The U.S. Proposal That Caught the Russians Off Guard 50 Years Ago

In 1963, a plea from JFK for a joint mission to the moon surprised the Soviets.

President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev in June 1961.
National Journal
Marina Koren
Add to Briefcase
Marina Koren
Sept. 20, 2013, 12:58 p.m.

There is one thing Pres­id­ent Obama, Re­pub­lic­ans, and the gen­er­al pub­lic all seem to agree on, and that’s skep­ti­cism about Rus­sia’s agree­ment to work with the U.S. to work to­geth­er to dis­mantle Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al weapons pro­gram.

Fifty years ago, however, it was the Rus­si­ans who were sus­pi­cious of the Amer­ic­ans. On Sept. 20, 1963, Pres­id­ent Kennedy sug­ges­ted that the So­viet Uni­on and the United States part­ner on a mis­sion to send a man to the moon. The “space race” was in full swing then. Sev­er­al years earli­er, the So­vi­ets had sent Sput­nik, the world’s first satel­lite, to or­bit the Earth. NASA was just three years old. Amer­ic­ans, eager to best their Cold War rival, were scram­bling to outdo the So­vi­ets in space.

Kennedy an­nounced his pro­pos­al in a speech be­fore the United Na­tions Gen­er­al As­sembly in New York City. “In a field where the United States and the So­viet Uni­on have a spe­cial ca­pa­city — space — there is room for new co­oper­a­tion, for fur­ther joint ef­forts,” he said. Amer­ica’s na­tion­al se­cur­ity was also im­port­ant, as were in­ter­na­tion­al bans on nuc­le­ar weapons, so Kennedy ad­ded, “The So­viet Uni­on and the United States, to­geth­er with their al­lies, can achieve fur­ther agree­ments — agree­ments which spring from our mu­tu­al in­terest in avoid­ing mu­tu­al de­struc­tion.”

The pres­id­ent’s pro­pos­al for a joint mis­sion sur­prised many on both sides. The So­viet Uni­on’s for­eign min­is­ter, An­drei Gromyko, called Kennedy’s re­marks “a good sign,” but wouldn’t com­ment on the pro­pos­al. Many Amer­ic­ans were out­raged at the idea of work­ing with the en­emy. Oth­ers saw the move not as smart polit­ics, but as an at­tempt to off­set the as­tro­nom­ic­al cost of the U.S.’s fledgling lun­ar pro­gram.

Ac­cord­ing to a 1997 in­ter­view with So­viet Premi­er Nikita Khrushchev’s son, the So­viet lead­er de­cided in Novem­ber of 1963 to ac­cept Kennedy’s pro­pos­al. Khrushchev ini­tially re­jec­ted the sug­ges­tion, but began hav­ing second thoughts when he real­ized a joint lun­ar pro­gram could help the So­vi­ets learn more from the Amer­ic­ans’ tech­no­logy.

A week later, Kennedy was shot and killed in Dal­las. His suc­cessor as pres­id­ent, Lyn­don John­son, would push ahead with a U.S. lun­ar pro­gram, but nev­er seek co­oper­a­tion with the So­vi­ets. Six years later, the United States sent Neil Arm­strong to the moon.

Chem­ic­al weapons and space mis­sions have little in com­mon; neither do Rus­si­an and Amer­ic­an pres­id­ents, past and present. But when Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin re­cently wrote in The New York Times, his words seemed to echo those Kennedy spoke 50 years ago: “If we can avoid force against Syr­ia, this will im­prove the at­mo­sphere in in­ter­na­tion­al af­fairs and strengthen mu­tu­al trust. It will be our shared suc­cess and open the door to co­oper­a­tion on oth­er crit­ic­al is­sues.”

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