|“The Apollo Program, Public Diplomacy, and the Role of Technology in Foreign Relations”
(Very Rough) Draft: September 2013
At the last stop on the Apollo 11 crew’s whirlwind diplomatic world tour, Project Giantstep, President Richard Nixon welcomed the astronauts to Washington with a small celebration on the White House lawn, and declared that their 22-country tour was the “the most successful goodwill trip in the history of the United States.”1 This reception was followed by an intimate dinner, at which the astronauts, their wives and the Nixons, feasted on lobster Americaine, chuker partridge Veronique, bibb lettuce salad and soufflé au Grand Marnier with sauce Sabayon.2 Over dinner, Nixon asked the astronauts to report on their tour, to tell him about the heads of state they had met and to comment on their conversations. He thanked them for acting as his ambassadors and according to Neil Armstrong, told the crew “He had been trying for years to get a meeting with Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu and after leaving the Hornet he was able to get an appointment. President Nixon said something to the effect, ‘that meeting alone paid for everything we spent on the space program.”3 Although this was likely an exaggeration- Project Apollo was the most expensive peacetime technological program in U.S. history and the greatest open-ended peacetime commitment by Congress- this sentiment underscores the significant relationship between the space program and American foreign relations.4
By 1969, technology had come to play an important role in the Cold War, not only for American financial growth and national security, but also as a form of soft power. American government officials harnessed impressive technology, from rockets to high-tech kitchens, to serve as symbols of national strength and the efficacy of the American political system, in order to win the hearts and minds, and in turn the alliance of other nations. By the end of the 1990s, however, the use of technology in public diplomacy had significantly declined, while the employment of technology for economic and military pressure in foreign relations had increased. Taking the Apollo 11 lunar landing as a case study, this paper considers the political advantages of using technology as a form of soft power, by following the techniques that public diplomats employed to promote the lunar landing abroad, as well as the foreign relations opportunities created by the mission.
Soft Power and Space Diplomacy
Although usefulness of winning of hearts and minds has been seen as a political resource for centuries, Joseph Nye Jr., first coined the phrase soft power in the early 1990s, amidst debate in the foreign policy establishment over American national strategy and world leadership. Nye outlined three types of power: the first two- military and economic power- use coercion, while the third type of power- soft power- uses attraction. Soft power, as Nye defines it, is “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.”5 Critics, who treat soft power as simply the spread of American consumer goods and pop culture, according to Nye, overlook the complexities of how soft power works and its significant national strategy potential; soft power fosters shared values and helps to legitimize national power and policies. Tools of soft power have ranged from ballet performances to humanitarian aid to well-liked domestic policies. Soft power rests on a nation’s ability to attract, but what constitutes attractiveness varies from time and place.
During the early Cold War, the yardstick for attractiveness, according to policy makers in the U.S. and U.S.S.R., were impressive large-scale scientific and technological programs. And so, demonstrations of scientific and technological prowess became key arenas for establishing national prestige as well as fusing perceived values and strengths of science and technology- rationality, progress- with the image of each nation’s political ideology.6 In 1957, after widespread reactions to the successful launch of Sputnik, government officials in the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to come to see spaceflight as the leading means for establishing soft power in the midst of the Cold War. Civilian space accomplishments, more than weapons or military conflict, came to serve as potent symbols of technological capability, national strength, and the efficacy of political systems.
Shortly after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, Arthur Larson, the director of the United States Information Agency, encouraged President Dwight Eisenhower to support space exploration to improve public opinion of the United States abroad, not for “the value of scientific preeminence for its own sake,” he explained “but the disproportionate impact that real or apparent scientific preeminence now seems to have on our military position and our diplomatic bargaining power.”7 Through the nation’s civil space program, officials like Larson hoped to sell an image of America as a technologically capable, militarily strong, and economically powerful nation. NASA, the USIA and State Department sold this image of the United States to the global public by, among other means, supporting an elaborate human spaceflight program, space themed exhibits, touring space capsules around the world, and broadcasting the latest civilian space accomplishments on radio in South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East.8
Preparing for Apollo 11
Before the Apollo 11 landing in the summer of 1969, the USIA and State Department produced a barrage of information programs to heighten anticipation and excitement for the mission. The agencies predicted that the lunar mission would have an “unprecedented impact on world opinion,” and so no expense would be spared in taking advantage of the public relations opportunity. The Apollo 8 capsule made its way through major European cities over the course of a six-month tour in which three million people viewed the small spacecraft. At each stop, USIS staff organized VIP and media receptions, as well as other public affairs programs. Lengthy lines, often hours long, formed at all the showings.9 The USIA sent its posts kiosk exhibits to 125 posts, space food samples, and buttons for distribution, scale models of the Saturn V rocket and the Apollo spacecraft, and countless publications.10 Leading up to the flight, the Voice of American broadcast 365 features and documentaries on space exploration in all regions of the world, USIA films on space ran in hundreds of theaters and on television, and UISA posts distributed over 30,000 posters, charts and maps. Newspapers in each region of the world ran stories and photographs provided by the USIA, many on their front pages. The USIA also supplied material to support locally produced exhibits; in Bonn, for instance, the USIS post gave information packets to two large German department store chains, which dedicated 180 window displays throughout the country to the story of Apollo 11.11
Outdoor viewing areas, from public squares to sports stadiums, allowed people who did not have their own televisions to view the Moon landing coverage. These outdoor spaces also served as venues to show pre-coverage films and television shows as part of the build up to the launch. The USIS post in Seoul set up a projection system with a 19’x16’ screen fastened to a building and streamed USIA space films for ten days before the Apollo 11 flight.
In order to support foreign newspaper coverage of the launch, the USIA established an Apollo News Center in Paris, to handle telephone and in-person inquiries, to distribute printed material and to host media correspondents from countries where live television coverage was not available.12 All individual USIS posts also became small-scale local space resource centers, with a variety of photos, charts, films, maps, models and globes set out to educate and attract the public. The USIS post in Taipei was a particularly key reference service for the Taiwanese media, by setting up interviews with scientists, distributing pamphlets and articles and acting as an Apollo 11 clearing house. In Ethiopia, the USIS post distributed a selection of astronaut food, including soup, chicken and crackers, for the news media to sample.13
In the White House, NASA and at the State Department, officials discussed what types of symbolic gestures should be carried out by the astronauts and the President to reap the greatest political rewards from the lunar landing. Under Secretary of State, U. Alexis Johnson, urged that an American flag should not be planted on the Moon, so as to avoid a perceived demonstration of territorial possession. He explained to NASA Director Thomas Paine, “we are concerned primarily, as I am sure you are, that we take full advantage of this accomplishment both to enhance our posture abroad and to encourage other countries to further identify their interests in the exploration of space with our own.”14 Numerous politicians echoed these sentiments, including Charles Mathias, Jr., a U.S. Senator, who stressed to Secretary of State William Rogers, that the Apollo 11 would be “the most persuasive ambassador ever dispatched,” and that “we must signal clearly to the world that Apollo 11 will carry through space not only America’s pride of accomplishment, but also America’s bright offer of hope and progress for all the world.” Mathias suggested that the astronauts carry miniature flags from each nation of the world, which could be presented to Heads of State after the flight as a gesture of inclusion in the mission.15 And Frank Borman, Commander of Apollo 8 and NASA Liaison to the White House, wrote to President Nixon, strongly urging that the Star Spangled Banner not be played while the crew was on the lunar surface.16 The message that the Apollo 11 mission would convey was debated, and carefully crafted, with the soft power potential of the flight at the forefront of many officials’ minds.
Apollo 11 Activities
“Worldwide reaction to the Apollo 11 mission has been unprecedented,” as one USIA report explained, making it difficult to select just a few examples to encapsulate the intensity of the global public’s response to the lunar landing. More people followed the coverage of Apollo 11 than any other event in history. The lunar landing made front-page headlines in most newspapers around the world, most local radio stations broadcast the VOA’s coverage, and wherever it was technically feasible the first steps on the Moon were televised. In Warsaw people laid bouquets of flowers on the Lunar Module model on display at the U.S. Embassy and in Tokyo people left paper cranes at the U.S. Embassy for good luck.17
The public viewing areas drew massive crowds around the world: 100,000 Koreans watched the coverage on the USIA screen in downtown Seoul while 10,000 Congolese gathered in a public square in Kinshasa to follow the flight. The VOA broadcast its coverage in 16 foreign languages to an estimated audience of 500 million people. Astronaut Wally Schirra worked with the VOA team in Houston, while other teams were stationed at Cape Canaveral and in Washington.18 Over eight hundred foreign correspondents from around the world, and over 120 from Japan alone, joined the VOA team in Houston and at the Cape.19
In addition to projecting an image of America to the world, the USIA and American news media also gathered information about how the world public viewed the United States. The USIA reported,
People danced in the streets of Santiago and the President of Venezuela, after watching the moon walk in the company of his cabinet through a good part of the night, made an impromptu address to his nation… a number of chiefs of state, declared July 21 a national holiday. School children in Bavaria and students in Mexico were excused from classes that day…. Laplanders followed the flight on their transistor radios while pasturing their reindeer.20
Part of the CBS coverage of Apollo 11 included footage of foreign viewers’ reactions to the flight.21
Numerous public diplomats offered commentary on local radio stations and television programs during the flight. In Chile, for instance, an USIA officer along with a NASA tracking station director, both fluent in Spanish, were on television for hours during the flight to comment on the mission and to answer call-in questions; while another USIA officer became an anchorman for the 13-hour television broadcast in Hong Kong.22
Enthusiasm for the flight remained high for months, buoyed by a series of Moon rock displays, films, space exhibits and other programming.23 By the end of 1970, more than 41 million people attended moon rock exhibits in over one hundred countries. Many countries, including the Congo and Algeria, released Apollo 11 stamps.24 Letters, telegrams, poems and drawings flooded USIA posts and President Nixon’s mailbox. The USIS post in Tokyo reported, “one somewhat misguided youth thought his message would carry more meaning if written in blood.—it was!—it did!”25
President Nixon capitalized on the popularity of the Apollo 11 crew by sending on a goodwill tour to meet with foreign Heads of State and to speak to ecstatic crowds in cities around the world. During the planning stages for the world tour, requests from Embassies, Ambassadors and other government officials poured into the White House suggesting the political necessity of selecting particular cities or regions for tour stops. A telegram from the Embassy in Paris urged that the astronauts visit France:
It could become a major factor particularly in turning around French intellectuals whose previous psychological misgivings, if not hostility, and sense of superiority towards the US has been a serious problem for US in the past…will spare you the obvious by merely pointing up the unusual gains, much greater than the normal pubic relations gains, which we are convinced would come from an early visit by these men who are at this moment supra-national heroes whose exploits have touched all humanity, except Picasso and Marcuse.26
Reports and commentary on the tour emphasize that it was a resounding success. In USIA Science Advisor Simon Bourgin’s report, he notes that after the tour American Ambassadors noticed a new flexibility in tackling a “host of problems whose approaches were otherwise frozen.” He went on to observe that “by their modesty, expertise, and warmth the astronauts projected an image of the kind of Americans other nations would like us to be.”27 Under secretary of State for Political Affairs U. Alexis Johnson suggested “the visits of the Apollo 11 astronauts to many nations… have helped greatly in extending and deepening the sense of personal involvement of the peoples of the world in our space program.”28 The Giantstep tour drew record crowds of people and prompted extensive media coverage around the world, and it also eased political relationships between the United States and many countries.
Shortly after the Apollo 11 mission, President Nixon, along with his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, and State Department officials, decided to give moon rocks to foreign heads of state, along with flown miniature national flags, as a diplomatic gesture. Specs of Moon rock particles--0.05 grams, scarcely more than a grain of rice- embedded in Lucite and mounted with a plaque that read: “Presented to the People of X by Richard Nixon, President of the United States of America.” Many of the responses to the rocks were quite positive, and heads of state were enthusiastic about the tiny flags in particular. For instance, the Algerian President expressed special appreciation that the Algerian flag had been flown to the Moon, especially given the lack of diplomatic relations between the two countries and he suggested that it “underlined the universality of the American space program.”29 And, when Vice President Spiro Agnew traveled around Asia to discuss the Nixon Doctrine he carried with him a number of these plaques goodwill gifts for each head of state in the nine countries he visited. Reports note that the goodwill aspect of tour enhanced by passing out of moon rocks and these gifts establish a mood of friendship, which aided the discussion of other foreign relations matters.30
A public diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen reflected, the “Moon landing has raised American prestige here in manner which will probably have real, if intangible, political effect.”31 The difficulty of gauging the impact of public diplomacy programs is a problematic feature of soft power. USIA officials were deeply aware of the complexities of determining the effectiveness of their work in influencing foreign public opinion of the United States. When he was the Director of the USIA, Edward R. Murrow was known for saying that no cash register rung when people’s minds were changed, highlighting the difficulty of adding up the impact of USIA programs.32 The USIA evaluation studies and reports determined whether or not products reached their intended audiences, the size of the audience, if the products were of interest to the audience and recommendations on how to improve distribution, but they did not ascertain the impact of the products on these audiences.33
Even though it is difficult to determine the impact of Apollo on American prestige and national security interests, there are a number of concrete outcomes from Apollo 11 diplomacy that can be observed. Apollo 11 events, from astronaut tours to Moon exhibits, created opportunities for contact with foreign political leaders, news media and opinion influencers, under the grounds of scientific and technological information exchange.34 For instance, when the USIA Director presented a Moon rock gift to President Ceausescu in 1973, it “was the subject of front-page coverage in Romania’s two most important dailies and figured prominently in radio and television commentary as well.” The presentation “provided an excellent “pretext” for access to the country’s highest political level” and “a resulting U.S.-Romanian exchange of interest- proving again that the proper combination of means (in this case a very tasteful and ideologically “neutral” presentation item) and circumstances can significantly support major U.S. foreign policy objectives.”35 In this case, as in numerous of other examples, the Moon rock gift prompted extensive positive newspaper coverage throughout a country that often ran more critical commentary about the United States, in its newspapers and on the radio. The exchange also provided a pretext for a conversation between American and foreign leaders without the political pressures of a more formal meeting.
Officials in the State Department also looked to space diplomacy to maintain local support for American tracking stations as well as military bases. For instance, the American Consulate in Nassau wrote to the Secretary of State, requesting that a Moon rock exhibit be sent to the Bahamas. He explained that the exhibit would support the maintenance of U.S. bases, including test range sites, and “as the islands move toward independence and a probable renegotiation of our base agreements, there is a need to gain local understanding of the importance of these facilities, a sense of identification with them, and support for their continuation.”36
In addition to its impact on the image of the U.S. abroad, the USIA noted that the Apollo 11 mission coverage was also contributing to some practical changes around the world. In South Africa, for example, since the South African government had not authorized the development of a television network, the Apollo 11 mission was not televised. This led to widespread disappointment and in turn mounting pressure from the public to establish a television service in the country.37
These types of opportunities- from creating the pretext for high-level political discussion to the support of U.S. military bases to the development of local technologies- have contemporary policy relevance. Although the unique pressures of the Cold War, especially nuclear stalemate, elevated the significance of propaganda and the U.S. and U.S.S.R.’s reliance on impressive space feats for winning hearts and minds, the soft power potential of technology to current national strategy is significant. Joseph Nye makes the case that transnational terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, the two major threats that face United States, cannot be curbed without soft power. The United States relies on the cooperation of other nations to address these threats, and the degree and extent of this cooperation is tied to the attractiveness of the United States. If anti-Americanism takes hold in a country it becomes extremely difficult for political leaders to ignore domestic political pressures and support the aims and interests of the United States. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, What the World Thinks in 2002, when asked about American attractiveness, people in each region of the world admired the United States more for its technological and scientific advances far more than any other area.38 As the case of Apollo 11 diplomacy illustrates, impressive technological programs can create unique opportunities and in roads, they can boost the image and appeal of a country, and they can engender support, or at least tolerance, of American military bases and foreign policies.