On May 25, 2021, it will be 60 years since President John F. Kennedy gave his ambitious “Man on the Moon” speech to Congress. His historic speech would change the course of history and set the United States on a mission to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. 

After exploring the speech and its significance, this blog post analyzes genuine newspaper content from the time, looking at articles written about the speech for the Washington Post. These articles give a fascinating insight into how the speech was reported at the time, as well as how the public would have read about Kennedy’s important address the following day. 

We have three rare papers from this date in our archive which you can find here. By using our newspaper search tool, you can find many other 1961 newspapers from a date of your choice, letting you read your own genuine newspaper issue from the same year. 

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jfk man on the moon speech

President John F. Kennedy
Image: Flickr

Context of the Speech 

In 1961, the United States welcomed John F. Kennedy as their 35th President during a period of immense change. The nation was moving away from the post-World War II era, and into a new decade focused on the Cold War and the Space Age. 

The Cold War, the period of geopolitical tension between the democratic West (United States) and the communist East (Soviet Union), was ever-growing. After successfully sending Yuri Gagarin on a mission to orbit the Earth, the Soviet Union had taken a lead in space exploration. President Kennedy wished to know what the United States could do to reclaim this lead in the “space race” in the midst of tension and rivalry with the Soviet Union. 

This, along with the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in April, made President Kennedy determined to work towards redeeming the United States with achievements in space. He then stressed the importance of working towards putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade in a crucial address given to Congress on May 25, 1961. 

The Speech 

Here is an excerpt of the JFK Man on the Moon speech that President Kennedy gave to Congress:

“…if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to all of us, as did Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere… Now it is time to take longer strides—time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth. …we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule… Space is open to us now; and our eagerness to share its meaning is not governed by the efforts of others. We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share…

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project…will be more exciting, or more impressive to mankind, or more important…and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish…” 

– President John F. Kennedy, May 1961

The Washington Post Headline – Friday, May 26, 1961 

On Friday, May 26, 1961, the day after President Kennedy spoke to Congress, the Washington Post reported on his speech to inform the public of his ambitious plans. The headline of the newspaper that day read: 

jfk man on the moon speech

The Washington Post headline, Friday, May 26, 1961 

The headline immediately symbolizes the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union at the time when it says “Win Space Race,” making space travel appear more of a competition between the two nations, than a celebration of technological advancement. By writing that the country is going “All-Out,” the headline shows Kennedy’s commitment to landing a man on the moon, with many funds and efforts being directed towards the mission.

“Multi-Billion Effort Outlined to Congress”

jfk man on the moon speech

The Washington Post, Friday, May 26, 1961 

John G. Norris’ piece entitled “Multi-Billion Effort Outlined to Congress” makes awareness of the cost of putting a man on the moon. He claims that: 

“President Kennedy fixed some far-reaching, new space and defense goals for the Nation yesterday that will cost many, many billions in future years.”

“He committed the United States to an all-out race to overtake Russia in space and be the first to put men on the moon.”

By calling it “an all-out race to overtake Russia,” Norris reinforces the competition aspect of putting a man on the moon, making it seem like the main intention of the mission is to get ahead of Russia in terms of space exploration. President Kennedy himself suggests this: 

“It is time…” said the President “for a great new American enterprise – time for this Nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement.”

Especially in the context of the Cold War and ongoing tension with Russia, the way in which the plans for advanced space travel are discussed by both the Washington Post and the President himself make it appear that overtaking Russia is the top priority, and little else is. 

“Prestige Involved” 

Norris continues the notion of a “space race” and competition with Russia when he writes about the potential prestige of putting a man on the moon. He claims that: 

“In committing the Nation to trying to beat Russia to the moon, the President indicated that the prestige attending such a feat figured prominently in his mind.”

According to Norris, the President was often preoccupied with this notion, making it seem like gaining esteem was the main motive. He goes on to say: 

“He said he recognized that the Russians had a “head start” through their possession of large rockets, and said the big effort he proposed would not guarantee that the United States would outstrip them in space.” 

With Russia supposedly having a “head start,” this again suggests a competition between the United States and Russia, showing the desire for America to “catch up” with its rival. Also, despite the efforts set out by Kennedy, getting ahead of Russia could still be a struggle at this point in time. 

“The President, in so many words, committed the Nation only to landing a man on the moon and bringing him back safely, within “this decade.” But he emphasized the moon goal in his message and later James Webb, civilian space director, said flatly that the aim was to put a man on the moon ahead of Russia, perhaps by 1967.”

With the flat-out aim to “put a man on the moon ahead of Russia,” there is no doubt that Cold War-infused competition and tension was a main motivator behind the sudden “all-out” effort to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. However, with an American man eventually landing on the moon in 1969, we know that the space director’s saying “perhaps by 1967” was slightly too ambitious. 

jfk man on the moon speech

The Washington Post subheadline, Friday, May 26, 1961

Coping with Non-Nuclear War 

The John F Kennedy speech about going to the moon also revealed his plans to enhance the country’s ability to cope with non-nuclear war. As well as “winning the race” to put a man on the moon, the tension of the Cold War between the United States and Russia meant America needed to be prepared in the event of war. John G. Norris reports on some of Kennedy’s steps to get the nation ready: 

“An additional $60 million for the Marine Corps to add 12,000 men and to bring the corps to 190,000 men, and modernize arms. This will add two battalions and several helicopter and aircraft squadrons, putting the three Marine divisions and three air wins at close to full strength.”

“Development of plans to have 10 reserve divisions – apparently National Guard units – ready much sooner than now possible. The President said two divisions, plus supporting units, could be ready for ‘operations with but three weeks notice,’ two more in five weeks and the rest in under eight weeks, under the plans, he said.”

President Kennedy’s plans involved a lot of funding and reorganization, and the idea of having 10 reserve divisions “ready much sooner now than possible” shows that Kennedy wanted the country to be immediately prepared. Did President Kennedy think that taking a lead in space exploration could increase tensions with the Soviet Union even more, and therefore increase the prospect of war?

jfk man on the moon speech

JFK giving his speech to Congress, urging support for the moon mission
Image: Flickr

“New Funds Sought” 

Naturally, the ambitious efforts to speed up space exploration and prepare the country for non-nuclear war meant the need for a high increase in funding. John G. Norris writes that: 

“The President’s program calls for new appropriations totaling $531 million for this aim next year, plus $23 million for the AEC’s Rover nuclear rocket, which aims at even deeper space probes, $50 million “to make the most of” America’s present leadership in communications satellites, and $75 million to speed development of a worldwide weather satellite system “at the earliest possible time.”

Here, we learn that President Kennedy was also hoping to create a “worldwide weather satellite system” as well as land a man on the moon, which would solidify America’s role as the leader in space exploration. With this being required at the “earliest possible time,” we can see again that the “space race” was becoming the main priority of the United States. 

John G. Norris also makes awareness of the extreme cost involved with President Kennedy’s plans: 

“The President estimated that his space program would cost $7 to $9 billion more than the present program over the next five years. That would mean expenditures of $22 to $31 billion over that period.” 

“Lunar Plan Gives U.S. Chance to Beat Reds”

jfk man on the moon speech

The Washington Post, Friday, May 26, 1961 

Similarly to John G. Norris, the headline of Howard Simmons’ piece immediately focuses on the idea of competition behind putting a man on the moon. By saying “Beat Reds,” Simmons implies that the plan to explore space is primarily an opportunity for democracy to triumph against Communism. He states that:

“President Kennedy’s proposal for an accelerated space program means “we will start more nearly even with the Soviet Union” in trying to get a man to the moon and back than in other attempts to match Russian space spectaculars.”

Simmons also reports on what President Kennedy’s “crash program” could mean in terms of developments in space exploration: 

“Cutting a year off the 1966 date for sending a three-man space vehicle around the earth; cutting two years off the 1967-1969 target date for a similar attempt to circumnavigate the moon; and possible cutting three years or more from the time when the United States can send a manned spacecraft to the moon and back.” 

“Accelerating the development of the ROVER nuclear rocket.”

“The early establishment of a satellite system for world-wide communications and another for world-wide weather observation.”

“The making and the testing of more Mercury capsules of the type that carried Cmdr. Alan B. Shephard Jr., into outer space.”

“Making more explorations of the moon with a wide variety of unmanned lunar spacecraft.”

jfk man on the moon speech

The Washington Post subheadline, Friday, May 26, 1961

“Reversal in Policy”

Interestingly, Howard Simmons emphasizes that this accelerated program for putting a man on the moon is a contradiction of the nation’s previous policy to the “space race.” He writes that: 

“The President’s decision to shoot for the moon is a major reversal in policy. Less than two months ago it was generally conceded that the United States would not engage in a space race.”

Since the Soviet cosmonaut orbited the Earth just a month before Kennedy gave his speech, it could be said that this achievement by the Soviet Union prompted the President to change the nation’s policy towards the “space race.” As Simmons claims: 

“It developed in the NASA press conference yesterday, however, that the decision to pull out all the stops was made after April 4, the date that Maj. Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth.”

Simmons also writes about the response from the scientific community about the cost of the space exploration program, suggesting that many disapprove with spending such a vast amount of money: 

“In the past there has been considerable criticism from sectors of the scientific community that billions of dollars for outer space could be better spent on earth.”

Especially with prestige seemingly occupying the President’s mind, and the emerging “space race” competition between the United States and the Soviet Union amidst the Cold War, the nation would be spending a lot of money to gain prestige and leadership in space travel. 

“Kennedy Asks For Approval of New Projects” 

Chalmers M. Roberts reveals that much of the John F Kennedy speech in 1961 was focused on the threat of communism, which situates his plan to put a man on the moon firmly within the context of the Cold War. He writes that:

“In what amounted to a grab-bag second State-of-the-Union message, Mr. Kennedy devoted the bulk of his 48-minute address to the “extraordinary challenge” of communism, chiefly in the southern half of the globe embracing Asia, Latin America and Africa.”

While discussing communism as a challenge was quite negative, President Kennedy supposedly “used the term “freedom doctrine” to help give the often sombre recital of facts a positive tone.” Roberts continues: 

“Against a backdrop description of Communist tactics, he expressed hope in the eventual victory of freedom.”

It seems that President Kennedy’s plans were definitely rooted in the hope of democracy emerging triumphant against communism, with success in space exploration proving the necessity of democratic societies. A victory in space, therefore, would be seen as a victory of democracy and freedom.

President John F. Kennedy’s dreams of putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade would become a reality on July 20, 1969. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins made history when they took their first steps on the moon on this historic day. 

Sadly, President John F. Kennedy would not live to see this historic achievement since he was assassinated just two years after his memorable speech. You can read all about man’s first steps on the moon in our Moon Landing Newspaper Book.