JFK's Forgotten Joint Moon Mission Proposal with the USSR

Large, bright full moon with crater detail

"In a field where the United States and the Soviet Union have a special capability - space - there is room for new cooperation...a joint expedition to the moon." - John F. Kennedy
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Cooperation with the Enemy

On September 20, 1963, the President of the United States stood at the podium before the U.N. General Assembly and prepared himself for the shock waves that would follow his proposal: the United States and the Soviet Union should work together in a joint space mission in order to reach the moon.

This now long forgotten proposal came at a time when Cold War tensions between the United States and the USSR had been heated for decades. After all, the American public still had fresh memories of the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis. How would they accept a proposal for a peaceful lunar landing mission with a perceived enemy?

In the decades following World War II, there had been an arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States. There was a growing atmosphere of hostility, competition and suspicion on both sides. The people from both superpowers lived in a state of constant fear that one side may decide to fire the first nuclear shot against the other. This fear and pessimism was joined by an intense drive by both the United States and Soviet Russia to get the better of each other in virtually every field of human endeavor.

Ideological Opposites

In the case of the United States versus the Soviet Union, the struggle wasn't simply about national pride and patriotism. The stakes were so high and the competition was so extraordinarily fierce because two completely incompatible political and economic ideologies were on trial--capitalism and communism--and in a race like this, there's no medal for second place.

John F. Kennedy had seen the horrors of war during his service aboard a PT-boat in World War II. When he was in the senate, he often made remarks which urged caution on discussions of war.

"For if the American people are, for the fourth time in this century, to travel the long and tortuous road of war - particularly a war which we now realize would threaten the survival of civilization - then I believe we have a right - a right which we should have hitherto exercised - to inquire in detail into the nature of the struggle in which we may become engaged, and the alternative to such struggle." (Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy on Indochina before the Senate, Washington, D.C., April 6, 1954)
Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his farewell address to the nation, warned about the growth and dangers of the military-industrial complex. Indeed, by the time Kennedy became president, a large arms industry and various hawkish politicians were just itching for war. In a speech made on September 25, 1961, President Kennedy renounced the idea of an arms race and instead challenged the Soviet Union to a "peace race," undoubtedly making him unpopular among the nation's warlords.

The war for ideological supremacy was perhaps waged most fiercely in the scientific study and exploration of space. The Soviets had been first to launch a small satellite, Sputnik 1, into space in 1957. Four years later, on April 12, 1961, the Soviet pilot and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first human to reach space, which was a huge embarrassment for the United States.

Not Because They Are Easy but Because They Are Hard

As it was starting to seem as though the Soviet Union was actually overtaking the United States in the Space Race, Kennedy decided to set a bold goal for his country, one that would finally decide the winner of the Space Race once and for all: to put man on the moon before the end of the 1960s.

By 1963, US-Soviet relations had greatly improved. The Moscow–Washington hotline had been established to diffuse problems before they could get out of hand. A treaty was signed between the two superpowers banning the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Still, the Cold War-era response to Kennedy's joint moon landing proposal was somewhat predictable. The Soviet Union Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko appreciated the proposal, while the politicians in Washington recoiled in disbelief. To many of those hearing the news, cooperation with the Soviet Union wasn't just a simple act of working together towards a common goal; it was tantamount to treason.

JFK's memorial burial marker at Arlington National Cemetery

Could President Kennedy's perceived "softness" towards the Soviet Union and communism have led to his assassination?
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Could this one simple speech that proposed scientific cooperation with the Soviet Union have led to Kennedy's assassination, just two months later? The assassination of John F. Kennedy is still considered by some to be an open homicide and many people don't believe the "lone gunman" theory as suggested by the Warren Commission. As such, there are countless theories about the assassination and possible motivations of the killer(s).

Cooperation with the Soviets on a joint lunar landing mission seems pretty insignificant in the hierarchy of possible motives. On the other hand, perhaps it's unwise to underestimate the will to fight of those committed to division against those committed to unity.