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Securitization: Kennedy’s Race To The Moon

On May 25, 1961 President John F. Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress to deliver his State of the Union address on ‘’Urgent National Needs’’. ‘’I believe we should go to the Moon’’, declared Kennedy. The undertaking of the lunar journey would attribute ‘’to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny.’’ Kennedy had little interest in space issues before his Presidency (Logsdon 2011). However, three months after his inauguration Kennedy asked his advisers to propose a space program, in which the US could gain space supremacy and ‘win the battle along the fluid front of the Cold War’ (Kennedy 1961).

This article explores ‘securitization’, a theory that focuses on the micro history of security and is about a specific moment or actor who speaks security. This toolkit is employed to facilitate the content analysis of the Urgent National Needs speech of Kennedy to the analytical endpoint of the ‘securitizing move’. 

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 The first successful manned spaceflight to outer space by the Soviet Union, on April 12, 1961, fuelled Kennedy’s ambition to ‘’go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.’’ In the memorandum to the Vice-President on April 20, 1961 Kennedy asks how to beat the Soviet Union in space leadership.  The response of Vice-President Johnson led to the Apollo program and subsequently was the direct input for Kennedy’s Urgent National Needs speech (Johnson 1961). The Johnson memorandum describes the assessment of the technological and military accomplishments of the Soviet Union and the acquired prestige by its first manned space flight. Johnson proposed a ‘’manned exploration of the moon’’ with ‘’great propaganda value.’’ The US space program became a tool to advance the US foreign policy and national security goals (Logsdon 2011).

Project Apollo was the largest peacetime government directed engineering project in the history of the US and ‘required a historically massive commitment of the public of public funds over a relatively brief period of time’ (Ibid.). The lunar project cost, at its completion, $25.4 billion – equal to $151 billion in 2010 (Ibid.). Apollo 11 was the first spaceflight that successfully carried out a manned landing on the moon. The three American astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin Jr. landed on the moon on July 20, 1969.

The central question in this paper is: ‘’Can the Urgent National Needs speech – more specifically the introduction, excerpt of section IX: Space and conclusion – of John F. Kennedy in 1961 be described as a attempt to securitize outer space and therefore labeled as a securitizing move?’’ Tracing different societal and political processes, as well as temporal dynamics at the specific moment of the Kennedy speech, contributes to the understanding of the window of opportunity for the Kennedy Administration to gain global prestige and supremacy in outer space.

The securitization toolkit of the Copenhagen School is employed to define the threat image (referent subject) and the strategy to act. This analytical toolkit is employed to understand the securitization of outer space during the Cold War, by analyzing Kennedy’s speech and tracing the underlying meanings. The aim of this explanatory case study is to address the conditions and context of the Cold War in 1961 that led to – the analytical endpoint of – the securitization move. The latter is described by Sjöstedt (2013) as ‘’the public framing of an issue as a national threat, accompanied by a strategy to act’’. Furthermore, the study of Sjöstedt provides several indicators for securitization and operationalization. The initiation of a securitizing move indicates that the decision-maker has publicly declared an issue as a threat to national security and subsequently provides an action plan to handle the threat. The lack of a concrete strategy and the use of general terms indicate a neutral statement (Mieß 2010; Mayring 2000). Content analysis is employed to analyze the introduction, section IX and conclusion of the speech, in which a strategy regarding space is proposed.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.

Kennedy - January 20, 1961

Inaugural address

The following sections explain the concept of security and the ongoing discussions in the research field of securitization. Furthermore, the securitization toolkit is employed to understand the underlying meanings of the Kennedy speech and shed light on the referent subject and the proposed exceptional measure, respectively defining the threat (to national security) and the space program. The relevant indicators of the threat image and the measures or strategy to act are introduced as a departure point for the content analysis of the (selected parts of the) speech.

The following arguments will be presented in this paper.

  • The research field in military expertise and social science emerged during the 1940s and 1950s in the US to in response to the Soviet challenges;
  • What became apparent of the fall of the Berlin wall was the notion of other important values and psychological notions, such as economic power, human rights, acceptance and recognition;
  • The Copenhagen School approach of the concept of security attempts to move beyond the conceptualizing of security in objectivist terms and introduced a subjectivist concept;
  • The Soviet launch of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1 in October 1957, and subsequently Sputnik 2 several months later, became one of the major issues for the Pre-Kennedy Administration;
  • The Cold War containment policy became the dominant premise during the Kennedy Presidential campaign and subsequently the Kennedy Administration;
  • During the Cold War the main security problem for the United States was the broad-spectrum challenge from the Soviet Union, consisting not only of military challenges, but also ideological, social and economic;
  • Five principals formed the motivation for the space program: national prestige, national security, scientific observation and experiment, practical nonmilitary applications and international cooperation;
  • The national threat image of the US regarding the Soviet Union and communism, as well as the strategy to act (exceptional measure) is described in the Kennedy Urgent National Needs speech on May 25, 1961.