JFK Library releases White House tape on space race
Posted: August 23, 2001

Photo: JFK Library
The John F. Kennedy Library has made available for research a tape recording of a 73-minute White House meeting that took place on November 21, 1962 during which President Kennedy made clear his administration's priority that the United States land on the moon before the Soviet Union.

The tape is particularly noteworthy for the window it provides into presidential decision making. Faced with the option of directing federal funds more generally across the entire space program, President Kennedy argued with James Webb, the head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), for a more focused approach toward the lunar landing. Having such a goal, the President argued, would carry the country's entire space effort forward and have the same outcome NASA was seeking. Unlike many of the presidential recordings from the Kennedy Library archives, the quality and clarity of the tape recording are also exceptional.

The entire tape is of a meeting that took place in the Cabinet Room on November 21, 1962. The identified participants are: President John F. Kennedy; James E. Webb, Administrator, NASA; Jerome Wiesner, Special Assistant to the President; Edward Welch, Executive Secretary, NASA; David E. Bell, Director, Bureau of the Budget; Vice President Lyndon Johnson; Hugh Dryden, Deputy Administrator, NASA; Dr. Brainard Holmes, Director of Manned Space Flight, NASA; Robert Seamans, Deputy Administrator, NASA; Elmer Staats, Deputy Director, Bureau of the Budget; Willis H. Shapley, Deputy Division Chief, Military Division, Bureau of the Budget. The tape is declassified in full and there are no excisions.

At the meeting, the President and his staff were discussing a supplemental budget for NASA and the effect the increased money would have on expediting the scheduled orbital flights and the Apollo Space Program. There is a disagreement among the staff over whether or not the increased budget will change the target dates for the Apollo Program, including the lunar landing scheduled for 1967.

James Webb, Administrator of NASA, and Robert Seamans, Deputy Administrator for NASA, explain to the President that they do not believe that the timetable for Apollo can be expedited. NASA's Apollo Space Program sought to develop man's capability to work in the lunar environment, to carry out a program of scientific exploration of the moon, and to establish the technology to meet other national interests in space.

In the course of the discussion, an animated exchange between the President and Webb took place over the priority of the lunar landing program. Webb, in a spirited and fearless exchange with President Kennedy, argued that the lunar program was "one" of the top priority programs of NASA. The President wanted it made clear that it was "the" priority program -- not only for NASA but for the entire government -- with the desired result being that the United States would beat the Russians to the moon.

Other subjects covered in this meeting were the rising costs of governmental contracts, the target dates for the lunar landing, the political importance of John Glenn's orbital flight on February 20, 1962, and the game plan for approaching congressional leaders regarding increased NASA support. Researchers should be aware that after the meeting ends and the President departs, staff discussions continue for a portion of the tape.

Today's opening from tape #63 represents approximately 73 minutes of recording. Approximately 130 hours of meeting tapes remain to be reviewed for declassification prior to release. Processing of the presidential recordings will continue to be conducted in the chronological order of the tapes. Additional tapes will be opened in the near future.

The first items from the presidential recordings were opened to public research in June of 1983. Over the past eighteen years, the Library staff has reviewed and opened all of the telephone conversations and a large portion of the meeting tapes. The latter are predominantly meetings with President Kennedy in either the Oval Office or the Cabinet Room. While the recordings were deliberate in the sense that it required manual operation to start and stop the recording, it was not, based on the material recorded, used with daily regularity nor was there a set pattern for its operation.

The tapes represent raw historical material. The sound quality of the recordings varies widely. Although most of the recorded conversation is understandable, most tapes also include passages of extremely poor sound quality with considerable background noise and periods where the identity of the speakers is unclear.

The release of White House meetings is in tape form without transcripts. The tapes are available for research use in the Library's Research Room. The hours of operation are Monday - Friday from 8:30 am - 4:30 pm and appointments may be made by calling (617) 929-4534. The recordings and finding guide are available for purchase at the John F. Kennedy Library, Columbia Point, Boston, MA 02125, or by calling the Audiovisual Department (617) 929-4529.

Materials housed at the John F. Kennedy Library have come to the presidential archives through two routes. The first is as Federal records, which come from executive departments, commissions and committees of the Federal government. Access to these materials is controlled by the originating agency. In addition, many of these materials contain national security classified information, which under laws and executive orders must be reviewed by the appropriate agency for possible declassification. Some of the materials, such as civil rights cases or litigation, also have privacy restrictions.

The second route is as personal papers, which come from individuals under deeds of gift and deposit agreements negotiated between the National Archives and Records Administration and the donor or his/her heirs. These materials, called "donated historical materials", comprise the bulk of the Library's holdings. Deeds of gift and deposit agreements cover the administration of the collections as well as the title, literary rights, and any restrictions requested by the donor or necessitated by the nature of the materials. Many donors retain literary rights and/or restrict personal financial or medical information. A review of personal papers for national security classified information also sometimes occurs depending upon the nature of the papers themselves. The presidential recordings are a deeded gift from the estate of President Kennedy.

The John F. Kennedy Library's Archives includes 36 million pages of documents from the collections of 340 individuals, organizations, or government agencies; oral history interviews with 1,300 people; and over 30,000 books. The Audiovisual Archives administers collections of over 400,000 still photographs, 8,550,000 feet of motion picture film, 1,200 hours of video recordings, over 9,000 hours of audio recordings and 500 original editorial cartoons.

The John F. Kennedy Library and Museum is a presidential library administered by the National Archives and Records Administration and supported, in part, by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, a non-profit organization. The Kennedy Library and the Kennedy Library Foundation seek to promote, through educational and community programs, a greater appreciation and understanding of American politics, history, and culture, the process of governing and the importance of public service.