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
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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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