Pay no attention to the man with the notebook: Hugh Sidey and the Apollo decision
In his April 1961 Life magazine article, his 1963 book on Kennedy, and his 1971 letter to Robert Sherrod, Hugh Sidey was clear that in that extraordinary April 14, 1961 meeting John F. Kennedy not only had not made up his mind about sending Americans to the Moon, but was desperate for a solution. Later, Sidey spun the tale a little differently. In a piece in the Washington Star to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, Sidey said that after the meeting he watched Sorensen go back and meet with Kennedy and emerge moments later and say “We are going to the Moon.” Sidey repeated this story in February 1986 in Time magazine, which had devoted much of its issue to the Challenger disaster only days before. But even if Sorensen had said this at the time, it was essentially irrelevant—probably no more than Sorensen’s opinion—because Kennedy had given his advisors the task of answering the question of what the United States could do to catch up in the space race, not a directive.
As John Logsdon has recounted in his seminal book The Decision to Go to the Moon, on April 20 Kennedy wrote a letter to Vice President Lyndon Johnson directing him to conduct an evaluation of their options. The letter to Johnson echoed Sidey’s account of the April 14 meeting, even the whiff of presidential desperation. That presidential directive resulted in Johnson meeting with multiple people to evaluate the options and culminated in Johnson recommending the lunar goal, which Kennedy accepted and then publicly endorsed in an address before a joint session of Congress in late May.
Of course something else happened between the April 14 meeting and Kennedy’s final decision, and it may have helped him make his decision. On Monday, April 17 a group of Cuban refugees stormed ashore at the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy failed to provide the US military support that he had promised them and the invasion quickly fell apart. It was a second major embarrassment for the administration in a week. Kennedy’s mythmakers prefer to spin the Apollo tale so that JFK embraced the lunar goal before the Bay of Pigs, and certainly not because of it. But the evidence does not support that interpretation. Kennedy clearly had not made up his mind before the Bay of Pigs.
Resolve or desperation?
Today’s media is far different than it was in 1961, but not so different that we no longer recognize it, or that questions of journalistic independence and agendas are not similar. Bob Woodward is currently being criticized by liberal bloggers and pundits for allegedly withholding embarrassing information about the Bush administration, presumably so that he could publish it later in a book. Woodward, who has enjoyed far more access to both Democratic and Republican presidents than any other journalist, has occasionally been criticized as “the president’s stenographer.” But it has never been easy for anybody to label Woodward a shill for the White House.
According to numerous accounts, Sidey was considered sympathetic to several presidents, particularly Kennedy and Ronald Reagan (a fact that Sidey himself later conceded). The Kennedy people did not expect him to write an embarrassing article about the administration, and he did not do so. Journalists always have to balance their self interests against the stories they write, and if Sidey had reported all of his observations in that meeting soon after the fact he would have lost his access to the White House. Instead, he held the juiciest information for his book, and kept his harsher observations for nearly a decade until disclosing them to Robert Sherrod.
Sidey’s observations of Kennedy and his advisors are not glowing. What is one to think of the president’s science advisor slumping in his chair and failing to take a position on such an important topic? Or the skeptical budget director warning of massive costs? What is one to think of an “anxious” President in danger of falling out of his chair “running his hands through his hair” and nervously “tapping his front teeth with his finger nails”? And then there is Kennedy’s comment about being willing to take advice from a janitor—the kind of comment that could easily be misinterpreted as desperation, or a profound lack of confidence in his staff. Sidey could have written a far harsher contemporaneous account than he did: “The president seemed anxious and asked a lot of questions that his advisors couldn’t answer… He seemed desperate for a solution to a problem that has placed his presidency in crisis… His science advisor slouched in his seat, his budget director warned of the immense costs of competing with the Russians, and the head of NASA is little more than a toady…” An editor with a sense of irony and recent history could have given it the title “Kennedy Sleeps While Red Pilot Flies Overhead.”
In fact, even without such spin, that is essentially how several British writers read Sidey’s later account in his book. Writing in their own book, Journey to Tranquility, Hugo Young, Bryan Silcock, and Peter Dunn stated that Kennedy’s relentless questions at the meeting proved “the President manifested an almost bottomless ignorance of the matter.” They added: “What this meeting disclosed more than anything was the sight of a man obsessed with failure. Gagarin’s triumph mocked the image of dynamism which Kennedy had offered the American people. It had, one senses, to be avenged almost as much for his own sake as for the nation’s.” Young, Silcock, and Dunn demonstrate a typical world-weary European disdain for American politics, American dynamism, and American optimism, which is also a refreshing twist on the Apollo mythology. But they also make it clear that this meeting that Sidey so well documented was hardly a universal success for Kennedy.
Kennedy and his advisors had a different agreement with members of the press than exists today. They counted on the press keeping quiet his extramarital affairs and, in certain cases, his political embarrassments. However, if they were trying to perform for Sidey, it was a poor performance and only partially successful. And even if Sidey was at least partially “in the tank,” we have all benefited from his work.