statement by Deputy Defense Secretary Roswell Gilpatric explaining the impracticability of establishing missile bases in space. Noting the exorbitant costs of such a project, Gilpatric insisted that nuclear deterrence did not have to be “in kind.” The stationing of a “bombardment satellite” above the earth would not negate America’s superior ability to deliver ballistic missiles via its fleet of B-52 bombers, its Polaris submarines, and its missile bases ringing the borders of the Soviet Union. “The deterrent effect of the ballistic missile,” said Gilpatric, “is not limited to other ballistic missiles, and although there would doubtless be considerable psychological impact resulting from a nation’s deploying a ‘bombardment satellite,’ its military effects would, under present conditions, be marginal.”

This calculus may explain some of the resistance Senator Barry Goldwater encountered in his criticisms of an American moon shot and his push to develop space’s military potential. Goldwater was decidedly cavalier regarding the use of America’s nuclear arsenal. “He…opposed the nuclear test ban treaty and favored allowing NATO commanders to use nuclear weapons against the Soviets, if they decided they were necessary.”[38] An April 1, 1964 article published in The Science News-Letter has the senator complaining of the Pentagon’s unwillingness to pursue space’s military potential. “For one thing,” he said, “our main civilian effort is directed toward techniques for linking spacecraft around the moon. But our main requirement for a military program would require earth orbit techniques.”[39] In addition to epitomizing the kind of aggressive, confrontational statements that facilitated Johnson’s 1964 victory in one of the most lopsided presidential elections in American history, Goldwater’s frustration with the Defense Department’s inertia testifies to how engrained peaceful cooperation on demilitarization had become for American policymakers. This “seeming recklessness about using nuclear weapons” would “frighten and alienate not only Democrats but also many moderates within the Republican party.”[40]

International Relations and Unmanned Satellites

The space race also bolstered America’s relations with its allies and with the developing world. The United States deployed and publicized its unmanned satellite program in such a way as to convince other nations that they benefitted from American space exploration.

Criticism of American efforts in space during the early 1960s coalesced around the irrelevance of a moon shot. In an August 12, 1960 “Letter to the Editor” of Science, a James L. Swager of the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh describes conversations he had during a trip through Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Israel in November of 1959. “A high percentage of the people with whom” Swager talked “could hardly care less” about the U.S.-USSR space race.[41] “To farmers grimly hoping for enough rain this spring to fill the cisterns on which their farms must depend through the summer ahead,” he continued, “the space race is immaterial.” In addition to contradicting U.S. Information Agency polls that registered a boost in Soviet prestige between 1957 and 1962, this letter also suggests that skepticism over the value of a moon shot, both to American prestige and to the wider world, predated Kennedy’s special message to Congress. “To a man whose immediate problem is his next meal,” says Swager, “the moon is very far away indeed.”

Swager was not alone. Alluding to the impracticality of militarizing space and the projected $20 billion cost of putting an Apollo rocket on the launch pad, an author asks rhetorically in a January 19, 1965 Science News-Letter article, “Why, then, is there a race?”[42] “For the same reason as any race, according to some observers,” he answers. “Nothing more or less than the ego-driven pressures of competition” are fueling the race to the moon, according to such critics. These asides suggest that Swager’s criticisms were widespread and persistent during the first half of the 1960s. In a July 10, 1961 editorial in Modern Medicine, one of the editors, a Dr. Page, labeled the space race “utterly pointless.”[43] Echoing almost verbatim the views of Swager, Dr. Page observes, “People in underdeveloped countries who ‘can’t read, have no radios, and haven’t enough to eat’ are more concerned with their own survival than with outer space research and news of the latest astronaut or cosmonaut.”

Such complaints were not confined to a domestic audience. An article published in the Journal of Inter-American Studies in October of 1964 examines Latin American journalistic coverage of the space race. It takes Mexican and Colombian newspapers as case studies, noting that widespread cynicism regarding Yuri Gagarin’s post-orbital visit to Cuba signified boredom over USSR-U.S. rivalry in the realm of space achievement. “The sensationalistic zeal will soon produce adverse results for the government of the Soviet Union,” said the Medellín El Colombiano.[44] The United States did occupy a privileged position in relation to Latin American journalists, who tended to think of the space race “as a ground for truly peaceful competition.” After the launch of Sputnik, “anything the United States can do tends to lessen the gap-and thereby, according to most Latin American papers, reduces world tension as a consequence.” But, taking the reaction to Gagarin’s Cuba visit into account, the author does conclude by noting, “It would seem better-at least in terms of our prestige in Latin America-to cut back on the manned flight program instead of the scientific one.”

Strictly speaking, American decisionmakers did not heed this advice. When it came to space exploration, the priorities of both NASA Administrator James Webb and President Johnson quite clearly revolved around completing a moon shot by the end of the decade. In the same conversation in which he complains of Secretary McNamara’s attempt to sequester funds for a military space station, Webb raises some concerns over NASA’s 1965 budget. The White House had allocated NASA $5.6 billion, with $200 million reserved for manned space flight. Webb fears that this would create a “real problem” unless Johnson is willing to “slip the lunar landing out of this decade.” In a December 20, 1963 phone call, the two discuss the use of some budgetary legerdemain to secure another $140 million for manned space flight. The White House budget director is to stick some of NASA’s allocation into “New Obligation,” allowing Administrator Webb to go to Congress with a budget estimate just under $5 billion.[45] “But we can plan,” insists Webb, “on the basis of ‘New Obligation.’”

The push to fund manned space flight reflected a concern on the part of both Webb and Johnson that the Russians were upstaging America in space. In a June 17, 1965 conversation between the two, Johnson asks Webb why the astronauts involved in a recent Gemini flight cannot attend the Paris air show. Webb responds with caution, speculating that that might be “moving too quickly on something we’ve planned for a long time.”[46] “The Russians have upstaged us on almost everything,” continues Webb, to which Johnson replies, “They’ll keep upstaging us if we have a damn buffet dinner [for the Gemini astronauts] over at the State Department.” These concerns become even more explicit in a May 10, 1966 recording. Webb mentions that NASA has stepped up the Apollo flight schedule, preparing for the launch of the “biggest rocket, biggest thing anyone’s ever done, including the Russians.”[47] Webb follows this statement with a request for $207 million earmarked for manned space flight. When Johnson demurs, mentioning that Webb is “ace high” on congressional Republicans’ list of prospective budgetary investigations, Webb mentions CIA briefs that suggest the Russians are preparing to “do something bigger than what we’re doing” in 1968. As we’ve seen, both men understood the diplomatic potential of space exploration. But they never shook themselves entirely of the orthodox opinion that manned space flight figured prominently in the United States’ competition for prestige. Furthermore, congressional eagerness to investigate Webb’s expenditures implies that wariness over the costs of a moon shot persisted throughout the decade.

In spite of these priorities at the highest levels of the Johnson administration, NASA implemented and the Johnson administration publicized an unmanned satellite program that promised to distribute benefits internationally. Peter H. Smith noted in his study of Latin American journalists that “the most dominant theme in the Latin American response to the space race” was “the persistent demand that space technology should be used for peaceful purposes.” The United States was responsive to this demand, in both form and substance.

We see this most vividly in press coverage surrounding the launch of the Telstar satellites and in their role in facilitating international communication. Mexico’s El Universal contrasted the launch of the Telstar I favorably with the more or less concurrent flight of cosmonauts Nikolaiev and Popovich, remarking, “the Americans are inspired by the goal of human understanding, while the Soviets only want to make new conquests.” On Telstar’s contributions to global communications, El Universal comments, “for the first time, one gets the impression that a feat of human skill will serve to unite and not to disunite.”[48]

Unlike the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, the benefits of the Telstar missions were immediate, tangible, and widespread. The Autumn, 1962 issue of The Art Institute of Chicago Quarterly reported that “a Telstar conversation between the Art Institute of Chicago and the Palace at Versailles, the first ever held between an American and a European museum, took place on September 19 between 10:10 and 10:20 a.m.”[49] A May 18, 1963 Science News-Letter article that reported on the launch of Telstar II reflected on its predecessor, “Telstar I was the first active repeater satellite used for international communications. It relayed television pictures between the U.S., France, Italy, and Great Britain, and was used for transatlantic phone calls and communications.”[50] A previous article, published after the launch of Telstar I, had picked up on this theme, echoing El Universal’s appreciation for American openness: “The Project Telstar cooperative agreement between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and AT&T provides for…NASA and Bell Telephone Laboratories to analyze the data and all results to be made available by NASA to the world scientific community.”[51]

More prominent publications emphasized the same features of the Telstar missions. A May 5, 1963 New York Times article published after the launch of Telstar II describes its role within the broader mission of unmanned space exploration: “Telstar II will be the fourth communications satellite of the active repeater type launched to data [sic] by NASA to further research on spacecraft systems and operating techniques potentially applicable to a future operational worldwide satellite network.”[52] Said the Los Angeles Times three days later in an article that appears to have relied upon the same UP bulletin, “Telstar 1, launched into orbit on July 10, 1962, brought European television instantly into American living rooms. U.S. families saw the Folies Bergiere and the Eiffel Tower for the first time. Europeans watched part of a baseball game and part of a news conference held by President Kennedy.”[53] The Washington Post takes a somewhat different approach, emphasizing Telstar II’s role in bringing the space race directly into European living rooms: “America shot a second Telstar relay satellite into orbit today, reestablishing a live television link with Europe in plenty of time for this Nation’s next space age spectacular-the planned day-long orbiting of Astronaut L. Gordon Cooper.”[54] Notwithstanding this reversion to space race orthodoxy, domestic coverage of the Telstar launches featured overwhelmingly its potential to bring America and its European allies closer together.

The same can be said for international coverage. Latin America’s preference for American openness and its unmanned satellite program has already been mentioned. The Times of India reported in a November 10, 1963 article on the accomplishments of the Telstar II satellite, “The first telephone link via outer space between West Germany and the United States opened today with a conversation between the Post Minister, Herr Richard Stuecklen, and Mr. James Webb, director [sic] the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.”[55] Johnson would allude to this feat in a Rose Garden toast on behalf of German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard some time between August of 1964 and April of 1965: “From the dark days of our Valley Forge to the bright days of mankind’s exploration of space the cause of freedom has prospered when the peoples of our two countries have worked together in peace.”[56] The Times of London spent some time reporting on the international discussions that followed as a consequence of this new technology. “Mr. Robert Evans,” it reported in May of 1962, “assistant to the director of the United States Information Agency, is going to Seville for the discussions about Telstar [I], which will be an important part of the exceedingly complex international negotiations which have been going on among interested countries.”[57][58]

These were precisely the elements of the unmanned satellite program that the Johnson White House emphasized in its public statements. In remarks at a ceremony recognizing winners of the 1965 President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service, Johnson declared, “In fields as diverse as the collection of statistics and the exploration of space, these 5 men…have expanded the sum of human knowledge.”[59] Homer E. Newell, Associate Administrator for Space Science and Applications at NASA, was, according to Johnson, “significantly responsible for this nation’s success in the unmanned satellite…projects.” He goes on to list Newell’s successes, which include “the launch of communications satellites such as Early Bird, which is used by COMSAT [the Communications Satellite Corporation] for transoceanic telecasts.” “Experiments conducted under his inspired and inspiring direction,” Johnson continues, “have opened new vistas in the use of earth satellites to serve the betterment of all mankind.” A May 12, 1966 U.S. Information Telegram entitled “Towards Peace in Space” is similar in tone. It places the proposed celestial bodies treaty in the context of America’s continuous effort to “ensure that explorations of the moon and other celestial bodies will be for peaceful purposes only.”[60] It continues, “We want to be sure that our astronauts and those of other nations can freely conduct scientific investigations of the moon.” In this way the telegram attaches the scientific benefits of the satellite program to manned space flight, a canny public relations move. Ever leery of the Soviet Union, the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations had nonetheless by the mid-1960s maintained a cooperative stance towards their geopolitical rivals and the rest of the world.


[1] Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism: A Brief Biography with Documents (2nd Edition), Bruce J. Schulman, Bedford/St. Martin’s, Boston/New York, 2007. p. 53.

[2] Schulman, p. 53.

[3] Schulman, p. 53.

[4] cf. The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum’s Presidential Timeline exhibit. An electronic edition of the slideshow in which this information was found can be accessed via this link:

[5] Epic Rivalry: The Inside Story of the Soviet and American Space Race. Von Hardesty and Gene Eisman, National Geographic, Washington, 2007. viii.

[6] Hardesty and Eisman, xi.

[7] Hardesty and Eisman, xiii.

[8] Hardesty and Eisman, xxiv.

[9] Dark Side of the Moon: Wernher von Braun, the Third Reich, and the Space Race, Wayne Biddle, WW Norton & Company, 2009. xi.

[10] U.S.-Soviet Cooperation in Space, Dodd L. Harvey and Linda C. Ciccoritti, University of Miami, 1974. ix. Now on, citations from this source will appear parenthetically.

[11] Harvey and Ciccoritti, x.

[12] Bess C.M. Reijnen, The United Nations Space Treaties Analyzed, Editions Frontières, 1992. p. 45. Now on, citations from this source will appear parenthetically.

[13] Reijnen, p. 46.

[14] Reijnen, p. 45.

[15] Hardesty and Eisman, xxiv.

[16] Soviet Rocketry: Past, Present, and Future, Michael Stoiko, Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1970.

[17] An electronic edition of the speech can be accessed by following this link:

[18] The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction, Robert J. McMahon, Oxford University Press, 2003. p. 97.

[19] Harvey and Ciccoritti, x-xi.

[20] Harvey and Ciccoritti, x-xi.

[21] Hardesty and Eisman, xvii.

[22] Hardesty and Eisman, xvii.

[23] Phone conversation between President Lyndon Baines Johnson and NASA Administrator James Webb on November 26, 1963. A recording of this conversation can be accessed via this link (courtesy of the Miller Center, University of Virginia):

[24] Ben Brumfield, “U.S. reveals secret plans for ‘60s moon base,” published online July 25, 2014. The article can be accessed via this link:

[25] cf.

[26] Schulman, p. 136.

[27] Schulman, p. 147.

[28] Schulman, p. 144.

[29] U.S. Disarmament Measures Paper #2, Revision 3 (Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee), U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, National Security Files of Charles E. Johnson, Box 16, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library.

[30] Draft Statement for the President: The United States Moves Ahead on a Treaty Governing Activities on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, NSF of Charles E. Johnson, Box 16, LBJL.

[31] U.N. Treaty Governing the Exploration of the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, NSF of Charles E. Johnson, Box 16, LBJL.

[32] Confidential State Department Telegram on Celestial Bodies Treaty (May 11, 1966), NSF of Charles E. Johnson, Box 16, LBJL.

[33] Hand-written memorandum on National Security stationary (April 6, 1966), NSF of Charles E. Johnson, Box 16, LBJL.

[34] Memorandum for Mr. Walt W. Rostow (April 5, 1966), NSF of Charles E. Johnson, Box 16, LBJL.

[35] Memorandum for the President (April 5, 1966), NSF of Charles E. Johnson, Box 16, LBJL.

[36] Press Conference Transcript from San Antonio (May 7, 1966), NSF of Charles E. Johnson, Box 16, LBJL.

[37] Statements by the Representative of the United States of America Before the First Committee of the United Nations on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, NSF of Charles E. Johnson, Box 16, LBJL.

[38] Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, American Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, Oxford University Press, 2011. p. 194

[39]The Science News-Letter, Vol. 86, No. 5 (April 1, 1964), Walter Wingo, “Goldwater vs. Moon Shot”

[40] Schulman, p. 82.

[41] Science, Vol. 132, No. 3424 (August 12, 1960), p. 380, James L. Swager, “Letter to the Editor”

[42] The Science News-Letter, Vol. 87, No. 25 (January 19, 1965), pp. 387, 397-398, Jonathan Eberhart, “The Space Race Quickens”

[43] The Science News-Letter, Vol. 80, No. 8 (August 19, 1961), p. 119, “Space Race Effort Called ‘Science and its Worst’”

[44] Journal of Inter-American Studies, Vol. 4, No. 4 (October of 1964), pp. 549-572, Peter H. Smith, “The Latin American Press and the Space Race”

[45] Phone conversation between Johnson and Webb, December 20, 1963,

[46] Phone conversation between Johnson and Webb, June 17, 1965,

[47] Phone conversation between Johnson and Webb, May 10, 1966,

[48] cf. Smith.

[49] The Art Institute of Chicago Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Autumn of 1962), pp. 50-53, M.B.K., “Treasures of Versailles on Telstar”

[50] The Science News-Letter, Vol. 83, No. 20 (May 18, 1963), p. 310, “Telstar II Launched”

[51] The Science News-Letter, Vol. 82, No. 3 (June 21, 1962), p. 37, “Telstar TV Satellite Launched”

[52] New York Times, May 5, 1963, William L. Lawrence, “Second Telstar: New Satellite Will Help Pave the Way for Communication System”

[53] Los Angeles Times, May 8, 1963, “Telstar 2 Orbits, Sends TV Pictures: New Satellite Relays Television to England and France”

[54] The Washington Post, May 8, 1963, “Telstar 2 Renews Europe TV Link in Time for Cooper’s 22-orbit Flight”

[55] The Times of India, November 10, 1963, “U.S.-German Telstar Link”

[56] The White House Exchange of Toasts Between President Lyndon B. Johnson and Chancellor Ludwig Erhard in the Flower Garden, Office Files of Horace Busby, Box 435, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library

[57] The Times of London, May 31, 1962, “Exchange of TV Across Atlantic: May Launching of Satellite: Programmes to Start in June: Cornish Site for G.P.O. Station”

[58] This was not the first time advancements in communications technology had disclosed the prospect of better relations between Britain and the United States. In July of 1858, the HMS Agamemnon and the USS Niagara met at sea to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable. Though the line died within a month and a permanent Atlantic cable was not completed for eight more years, Queen Victoria did take advantage of the chance to cable her congratulations to President James Buchanan. The line opened in August of 1858 with the message “Glory to God in the highest; on earth, peace and goodwill to men.” Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War, Random House, New York, 2010. p. 39.

[59] Remarks of the President at the Presentation of Gold Medals and Citations to the Winners of the 1965 President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service, OF of Horace Busby, Box 435, LBJL

[60] U.S. Information Agency Telegram, “Toward Peace in Space” (May 12, 1966), OF of Horace Busby, Box 435, LBJL


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s