In 1962, President John F. Kennedy spoke at Rice University, where he said that America has to go to the moon, and that mankind cannot be deterred “in his quest for knowledge and progress.”
However, in reality, he actually didn’t care much about either knowledge or progress. According to reports, Kennedy had very little interest in space. He allegedly told an MIT professor that rockets were a waste of money.
Despite that, in 1961, he suddenly invested $25 billion in the “most ambitious space program in national history.”
“Kennedy didn’t propose it for the sake of science,” author and curator of the Smithsonian’s Apollo collection Teasel Muir-Harmony said. “It was really a demonstration of what the American industry was capable of and a demonstration of American values.”
Muir-Harmony has a new book out, “Operation Moonglow: A Political History of Project Apollo.” In it, she references recently dug up government documents that bring light to how media, propaganda, and foreign affairs influenced the space program.
The Apollo program was first created by the Eisenhower administration as a way to “contain Communism, align the world with the United States and shore up America’s power.”
However, America seemed to be losing the space race. The success of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik made the world view the USSR in a “very different light,” according to the United States Information Agency (USIA). A front-page New York Times headline in 1960 read, “US Survey Finds Others Consider Soviets Mightiest.” In 1961, the Soviets were the first to put a man in space.
Kennedy took office in 1961, and the government cranked up its public relations. Kennedy was “a man who perhaps better than any other president in our history, understood how foreign opinion worked, what molded it, what shaped it and how to shape it,” USIA Acting Director Donald Wilson says in Muir-Harmony’s book.
“The Soviet Union was relatively closed about what they were launching, when they were launching it and their technology,” says Muir-Harmony. “The US took a different tack, inviting the press to cover launches and sending spacecraft around the world.”
For example, in 1961, Freedom 7, the capsule that carried the first American into space, was exhibited in Paris and Rome. It attracted over a million visitors.
“Two young men soared into space early this year,” a USIA report to Congress said. “The Russian was the first one up, but the American’s achievement was more widely heard and even more widely believed.”
After John Glenn became the first man to orbit the earth in 1962, the USIA and the State Department chose cities that would best exhibit his capsule, Friendship 7.
Its first showing was in London, and thousands of people were turned away due to overcrowding. In Paris, people waited 5 hours, and the museum was forced to stay open until midnight.
In 1965, the astronauts themselves went on tour. Lyndon Johnson sent two Gemini astronauts to Paris.
In the summer of 1969, Apollo 11’s moon landing gave the world “one giant leap for mankind,” not to mention President Nixon a big opportunity.
Nixon timed a “diplomatic tour explicitly to take advantage of the international popularity of the moon landing,” Muir-Harmony wrote. His eight-country trip, named Operation Moonglow, showcased a concern for Asia and Eastern Europe and a commitment to achieve peace in Vietnam with the message that “if mankind can send men to the moon, then we can bring peace to the Earth.”
With Operation Moonglow as a distraction, Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, were able to have secret, back-channel meetings with the North Vietnamese that helped pave the way to ending the war.
As Kennedy had hoped, the space program went a long way toward improving America’s image and creating “a sense of goodwill.”
“The message that resonated with people around the world was not of US greatness and strength; it was of sharing and community and openness,” Muir-Harmoney said. “It required forgoing the message of nationalism in favor of global connectedness. For Apollo to ‘win hearts and minds,’ to advance US national interests, it had to be an achievement of and not for all humankind.”