The U.S. Proposal That Caught the Russians Off Guard 50 Years Ago

Marina Koren

There is one thing President Obama, Republicans, and the general public all seem to agree on, and that's skepticism about Russia's agreement to work with the U.S. to work together to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons program.

Fifty years ago, however, it was the Russians who were suspicious of the Americans. On Sept. 20, 1963, President Kennedy suggested that the Soviet Union and the United States partner on a mission to send a man to the moon. The "space race" was in full swing then. Several years earlier, the Soviets had sent Sputnik, the world's first satellite, to orbit the Earth. NASA was just three years old. Americans, eager to best their Cold War rival, were scrambling to outdo the Soviets in space.

Kennedy announced his proposal in a speech before the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. "In a field where the United States and the Soviet Union have a special capacity—space—there is room for new cooperation, for further joint efforts," he said. America's national security was also important, as were international bans on nuclear weapons, so Kennedy added, "The Soviet Union and the United States, together with their allies, can achieve further agreements—agreements which spring from our mutual interest in avoiding mutual destruction."

The president's proposal for a joint mission surprised many on both sides. The Soviet Union's foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, called Kennedy's remarks "a good sign," but wouldn't comment on the proposal. Many Americans were outraged at the idea of working with the enemy. Others saw the move not as smart politics, but as an attempt to offset the astronomical cost of the U.S.'s fledgling lunar program.

According to a 1997 interview with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's son, the Soviet leader decided in November of 1963 to accept Kennedy's proposal. Khrushchev initially rejected the suggestion, but began having second thoughts when he realized a joint lunar program could help the Soviets learn more from the Americans' technology.

A week later, Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas. His successor as president, Lyndon Johnson, would push ahead with a U.S. lunar program, but never seek cooperation with the Soviets. Six years later, the United States sent Neil Armstrong to the moon.

Chemical weapons and space missions have little in common; neither do Russian and American presidents, past and present. But when Russian President Vladimir Putin recently wrote in The New York Times, his words seemed to echo those Kennedy spoke 50 years ago: "If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust. It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues."