George Reedy Interview
The following interview of George E. Reedy was recorded by John Logsdon on May 20, 1992. The original transcript can be found on pages 8-12 of the document Legislative Origins of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 on NASA's website. The interview provides exciting insights into the origin of the U.S.-Soviet Space Race, and Lyndon Johnson's part in it.
Individual Discussions: Conversation with George Reedy
Our first conversation is with George E. Reedy, who has had a distinguished career as an educator, author, and public servant. Mr. Reedy was, of course, press secretary and consultant to Lyndon Johnson when LBJ was President....
LOGSDON: Give us a sense of how you and Senator Johnson interacted on the space issue in the immediate aftermath of Sputnik and then as the space program took shape during 1958.
REEDY: Well, in the immediate aftermath, for about two weeks I merely let the thing vegetate. Senator Johnson had so many problems on his mind that I doubt whether he devoted too much attention to it. We were both down in Texas. I was living in Austin there at the time. We had some very difficult years ahead of us. The next year was going to be a campaign year, which meant that the Senate would be very difficult to lead and for a while I sort of put the space thing on the back burner. But what got me out of it was a visit from Charles S. Brewton, who has now unfortunately passed away, but for whose political acumen I had great deal of respect. I think that if there is a father to the Space Act it was probably Charley Brewton, of whom very few people have ever heard. Charley had been Senator Lister Hill's administrative assistant. I had never known him to be wrong in judging the public. He came down to see me, and said that the Space Act was so tremendous. It could first of all clobber the Republicans, secondly lead to tremendous advances, and, third, elect Lyndon Johnson as president. Well, I told him that Lyndon Johnson was not interested in running for the presidency. He said that was all right with him, he would settle for clobbering the Republicans. He was a Democrat. He insisted we drive out of Austin and out into the hill country right around Austin. We found a little mound where we could look and see hundreds of miles of practically nothing. He began to talk about the space program; that man had really mastered the drift of it, the poetry. He didn't know very much about outer space but he had grasped immediately the fact that this was something that could change the whole way that we lived; it could change our nation. He convinced me. I remember going back that night. My mind was just full of it. I sat up most of the night reading everything that I could. And I wrote the Senator a long memorandum the next day, which went beyond Charley's thinking because I knew a little more about space.
LOGSDON: This was October 17?
REEDY: Right, October 17, 1957. I wrote a rather lengthy memorandum. In that memorandum, I said that this would go far beyond a mere defense thing. The immediate public reaction would probably be fear, but that long range, this could be one of the great dividing lines in American and world history, the whole history of humanity. I remember the Senator as being a little bit reluctant at first, because he had so many other problems on his mind and they were pressing him. Finally, we went to Washington, where we met with Senator Russell and I have a feeling Senator Bridges-my memory's not clear. We had a very private briefing, in the Pentagon, on the state of America's rocket program. As I remember, there were some rather amusing aspects to it. That is where we first learned about Atlas and Polaris and all of those things. It became apparent to us, at the time, that the Defense Department was thinking solely in military terms, which was not really what we were after. We thought that something more than that was in effect. So, at the end of the hearing, we went back to the Hill and met in Senator Russell's office. What Senator Russell did was to authorize Johnson to use the Senate Pre p a re d n e s s Subcommittee to hold some hearings into this whole question. That Subcommittee had been defunct for a number of years. It was appointed, originally, to look into events in Korea during the Korean War. We started gathering people that could be useful. Eventually this led to the first set of hearings at which Edwin Weisel in New York acted as a consultant counsel, and Cy Vance, who was out of Ed Weisel's law firm, also was an assistant consulting counsel. That brought Eilene Galloway into it and quite a number of other people.
LOGSDON: These were the hearings in November-December 1957 that led to a set of recommendations in early January 1958?
REEDY: Right. Those were the hearings.
LOGSDON: And then Senator Johnson went before the Democratic Policy Committee and spoke on the space issue?
LOGSDON: Were you directly involved with that?
REEDY: Only to the extent of distributing the speech. What had happened was that the speech was written by Horace Busby. It was a remarkable speech, sort of an overpowering speech.
LOGSDON: In Twilight of the Presidency you call it a "compelling power."
REEDY: Right, which is a good way to describe it. One felt almost that one were listening to an Old Testament prophet. I think that was a very important influence in selling the space program. We were already running into some troubles, because it was apparent that President Eisenhower was very reluctant and so was the Pentagon to open this up to the civilian exploration program. They were thinking almost entirely in terms of weaponry. The weaponry was rather well developed. The one real advantage that the Russians had over us, at that point, was that they had developed rockets which were much more powerful than ours.
LOGSDON: Because they had a heavier warhead?
REEDY: No, just because they started earlier. As nearly as we can make out what happened, the Russians, at some point, discovered that they could never catch up to us in powered aircraft. You know, once you get a momentum going.
LOGSDON: Sure, and so they wanted to make a leap.
REEDY: They wanted to leapfrog and they leapfrogged to rocketry. If we were to get our rockets into space we had to put three rockets together to lift one small payload that the Russians could lift with one rocket. I think that to a great extent the Pentagon wanted to keep the thing as secret as they possibly could. They were also worried about the diversion of attention from weaponry into what they thought were nonproductive fields.
LOGSDON: Space spectaculars
REEDY: Right. I remember there were some remarks that leaked out of the White House. I think it was Sherman Adams, Eisenhower's top assistant, who made some remark about Lyndon Johnson playing outer space basketball. Eisenhower, at one point is supposed to have said, "Lyndon Johnson can keep his head in the stars if he wants. I'm going to keep my feet on the ground.'' There was very distinct reluctance for them to proceed, which, to me, raises a very interesting point. More than anything else, I'm a political theoretician and historian and this is one of the very few instances in this century, I can only think of three or four, where the initiative for a very major law and a very major change was the initiative of Congress.
REEDY: Yes, Congress rather than the President.
LOGSDON: Congress really put the pressure on the White House?
LOGSDON: I think the White House had to respond and brought a Space Act up, but it is because Congress was insistent.
REEDY: Right, and the Space Act was not a very good act that they brought up. Again, I think Eisenhower was afraid of having an agency that could get out of control. I don't think any of his motives, by the way, were bad or venal or anything like that. I think it was just a difference of opinion; and, therefore, he tried to keep the agency as much under control as possible and as much under the control of the military as he possibly could. You know, as a rule, if you take a look at a legislative year, the legislation consists of Congress reacting to what the President proposes.
LOGSDON: Yes, to White House initiatives.
REEDY: Which doesn't mean the President gets everything he wants, not by a long shot. But, he has the power of the initiative. That's the one real power of the Presidency, by the way. There are not many others.
LOGSDON: It is agenda setting.
REEDY: Right. Most of the powers of the Presidency are mythical, as every President has discovered. But here you had one of the only three or four instances I can think of in this century where something originated with Congress.
LOGSDON: How engaged did Senator Johnson stay with the space issue after these early months in 1958. Was it a continuing concern? Of course, he had lots of other things on his mind.
REEDY: Right. It was a continuing concern, to a point. One of the problems here is it was an unusually difficult year. You have to realize that we were engaged in an election year. And the Senate and the House are always more difficult to manage. The Senate is a little bit easier than the House because only one third of the Senate is up in any particular election. There were many other things during that year. We also had a mild recession that came later in the year that meant that we had to do something about the economy, jump starting it, that sort of thing. I think for a while, Lyndon Johnson didn't get distracted from the space program, but he had many other things competing with it.
LOGSDON: But, then, later in the year, and I believe you were involved, Senator Johnson was asked by President Eisenhower to go up to the United Nations and talk about the international aspects of the space program.
REEDY: Right, which was very fitting. You know, it was rather strange. If one looks at the press of the period, it became apparent immediately that Lyndon Johnson was the major innovator in this whole thing. I can still remember one marvelous cartoon that appeared in the Baltimore Sun showing Lyndon Johnson and the rest arriving like visitors from Mars. You know, "Take me to your leader," that kind of stuff, meaning the space program. He was the ideal man to make that statement before the United Nations, because you could really say that he was speaking for the country. He had originated this; it had been accepted by the nation; so he was the presenter.