‘We Choose to go to the Moon’

“’We will bury you,’ Soviet chairman Nikita Khrushchev famously said one Moscow night in the 1950s, in words that defined the coming struggle with the West.”


L. Ian MacDonald

July 19, 2019

A football stadium is an acoustically challenging venue for an inspirational speech, but John F. Kennedy rose to the rhetorical occasion in his speech at Rice University in Houston in September 1962.

He was speaking about the space program based in Houston, and not just flying around the moon, but setting foot on it, as Neil Armstrong did 50 years ago this week.

“We choose to go to the moon,” Kennedy declared. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

In a single, signal moment, President Kennedy defined a key piece of America’s geopolitical, scientific and cultural agenda of the 1960s.

He had just put it another way, in words that splendidly evoked local sensibilities: “Why does Rice play Texas?”

He put it still another way in closing what proved to be an historic address, referring to the British explorer George Mallory, “who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, ‘Because it is there.’

“Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail, we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and the greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”

It was hardly evident then. The Americans were playing catch-up with the Soviet Russians, who had been first in the space race with the Sputniks in the late 1950s and had the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, who orbited the earth once in 1961. Alan Shepherd’s partial orbit in 1961, and John Glenn’s three global orbits in early 1962, did nothing to diminish Russia’s victory in the propaganda war over space.

“We will bury you,” Soviet chairman Nikita Khrushchev famously said one Moscow night in the 1950s, in words that defined the coming struggle with the West.

The Cold War may have been waged on the ground, but its first round would be won in space, not just in the lunar program, but in the new technology that got the astronauts to the moon and back. The computer and digital revolutions are largely the result of the Apollo program. Who could have imagined then that the trailblazing technology of Apollo 11 could be adapted in miniature to a computerized pocket phone?

And where the children of the 1950s stood out on clear nights looking at the moving sky dot of a Sputnik flyover, by the 1960s the Americans had assumed the popular leadership role. When Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 20th 1969, it was more than “one small step for man,” it truly was a “giant leap for mankind.” Around the world, an estimated half a billion people watched, and many prayed for their safe return.

As it happened, their mission had begun from a Florida space centre re-named for Kennedy after the tragic events in Dallas in 1963. But his words lived on.

As did others. American presidents have a uniquely powerful podium in that their words can make a defining difference. Kennedy was one of two U.S. presidents since the Second World War, the other being Ronald Reagan, who understood the power of words and used them to their advantage.

And both had speechwriters — Ted Sorensen for Kennedy and Peggy Noonan for Reagan — who gave them words for great occasions. Just last month, on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, we were reminded of Reagan’s address on the 40th anniversary of the liberation of Europe in 1944. He stood on a cliff atop Juno Beach and spoke to the survivors of that day. “These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”

In 1963, Kennedy went to West Berlin and gave the famous Ich bin ein Berliner speech that foretold the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of a united Europe. “We can look forward to that day,” he said, “when this city will be joined as one, and this country and this great continent of Europe, in a peaceful and hopeful globe.”

If only America had such leadership today.

L. Ian MacDonald is editor and publisher of Policy Magazine. He was chief speechwriter to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney from 1985-89.