John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon.
John M. Logsdon, a deservedly renowned scholar of space history, sheds new light on the Kennedy presidency and the lunar program's early years in John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon. Logsdon revisits a subject that captured his attention as a dissertation topic, published in 1970 by MIT Press as The Decision to Go to the Moon: Project Apollo and the National Interest. As he notes in his preface, however, the first book necessarily leaned on interviews and secondary literature because many pieces of documentary evidence remained classified. In his new examination, Logsdon focuses on the entire span of Kennedy's presidency from 1961 through 1963, producing "the first comprehensive account of the impact of John F. Kennedy on the race to the Moon" (p. 3).
The Cold War stands at the very heart of Kennedy's perspective as president. Present throughout the history is the message that, as president, he identified space as a realm whose domination would demonstrate national heft during the Cold War. At the core of Logsdon's work is the assertion, repeatedly expressed and frequently demonstrated, that John Kennedy carried a real and continuing interest in the possibility of cooperation in space between the United States and the USSR. The gap between high-profile Soviet successes and US frustrations prevented this interest from bearing fruit in 1961, and during 1962 Kennedy was "in a race mentality" (p. 154). The year 1963 saw pressure on the Apollo program and reason for renewed hope in some superpower cooperation in space, but Kennedy's assassination at the end of that year foreclosed chances to alter the program, which became "a memorial to the fallen president" (p. 223).
In addition to crafting a narrative about Kennedy's policy making and the lunar quest, Logsdon takes aim at a pair of earlier assertions by two other well-respected scholars. In 1997 presidential historian Michael Beschloss argued that political damage from the destruction of US-supported Cuban anticommunists at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 did more to influence Kennedy's lunar decision than did the nearly simultaneous Soviet orbit of Yuri Gagarin. Logsdon refutes this claim by citing Kennedy's statement, following the Gagarin mission but prior to the Bay of Pigs, that "'there's nothing more important' than getting the United States into a leading position in space" (p. 233). Logsdon also relies on his own 1960s-era interviews with key Kennedy advisors who essentially give the Cuban issue a secondary role in the decision at most (p. 79).
Logsdon deals more pugnaciously with Walter McDougall, whose 1985 work on the US space program argued that Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, aimed at a technocratic reorientation of society. Logsdon cites McDougall's assertion "that Kennedy's words about U.S.-USSR space cooperation 'were just exercises at image-building'" and attacks this interpretation head-on by showing Kennedy's preference for giving a free hand to NASA administrator James Webb rather than employing a more centralized approach (pp. 176, 234).
The book unveils a great deal of new information and is written in an approachable style. Shortcomings are few, but in closing his book, Logsdon steps beyond the realm of evidence to declare that "John F. Kennedy, like the astronauts who traveled to the Moon during Apollo, was a true space pioneer" (p. 244). The preceding pages had amply demonstrated that such was not the case: Kennedy had grasped the space issue as a symbol and indicator of national power and prestige and as a tool for potentially fostering superpower cooperation that might tamp down Cold War tension. Throughout the book, Logsdon emphatically--and compellingly--shows that the value Kennedy put on space was not scientifically related.
Furthermore, Logsdon concedes that "the impact on the evolution of the US space program has on balance been negative" since "Apollo turned out to be a dead end" and the initial human moon landing "very rapidly dissipated" momentum to continue a space adventure (p. 240). That outcome owed something to the framework in which Kennedy introduced the lunar mission to the nation and the world.
In sum, John Logsdon provides a wealth of information and research helping to illuminate a vital period of US history. His 244 pages of writing, if not his concluding remarks, show John Kennedy as a president facing a complex geopolitical landscape who used the lunar-landing project as a tool both to assert the US national position and to influence the tenor of the Cold War.
Nicholas Michael Sambaluk, PhD
US Military Academy
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|Author:||Sambaluk, Nicholas Michael|
|Publication:||Air & Space Power Journal|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2013|
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