Transcript: Douglas Brinkley on "Face the Nation," July 14, 2019

Full interview: Douglas Brinkley on "Face the Nation"

The following is a transcript of the full interview with historian Douglas Brinkley, part of which aired on Sunday, July 14, 2019, on "Face the Nation."


MARGARET BRENNAN: As we launch our CBS News coverage of the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, we want to get some perspective on how this massive undertaking first got off the ground and for that, Presidential Historian Douglas Brinkley joins us to discuss his latest book, American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race. Good morning. 

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: Good morning to you.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So this is more than just a historical moment, what did the great space race do for America?

BRINKLEY: Oh, it lifted America's morale incredibly. You know, in the 1960s, we were mired in the Vietnam War. We had dealt with the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and then we kept thinking, "Can we get to the moon? Can we fulfill John F. Kennedy's pledge to put an astronaut on the moon and bring them back alive by the end of the decade?" And so it was bipartisan in nature. It cost twenty five billion dollars, that's one hundred and eighty billion in today's currency. But the American public said, "let's do it," and they kept funding it via congressional appropriations.

MARGARET BRENNAN: It's interesting in the book, you go through some of the personal narrative as well, particularly for Kennedy himself and what inspired him to do this. I want to ask you to tell us a little bit about what happened after World War II. A lot of Americans may not know the involvement of Nazi scientists in the space program and a personal relationship between Kennedy and a scientist called Werhner von Braun. Who is he? 

BRINKLEY: Well von Braun was the great German Rocketeer of the 1920s, 1930s and he works for Adolf Hitler in World War II. He's an SS officer, and he develops vengeance weapons for Hitler, V1's, famously the V2, and V3. But von Braun always has an eye for the moon and the stars. The big deal is how can you put a projectile sixty-two miles up breaking great- Earth's gravity grip and going into outer space. And von Braun is the one who accomplishes this feat during World War II but alas, the war ends. Von Braun could be charged for war crimes for building these weapons and using Jewish slave labor to build them. And he makes a deal with the Truman administration to become part of the US Army and to move to Fort Bliss, which is El Paso, Texas and start building missiles for the United States. And in 1950, von Braun moves with his rocket team, a hundred and thirty seven German Naz- former Nazi rocket scientist and they start building rockets in Alabama throughout the 1950s and it's Wernher von Braun's Saturn 5, that is Apollo 11 that brought our astronauts to the moon. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: And it was the American deal to bring those Nazi scientists to the US that really irks and concerned the Soviets.

BRINKLEY:  Very much so because we was the greatest technology heist right maybe in world history where suddenly we had all of the Nazi rocket and missile assets. There's a moral conundrum going on here of whether we should have done this, but we did. But from 1945 to 1949, the United States had a nuclear monopoly, we were the superpower. Suddenly, under Joe Stalin, Russia had the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb, they put up the first intercontinental ballistic missile, the R-7. Then, October of 1957, Sputnik, the first Earth satellite, so there's a feeling in the mid fifties, that Eisenhower's asleep at the wheel and we're getting our clock cleaned by the Soviet Union. And it's out of Sputnik, that in 1958, Eisenhower creates NASA, a civilian space exploration, announces Mercury astronauts, we pick seven and then we start looking, can we put an astronaut in a space? And then when Kennedy is president the question is, can we put a man on the moon? 

MARGARET BRENNAN: And what's so fascinating is you write about President Eisenhower never trusted Von Brunn because of his background. But Kennedy, despite fighting in World War II himself, had this friendship or partnership with him.

BRINKLEY: True. And the reason is I think Eisenhower as supreme allied commander in World War II knew better than anybody how horrific the Holocaust was, knew that the sheer terror that von Braun's V2 rockets reigned on London and Antwerp. So he never really forgave von Braun. Kennedy saw it more as, "I was a young grunt lieutenant junior grade in the Solomon Islands campaign in the Pacific, von Braun was from Germany."  He had to work there so he didn't hold a grudge against von Braun the way Eisenhower did. And Kennedy and von Braun meet in 1953 in New York City where they're judges for Time Magazine's Person of the Year. They get along great and they choose Conrad Adenauer, West Germany's new chancellor as the Person of the Year and that tells you we're starting to have West Germany as our great ally,  Japan's our great ally, and Kennedy is sort of a Cold War creature no longer concerned about what happened in World War II in the way that President Eisenhower was.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And from the get-go, Kennedy, you write, knew that there was a value to this space program beyond the technology and the dominance. He knew this was almost a made for TV moment.

BRINKLEY: TV is a big part of it. One of the great things about the United States' Space Program, we had transparency. We started filming our launches. I can watch footage of our Vanguard Navy rockets crumbling at Cape Canaveral. Von Braun rockets didn't crumble. But what Kennedy recognized on May 5th, '61 is he- we put up Alan Shepard, Mercury astronaut from New Hampshire, only fifteen minutes up, fifteen minutes down, but he became a space hero. And while Kennedy is president, we have six Mercury missions. All six are successful and Kennedy loved basking in the glory of John Glenn and Gus Grissom and Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra and they became Kennedy Space Cadets. People forget John F. Kennedy liked special- ops. He created the U.S. SEAL's, he created the Green Beret. So this idea of this elite Space Corps appealed to Kennedy's sense of taking a national security and morale boost and- and making it the heart and soul of what he called the New Frontier. If FDR built big dams like the Grand Coulee Dam and had Tennessee Valley Authority, Eisenhower did the Interstate Highway System and the St. Lawrence Seaway. Kennedy thought the new coin of the realm was space technology and missiles and- and that becomes what we do. In the early 1960s, we start funding places all over, particularly in the southern zone, NASA bases and the like to start going to the moon.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And that was intentional, some of the sites picked for those bases to try to curry some political support for these programs.

BRINKLEY: Because in 1960, John F. Kennedy won the South, it was still Democratic. He was a Catholic who won more- won a larger percentage of the vote in Georgia than he did in Massachusetts in 1960. But it- but now, you had James Meredith at the University of Mississippi integrating, George Wallace standing up in Alabama promoting segregation and Bobby Kennedy's Justice Department, you know, was starting to say, "No more Jim Crow. We're killing segregation." So, JFK feared he might lose in the southern zone in 1964 when he ran for re-election, but sending all this money to cities like Houston, Texas where Albert Thomas, the congressman there, was the head of this Congressional Space Appropriations Committee or to Oklahoma where Senator Kerr was, you know, the head of the Senate Space Appropriations Committee. Pork, if you like, started flooding the southern zone and it was good politics for John F. Kennedy. And remember, the computer microchip really gets invented in the late 50s and NASA is the first one to do computer applied science in a big public discovery way. There's a direct lineage from NASA in the 60s to Silicon Valley in the 1970s and beyond.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And it- it was not just a political challenge to- to rally people to continue to support funding. Kennedy even had naysayers in his own family. You write about his dad calling White House aides and saying, "Damn it, I thought Jack was better than that, we're gonna go broke with this nonsense," his own father was saying, "What are you doing?" 

BRINKLEY: Well- and so did everybody at NASA. Kennedy suddenly going to a joint session of Congress on May 25th, 1961 out of nowhere saying, "We're going to the moon," and at NASA they said, "You've got to be kidding me. We don't have any technology to do this. This isn't a stunt." That's what Dwight Eisenhower called it. McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy's own national security advisor, pigeonholed his boss and said, "What you just did at Congress, telling them we're going to the moon, is a grandstanding ploy." And Kennedy said, "Mac, you've got to have moxie if you're going to run for president in your 40s." [LAUGHTER] And- and so Kennedy got fully behind this, it was good TV ratings. It was- technology was what the New Frontier was about. He wanted to beat the Soviets. And he saw that the public pulling together on going to the Moon, the Apollo program.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But it's also difficult in some ways, if you try to look at it in the calculation made to get all that funding, the billions you talk about, that there were those in Congress who also said, "Why don't we spend this money at home, alleviate American poverty?" Do some of the things that even today, you can imagine the conversation being had to say, "Why is this worth the cash when it might not ultimately be successful?"

BRINKLEY: There were critics of the Moonshot, many. On the right, Barry Goldwater, senator of Arizona, wanted the money to go to the U.S. Air Force. Why a civilian space exploration agency? On the left, people like liberals Walter Mondale, J William Fulbright, senators said, "What you're suggesting, let's go put money into poverty programs and into schools." Many at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Dr. King's, people like Ralph Abernathy and also NAACP lea- leaders like Whitney Young said, "this has to go for schools and for poverty, not to some pie in the sky idea and landing on the moon." With that said, there was always enough appropriations and particularly after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon Johnson changes to Cape Canaveral to the Kennedy Space Center and we start going to the moon to fulfill John F. Kennedy's pledge in a way to honor the martyred, slain president.

MARAGARET BRENNAN: And you write about that, that Johnson, even though the Vietnam War is raging, even though there are funding fights at home, he wrapped this in the Kennedy political legacy to keep it alive

BRINKLEY: Exactly, and I write a lot about that. You know everybody I think knows John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson weren't particularly close. But when it came to space,  they had the same vision of it. But, you know, we- we did the Gemini with J- with Lyndon Johnson, you know, always Mercury's one astronaut, Gemini 2, Apollo 3, it almost gets derailed to go on the moon, when Apollo 1, three of our astronauts are incinerated on the launch pad in a training exercise in Florida. We lose Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. James Webb, the great head of NASA ends up resigning. And that people think, started really asking after those deaths, "Why by the end of the decade? Can't we go to the moon in 1974? Can't we land in 1980?" But there were still a Kennedy effect. And when Nixon becomes president in 1969, he continues with the moon shot. And low and behold, on July 20th of 1969 when Neil Armstrong walks on the moon, over five hundred and fifty million people were watching worldwide. It was seen as American exceptionalism at its highest order, it was seen as can-do-ism. And Neil Armstrong, who I interviewed for my book, said "it wasn't about me it wasn't about the astronauts it's about four hundred thousand people, engineers, computer specialists, technicians, that worked to achieve this incredible feat."

MARGARET BRENNAN: When you read something like this, you get nostalgic for that kind of inspiration you're describing, but he does it need to be nostalgic? Could America rally and do something this visionary now and in a way that galvanizes people through various presidencies and keeps that commitment?

BRINKLEY: That's what the idea of the moonshot means to people. The idea that Americans, short of war, can do something grand collectively together. Joe Biden running for president talks about a cancer moonshot to eradicate that curse. But Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, the two surviving Apollo 11 astronauts, are about a Mars shot saying let's aim for Mars. You know, there are people that say it's time for climate change to be prioritized the new moon shot is an Earth shot to take care of our fragile, lonely Planet that many of the astronauts talked about how vulnerable we are there as the only living entities in this solar system just floating out there. So, but the idea most Americans want a moon shot, they want they want to get out of this horrible fighting and beating of each other right versus left and unify behind something big and bold that will make all Americans proud. So there's still more than nostalgia on Apollo 11, it's a kind of a fig leaf of hope that in the coming decades the United States can once again get their act together and do big bold things like we used to do.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Now space, as you talk about, has always been in some way militarized, even though it's that civilian organization, NASA. President Trump has his own vision of a Space Force. I mean is this ultimately- always been the direction, it's always been about military posturing?

BRINKLEY: We debated the Space Force idea to some degree in the 1950s and it was rejected and you know who rejected it? The Army, the Navy, the Air Force they don't want a new branch of the armed services that's going to take funding and appropriations away from them. So it's kind of, in my mind, a non-starter. Also we don't want to militarize space. We want to go in the name of- of peace and science and public discovery--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Even though there were nuclear tests in space.

BRINKLEY: --There were, and really they- the going to the moon was like a cherry on top of a military industrial complex sundae. I mean this was the boon days for the aerospace industry. I mean if Eisenhower warned about the industrial military complex, Kennedy's embracing it. I mean who likes going to the moon more than Boeing, North American Aviation, Grumman, McDonnell Douglas. I mean it stimulated a lot of those Fortune 500 companies there are space giants. But it also gave a lot of jobs and experience to people at schools like Rice University, where I teach, or CalTech, Purdue, MIT, universities came into the civilians going into space. And today, I just got to interview some of the astronauts on the International Space Station. We are in space, we have thousands of satellites there. The idea we're putting the genie back in the bottle is not happening. We live in a satellite culture and some of the spin-off technology of going to the moon include GPS and, you know, MRI and car- CAT scans or firefighter resistant suits or the- the foam that are in football helmets and you can go on and on and on with the list of spin-off technology in the biomed arena, particularly, that were outgrowths of going in the moon. So, that 25 billion that we put into that paid itself many times over just in telecommunications and weather satellites alone.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  And you try to defeat at least three myths in here: Teflon, Velcro, and Tang not created by NASA.

BRINKLEY: Not created by NASA. NASA was an incubator where people could try out new products, new technology but Velcro came out of dogs and World War II in the Swiss Alps that a gentleman found a way to rip the burr off the dog.  [00:16:56] But- but what NASA did was apply velcro to its space missions . 

MARGARET BRENNAN: And CBS, our network, also had its own role, somehow, in this entire enterprise. Not only were CBS executives consulted in the idea of a space program and what the public reception would be, but then it was a documentary that inspired President Kennedy as well.

BRINKLEY: Absolutely. Oh, let's give Walter Cronkite a lot of credit, for one. He adopted space as his bailiwick. He had, in World War II, worked for the United Press, doing- following our bomber boys over Germany and he then- and he was- grew up in Houston, Texas, Cronkite. And he started collecting a Rolodex of all the engineers and technicians, he knew everybody in- in first, military aviation, and by 1958, NASA. He so trained himself on all of it, that Cronkite- people remember, "oh I remember Neil Armstrong," they remember Walter Cronkite doing eight days of covering of Apollo 11. He earned the nickname 'the Iron Man' because he was so adept at talking and building drama into the- into space. So, Cronkite, it was unabashed that the greatest accomplishment that the United States did in his entire lifetime was Apollo 11, was going to the moon. He was a- he was a fanboy of NASA.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And lastly, where did the term 'Moonshot' come from?

BRINKLEY: Moon shot comes from Wally Moon, a baseball player for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who in the late 1950s, would hit these towering home runs and Vin Scully, a broadcaster, would go: "there goes far out to the left field it's gone! A Moonshot over the left field fence" and that term 'Moonshot' just started getting picked up and applied. I read old Houston press columns where they started calling the manned space center the 'Moonshot Command Post' in- in- in Houston, who's the big beneficiary of going to the moon, was the city of Houston in the end. And- and it's just stuck and now we use Moonshot in kind of a shorthand. Also amazing French novelist, Jules Verne, in the 1860s predicted, in a sci-fi novel, that the first humans on the moon would be Americans and they would take them eight days, which you did, and they would leave from Tampa Bay, Florida, well we left from Cocoa Beach, Florida. But it's, you know, it was prescient what some of these science fiction writers predicted how accurate they were about the way Apollo 11 eventually panned out.

MARAGARET BRENNAN: The book is American Moonshot. Doug Brinkley, thank you for being here. We'll be right back.