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Kennedy and Khrushchev
Had Kennedy lived beyond 1963, would he have sat down with Nikita Khrushchev and worked on a cooperative effort to send humans to the Moon, rather than their separate competitive ventures? (credit: National Park Service)

Murdering Apollo: John F. Kennedy and the retreat from the lunar goal (part 2)

Oracle: “I’d ask you to sit down, but, you’re not going to anyway. And don’t worry about the vase.”
Neo: “What vase?”
[Neo turns to look for a vase, and as he does, he accidentally knocks over a vase of flowers, which shatters on the floor]
Oracle: “That vase.”
Neo: “I’m sorry…”
Oracle: “I said don’t worry about it. I’ll get one of my kids to fix it.”
Neo: “How did you know?”
Oracle: “Oh, what’s really going to bake your noodle later on is, would you still have broken it if I hadn’t said anything?”
– from The Matrix

In the study of history, the what-if question is known as a counterfactual. For a long time counterfactuals had a bad reputation among historians: they were described as an “idle parlor game” or worse. Their reputation was not enhanced by the scores of fictional what-if novels that have appeared over the decades, many of which are little more than literary daydreaming. Novels that posit what-if scenarios about the Nazis winning World War 2 or the Confederacy winning the Civil War may not necessarily represent wish fulfillment by their authors, but they have often served a political or ideological agenda, sometimes conservative and sometimes liberal. (For a more sophisticated discussion of this, see Gavriel Rosenfeld’s book The World Hitler Never Made: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism, reviewed here.)

But even while counterfactual fiction grew in popularity, the practice of counterfactual history also gained credibility, and a theoretical foundation. The counterfactual method involves techniques used to challenge accepted assumptions, questioning the inevitability of events, and hopefully identifying significant and causal factors in history. In the past decade, Robert Cowley and Niall Ferguson have published anthologies of works by prominent historians positing what-if questions in history, and there is a slowly growing body of theoretical discussions of the counterfactual method. Cowley in particular has noted that counterfactuals are useful for emphasizing the importance of specific events and decisions, and also how seemingly minor events can have major consequences. For instance, if a fog bank had not rolled in while General George Washington was fleeing New York City early in the American Revolution, Washington might have been captured by the British and the United States never formed. Americans can therefore thank freak weather for their freedom.

Counterfactuals are useful for emphasizing the importance of specific events and decisions, and also how seemingly minor events can have major consequences.

Counterfactuals can be useful in determining if the conventional explanation of events is correct. However, a key requirement is limiting the number of events that one changes, and also ensuring that any changes are reasonable. Thus, asking what would have happened in Vietnam, or the Apollo program, if John F. Kennedy had lived is valid, because the change merely requires Lee Harvey Oswald to hiccup while pulling the trigger, and therefore allows the historian to question the role that a single individual (Kennedy, not Oswald in this case) played in the course of events. However, positing what would have happened if Kennedy had lived, and had run for reelection, and had won, and had decided to ramp up or down American involvement in Vietnam, piles on the uncertainties, making the exercise nothing more than the kind of activity that gives counterfactuals such a bad reputation.

As counterfactual theorists have pointed out, the actual practice of writing history requires the historian to make assumptions about causal events, and this inherently requires assuming that different choices and events would lead to different results. Thus, counterfactual history—when properly constrained—is not that far from the actual practice of history.

There are certainly dozens of potential counterfactual questions that one could ask about the space age. What if Sputnik had failed and the United States had launched a satellite into orbit first? Would the American space program (not to mention American technology and civilian education programs) have received the sudden infusion of funding it did after the Sputnik shock? What if, in September 1969, Richard Nixon’s Space Task Group had returned a more sober recommendation on the future of human spaceflight than it did? Would the United States still have ended up with a space shuttle, or might the country have instead chosen to continue Apollo at a lower level of funding, perhaps choosing to fly Apollos 18–20? What if Challenger had not exploded on that cold January morning? Would President Reagan still have reversed the decision to phase out expendable rockets?

But the Kennedy assassination is undoubtedly the most powerful of these questions for space historians. If Kennedy had lived, what would have happened to Apollo? Novelist Stephen Baxter even speculated on this possibility in his alternative history, Voyage. But from a historical perspective, we have only limited data with which to evaluate this question.

Tumbling down a rabbit hole

Kennedy decided to pursue a lunar goal in the spring of 1961 after the Soviet Union orbited Yuri Gagarin. One unknown question for historians is how much Kennedy’s decision was influenced by the near simultaneous failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. The two events happened very close together and created the perception that the United States was in technological and political crisis, if not decline. Kennedy may have been similarly concerned about his presidency. The lunar goal, delivered in a speech before a joint session of Congress in May 1961, solved Kennedy’s immediate public relations problem.

However, the Apollo program was expensive, eventually rising to nearly 4.5% of the federal budget. By early 1963 there was increasing domestic criticism of the cost of the civil space program in general and Apollo in particular. In April, Kennedy asked Vice President Lyndon Johnson, in his role as head of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, to review the program.

We know little about this recorded conversation between Webb and Kennedy—not even how long it was—but it is entirely possible that their discussion included an explanation of why Kennedy was preparing to make such a bold proposal concerning cooperation with the Soviet Union.

By asking Johnson to conduct the review, Kennedy was virtually assured of a positive reply. Furthermore, Kennedy’s request in effect ruled out cutting Apollo so as not to “compromise the timetable for the first manned lunar landing.” Johnson’s reply was, unsurprisingly, positive, and Johnson even proposed that if cuts were made, they should be diverted to the Apollo program. But Johnson noted that the fiscal 1964 budget was divided between $4.4 billion for the manned lunar landing program and $1.3 billion, or 23%, for everything else, so there was not much that could be cut and diverted to Apollo.

Perhaps the strongest indication that Kennedy was having doubts about Apollo, though, came in the fall of 1963, when he made a bold proposal for “a joint expedition to the Moon” during an address before the 18th General Assembly of the United Nations.

The day after Kennedy’s speech, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Independent Offices, congressman Albert Thomas, wrote Kennedy asking if he had changed his position on the need for a strong US space program. Kennedy replied in a letter that the United States could only cooperate in space from a position of strength.

But Kennedy’s letter to Thomas notwithstanding, what led to Kennedy’s decision to make this proposal in the United Nations at that time? As previously noted in part 1 of this article, possible answers to that question may reside in a still-classified audio tape of a meeting between Kennedy and his NASA administrator, James Webb, only two days before the UN speech.

Kennedy and Webb were not personal friends, but they respected each other. Webb was a long-time government official who had excellent ties within the Democratic Party and experience in the ways that Washington worked. However, as Kennedy advisor Theodore Sorensen explained, Kennedy preferred advisors who were succinct and got to the point, whereas Webb had a tendency to talk and was not often direct. We know little about this recorded conversation between Webb and Kennedy—not even how long it was—but it is entirely possible that their discussion included an explanation of why Kennedy was preparing to make such a bold proposal concerning cooperation with the Soviet Union.

There is one other bit of data to add to the few others that we have. Shortly before his death, Kennedy asked his Bureau of the Budget to prepare a report on the NASA budget for him. That report was never completed in final form, and only a draft produced after Kennedy’s assassination exists. However, that draft evaluated the question of “backing off from the manned lunar landing goal”—presumably this was what Kennedy had asked them to consider. The report’s conclusion was that “in the absence of clear changes in the present technical or international situations, the only basis for backing off from the Manned Lunar Landing objective at this time would be an overriding fiscal decision.”

Believing impossible things before breakfast

With so few data points to go by, it is difficult to determine if Kennedy’s UN proposal represented an evolution in his thinking. Could Kennedy have been considering changing the lunar landing goal, or even canceling Apollo entirely? The latter possibility was even mentioned in Oliver Stone’s 1993 paranoid conspiracy thriller JFK; a mysterious informant explained that Kennedy’s plan to cancel Apollo was one of the reasons why the military industrial complex had him assassinated.

It turns out, though, that there are other possibilities besides the assumption that Kennedy was slowly backing away from the decision he had made in 1961, and some of them are hard to believe, but may nevertheless be true.

The September 1963 proposal was the boldest and most blatant example of Kennedy raising the possibility of lunar cooperation, but it did not necessarily reflect a change of mind, but rather a continuation of a theme.

Several years ago NASA historian Stephen Garber published a fascinating paper outlining four different theoretical models explaining Kennedy’s thinking regarding his decision to pursue Apollo. These included the long-standing rational choice model (i.e. Kennedy made a careful decision after weighing various options), and the visionary model (i.e. Kennedy was a space buff). Garber noted that in recent years two new models had been advanced. One was personality-based, and attempted to explain Kennedy’s behavior in terms of his emotions, his inherent competitiveness, and even his prescription drug use. Another was what Garber labeled the cooperative track model.

Of these four models, the visionary explanation and the personality model are extremely weak. The visionary model in particular took a beating in 2001 with the release of an audio tape of a November 1962 meeting between Kennedy and top space officials where Kennedy made it clear that he did not care that much about space, but was focused upon competition with the Soviet Union. The personality model is a little too trite: if Kennedy’s decisions could simply be explained by his psychology, why was there so much evidence of him consulting advisors and evaluating alternatives?

The cooperative track model, however, raises some intriguing ideas. Garber noted that there are numerous examples of Kennedy proposing space cooperation with the Soviet Union both before and after his decision to pursue the lunar goal. For instance, soon after John Glenn’s successful orbit of the Earth, Kennedy replied to a letter from the Soviet premier proposing cooperation in space by saying that he welcomed “your statement that our countries should cooperate in the exploration of space.” He added that he had “long held this same belief.” By spring 1963 the United States had signed an agreement with the Soviet Union concerning limited space cooperation. The September 1963 proposal was the boldest and most blatant example of Kennedy raising the possibility of lunar cooperation, but it did not necessarily reflect a change of mind, but rather a continuation of a theme. At the very least, the directionality of Kennedy’s thinking about the lunar goal—in other words, moving from competition to cooperation, and possibly having second thoughts about Apollo—becomes much harder to prove. Kennedy offered to cooperate at the same time that he was seeking to compete.

What would Kennedy have done if he had lived? Would he have revisited his Apollo decision, possibly backing away from the ambitious timeline? Would he have continued to propose cooperation? Would he have canceled the Moon landing altogether?

Several historians have speculated that Kennedy wanted an Apollo landing to occur during a possible second term, and it is clear that NASA’s original goal was a Moon landing by 1967, most likely based upon the assumption that the Soviets would also try to achieve a space spectacular by the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. But in 1963 Kennedy already knew that Apollo would become incredibly expensive by any potential second term. It is possible that if he lived and headed into an election year, Kennedy might have sought to delay the schedule so that the peak budget years occurred later, or were spread out. Kennedy’s thinking might also have been influenced by CIA intelligence data that in 1964 indicated that the Soviets were not undertaking a crash effort to race the Americans to the Moon.

But words such as “might” and “possibly” do not simply add, they multiply uncertainty. If one is to conduct counterfactual history in a proper way, the goal is to illuminate what did happen, not get carried away with speculating about what did not. Leave that to the fiction writers.

Smashing through the looking glass

Speculation about what Kennedy might have done concerning Apollo had he lived is certainly an interesting parlor game. But it also creates a corollary question: What would Nikita Khrushchev have done had Kennedy lived?

Nikita Khrushchev responded to Kennedy’s UN proposal by ignoring it, and two months later Kennedy was dead. If Kennedy had lived, however, would Khrushchev have eventually taken him up on his offer? Or might he have taken some other action?

In fact, one intriguing question is whether or not Kennedy’s UN speech may have actually led the Soviets to not take Apollo seriously.

The Soviets did not have a vibrant lunar landing program in the fall of 1963 because they did not take the American Apollo program seriously. They thought that the Americans were not going to follow through. It was not until summer 1964 that the Soviets determined that the Americans were serious about going to the Moon and they formally approved their own lunar landing goal. By then they were substantially behind. Even after this decision they failed to allocate the necessary resources, squabbled over control of the program, and deluded themselves that their program was on track long after it had slipped its schedule.

But why did the Soviets not think that the Americans were serious? Was it a result of underestimating Kennedy—something that various scholars claim was one of the causes of the Cuban Missile Crisis? If so, is it possible that if Kennedy had survived, Khrushchev might have continued to underestimate Kennedy and not approved the Soviet lunar program in August 1964? Might he have canceled the nascent Soviet lunar program, therefore giving Kennedy no reason to continue Apollo at its present rate? We do not know.

In fact, one intriguing question is whether or not Kennedy’s UN speech may have actually led the Soviets to not take Apollo seriously. Perhaps someday a scholar digging through Soviet-era archives will locate a KGB or Politburo analysis of Kennedy’s United Nations speech.

But the problem for historians is like the problem for Neo in The Matrix—would he have knocked the vase off the table if the Oracle had never mentioned it? For historians, we do not only have to predict Kennedy’s actions had he lived, but the actions of those who were also decision makers in the space race. Once we start to speculate too much, we run the risk of breaking a lot of vases.