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Apollo missions and moon landing were a big PR stunt for JFK


In 1962, President John F. Kennedy stood on a stage at Rice University and said that America must go to the moon, and that mankind cannot be deterred “in his quest for knowledge and progress.” 

But, it turns out, he didn’t care much about either knowledge or progress. In fact, the young president reportedly had little interest in space. He supposedly told an MIT professor that rockets were a waste of money. 

Even so, 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 told The Post. “It was really a demonstration of what American industry was capable of and a demonstration of American values.”

In her new book, “Operation Moonglow: A Political History of Project Apollo” (Basic Books), out now, Muir-Harmony dug through boxes of hidden government documents to shine a light on the little-known role that propaganda and foreign relations played in fueling the space program — rather than the wonder of discovery. 

The Eisenhower administration first conceived the Apollo program partially as a way to “contain Communism, align the world with the United States and shore up America’s power.”

But one of the problems America faced when it came to the space race was that it was losing. The Soviet Union’s Sputnik triumph forced the world to 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 trumpeted, “US Survey Finds Others Consider Soviets Mightiest.” 

In 1961, the Soviets put the first man in space. Yuri Gagarin became an instant worldwide celebrity who later went on tour. 

When Kennedy took office in 1961, the government’s PR machine ratcheted up. 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 the book. 

When it came to the space-race propaganda, the Americans were determined to do things differently than the Soviets. 

“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.” 

Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon both saw the potential to exploit the space race to show off American ingenuity.
Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon both saw the potential to exploit the space race.
Getty Images (2)

In 1961, for example, Freedom 7, the capsule that carried the first American into space, was exhibited in Paris and Rome, drawing more than a million visitors. 

“Two young men soared into space early this year,” a USIA report to Congress read. “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 selected cities that would be most strategically advantageous to exhibit his capsule, Friendship 7. 

On its first showing in London, thousands were turned away due to overcrowding. In Paris, the curious waited five hours, forcing the museum to stay open until midnight. In Egypt, one onlooker was overheard saying, “I thought this space flight business was a rumor but now that I can see the ship I believe it.” 

In 1965, the astronauts themselves were sent on tour. Lyndon Johnson shipped two Gemini astronauts to Paris to glad-hand. 

The cover of Operation Moonglow

American embassies around the world began clamoring for a visit of their own. The US embassy in Turkey, for example, wrote that a visit would be “extremely useful [for] this NATO partner which directly confronts USSR . . .” 

In the summer of 1969, Apollo 11’s moon landing gave the world “one giant leap for mankind” and President Nixon a huge opportunity.

Nixon timed a “diplomatic tour explicitly to take advantage of the international popularity of the moon landing,” the author writes. His eight-country trip, named Operation Moonglow, sought to demonstrate a concern for Asia and Eastern Europe and a commitment to securing peace in Vietnam with the message that “if mankind can send men to the moon, then we can bring peace to the Earth.” 

Operation Moonglow bore tangible fruit. Using the trip for cover, 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 envisioned, the space program went a long way toward improving America’s brand and creating “a sense of goodwill,” the author says. But, ultimately, the program tapped into something greater. 

“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-Harmony writes. “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.”

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