Public Service Exemplars: "A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement": James E. Webb
James Edwin Webb is remembered as the head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) during a challenging time in the 1960s. As the NASA administrator during most of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, he oversaw the first missions with crews exploring space through the Mercury and Gemini programs. To honor his contributions, NASA named its next generation space telescope after the former NASA administrator in 2002. I discuss Webb in my forthcoming book, Public Service Exemplars: “A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement.”
Webb was born on October 7, 1906, in Tally Ho, a small community in Granville, North Carolina, near the Virginia border. His father, John Frederick Webb Sr., served as superintendent of the county’s segregated public schools. One biographer described his father as a progressive informer, “zealous about raising the quality of schools” and enthusiastic about the role of education and government in improving citizens’ lives.
Webb grew up in the community of Oxford, 10 miles from his birthplace. In the fall of 1923, he entered the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, the state’s flagship institution of higher education and his parents’ alma mater. In 1924, he left school of financial reasons, working for a year in the offices of a construction firm where he had performed odd jobs in high school. He eventually returned to UNC, intent on majoring in education.
Owing to the need to finance his education himself, Webb snagged a part-time job managing the UNC Bureau of Education Research under the direction of Nathan W. Walker. Walker’s office developed and collated tests for the state’s high school students. After Webb graduated from UNC in 1928, he stayed with Walker’s office to assist in managing the research bureau office.
He eventually moved on to a management job in Oxford for the law firm that handled the legal business for the construction firm where he had worked in high school and college. Webb tracked the firm’s business accounts and learned the basic requirements to operate a business. In the meantime, the lawyers in the firm invited Webb to “read law” in his spare time. Before the late twentieth century, many would-be lawyers studied under the tutelage of an experienced advocate without graduating from law school. Provided the devotee could pass the state’s bar exam, it was possible to enter the profession with no formal educational training in the law. Webb read law, but never sat for the North Carolina bar exam.
By 1930, the nation had entered the Great Depression. Anxious to leave North Carolina for new opportunities, Webb spotted an opportunity in the Sunday New York Times. An article mentioned 19 spaces in an aviation training class for United States naval and marine reserves. He had never been especially enamored of the military, but Webb recognized an opportunity. He jumped at the chance to apply. To his amazement, his application succeeded.
He spent a year in training. Beyond that, he spent a year on active duty in the Marine Reserves. It was the years between world wars, which limited the opportunities for advancement in a military career, but Webb made the best of it. He became a second lieutenant with the Marine Expeditionary Forces stationed at the Marine base at Quantico, Virginia, near Washington, D.C.
When he left the Marine Corps in June 1932, the Depression was raging across the land. Webb needed a job. Congressman Edward W. Pou of North Carolina was searching for a new secretary and office manager following the death of a long-time aide. Based on recommendations from a mutual friend, Pou hired the twenty-five-year-old former Marine. It was ideal training for Webb. He came to Washington at precisely the time when President Herbert Hoover was leaving and a new man, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was assuming the helm. Webb was tasked with sitting in the House Rules Committee during Roosevelt’s celebrated first hundred days. He saw first-hand what government could do to better the lives of its citizens.
During this time, Webb met three men who would prove to be influential in his future career. A former North Carolina governor, Oliver Max Gardner was a well-connected politician who eventually used his connections to help Webb’s career advance during the Roosevelt administration. Lloyd V. Beckner was an experienced engineer who believed in the promise of science to improve human life. He and Webb became lifelong friends. Thomas A. Morgan, an engineer and corporate executive, was enthusiastic about science. Following World War II, Gardner and Becker influenced Webb’s opinions on the link between national security and space exploration, and Morgan eventually brought Webb to the Sperry Gyroscope Company.
When Oliver Max Gardner, a term-limited governor, arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1933, he intended to establish a law practice. Congressman Pou directed Webb to assist the former governor in setting up the law office. Impressed with the young man’s drive and energy, Gardner offered Webb a job managing the law office. He also offered to sponsor Webb’s legal education. Webb agreed to the deal. He managed Gardner’s law office and attended the George Washington University Law School. He graduated in 1936.
Webb’s relationship with Thomas Morgan seemed unlikely. By the time they crossed paths in 1934, Morgan was president of Sperry Gyroscope Company as well as president of the reorganized Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce (ACC). The ACC dated from 1921 and was created to promote the interests of aeronautics businesses. Morgan was 12 years older than Webb, but the two men hailed from Granville County, North Carolina. Like Webb, Morgan grew up in modest circumstances and he looked to his military experience as a means of advancing his early career. Morgan became “electrical apprentice” in the U.S. Navy. By 1910, he was serving on the battleship Delaware as the chief electrician. Much to Morgan’s delight, the Navy selected the Delaware to test the gyroscope compass. Elmer A. Sperry, the inventor, was involved in the tests. He worked with Morgan on the project, and the two men developed a decades-long relationship.
By 1929, Morgan was on the board of directors of North American Aviation, a holding company that controlled Sperry Gyroscope as well as the Curtiss-Wright aircraft manufacturing complex and Transcontinental Air Transport. He was an integral figure in American aviation at the time. Throughout the 1930s, he seemed to be everywhere in Washington, lobbying on behalf of the aviation industry.
Owing to his friendship with President Roosevelt, Gardner was asked to organize committees of industrialists to establish wage, price, and production controls authorized by the New Deal under the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). The NIRA was an early New Deal effort dating from June 1933 to stabilize the agricultural and industrial economies at the apex of the Great Depression. Gardner met many industrialists because of this work, including Tom Morgan. Webb was intimately involved in Gardner’s law office, and he, too, came to know Morgan well. The NIRA eventually gave way to other New Deal programs, but Webb learned much about the ways that government and the private sector could work together to achieve common goals. It was a lesson he never forgot.
By the summer of 1936, he was ready for a change. With a newly minted law degree in hand, Webb left Gardner’s law office and moved to Brooklyn, New York. Employed as Thomas Morgan’s assistant at Sperry Gyroscope Company, Webb was the company’s liaison with the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce. He also gained experience working with the National Aeronautical Association (NAA), an organization formed in 1922 to promote American aviation. In January 1937, Webb began contributing anonymous editorials about businesses and government working toward improvements in aviation.
Webb was enthusiastic about the civilian uses of aviation, as he discussed in his columns throughout the 1930s. He grew increasingly worried, however, as Germany became more militaristic late in the decade. After the United States entered World War II at the end of 1941, Webb’s editorials evolved. He was a proponent of nationalism as well as military aviation.
His career had steadily advanced during the 1930s and into the 1940s. From his early days as Thomas Morgan’s assistant, Webb became the secretary-treasurer and eventually vice president at Sperry. Because he was an executive, Webb could have avoided military service. Instead, he resolved to don a uniform. Waiving his war-industry military exemption, Webb requested a leave of absence to enter the service. On February 4, 1944, he reported for duty with the Division of Aviation within the United States Marine Corps.
He was far more than a Marine Corps pilot during his second stint in uniform. During his time in uniform, Webb worked in logistical planning to use emerging technologies such as radar in new military aircraft. Just as he had recognized the almost endless possibilities in civilian aviation in the prewar years, he knew that airplanes could be a decisive factor in winning the war if they were used effectively. As commanding officer of the Marine Air Warning Group one, 9th Aircraft Wing—starting as a captain before being promoted to major—Webb was tasked with perfecting the radar program for a pending Japanese invasion. He was supposed to depart for Japan in mid-August 1945, but the empire’s surrender ensured that Webb would not see combat.
After the war, Webb returned to the states where he entered government service. Oliver Max Gardner was serving as the undersecretary of the treasury, and Webb became his executive assistant. In 1946, to Webb’s surprise, President Truman appointed the thirty-nine-year-old the director of the Bureau of the Budget (BOB) on Gardner’s recommendation as well as a recommendation of the treasury secretary, John Snyder. As the forerunner of the Office of Management & Budget (OMB), the Bureau prepared the president’s annual budget proposal for presentation to the Congress.
The BOB's power was declining when Webb joined the agency. The president was paying little attention to the Bureau, which seemed to exist in its own sphere and had lost key personnel in recent years. To arrest the decline, Webb worked closely with the White House staff, catering to their needs and closely aligning the BOB’s goals with the White House. By the time he departed at the beginning of Truman’s second term in 1949, the Bureau had recovered much of its lost luster.
The president was pleased with Webb’s success. In the second term, he wanted this skilled operative to assist in reforming the State Department. In January 1949, Webb became the undersecretary of state, serving under the legendary diplomat Dean Acheson. Acheson assigned Webb the task of reorganizing the State Department, requiring the addition of 12 new presidential appointees while simultaneously reducing the authority of subordinates already working in the department.
While he labored at the BOB and in the State Department, Webb demonstrated a genuine talent for working with Congress. It was no easy task. Members of Congress often requested reams of information on short notice and displayed little patience for the needs of public administrators. Webb appeared unflappable as he complied with congressional requests. His equanimity ensured a good rapport with most members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.
Webb served in the State Department during the challenging post-World War II days when the future of American relations with the Soviet Union was a crucial dilemma. Some government officials believed that a military confrontation between the two superpowers was inevitable, while others believed that diplomacy would help to isolate and contain Soviet Communism. Paul Nitze, the director of policy planning within the State Department from 1950 until 1953, authored a 66-page top secret memorandum for the National Security Council known as the United States Objectives and Programs for National Security, or NSC 68. NSC 68 argued for a military buildup of troops under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Three months after Nitze wrote the memorandum for President Truman, North Korea invaded South Korea, triggering armed hostilities, the first sustained fighting between proxies for the United States (South Korea) and Communist China (North Korea).
Webb and his boss, Acheson, advised the president to respond by involving the United Nations, sending the United States naval fleet to the Yellow Sea, and authorizing an Air Force strike on North Korean tanks. Truman agreed to the first two recommendations, but he initially refused to strike North Korean tanks. Later, Truman asked the legendary retired general officer George C. Marshall to come out of retirement to serve as secretary of state.
As the Korean conflict dragged on, Webb became involved with Project Troy, a research effort exploring the use of psychological warfare led by the State Department, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the RAND Corporation. Researchers presented a report to Secretary Acheson in the fall of 1950 outlining methods for engaging in political warfare. The report also included a section on reducing the frequency of Soviet attempts to jam Voice of America radio broadcasts.
The State Department was never a good fit for Webb. He was not a long, distinguished member of the diplomatic corps, a close-knit, insular culture that admitted few outsiders. A dispute with Nitze did not help matters. Finally, Webb suffered from migraine headaches. By 1952, it was time to leave.
He spent the rest of the 1950s working in the private sector as an executive with the Kerr-McGee Corporation, an energy company in Oklahoma City. Although he was no longer a public servant, Webb remained well-connected with government officials. In 1958 and 1959, he served on a bipartisan committee, the President’s Committee to Study the United States Military Assistance Program, the so-called Draper Committee (named for NATO ambassador William Henry Draper Jr.) to analyze military assistance pursuant to the 1949 Mutual Defense Assistance Act.
President John F. Kennedy appointed Webb the NASA administrator on February 14, 1961. A little over three months later, on May 25, 1961, Kennedy famously told a joint session of Congress that “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”
James E. Webb was not a literal rocket scientist, but he was the right man in the right job at the right time. As the historian Douglas Brinkley noted, “[s]eldom does the American system produce such a competent government infighter as Webb.” He possessed all the necessary attributes to lead NASA. “Smart as a whip, liberal in approach, able to see the battlefield of American politics with perspicacity, he was a rare mixture of big-corporate mores, industrial procurement know-how, bipartisan political instincts, good-ol’-boy charm, and budget wizardry, all undergirded by the unimpeachable credentials of a valiant U.S. marine.” In Brinkley’s opinion, Webb “had an appealing face, bright blue eyes, broad southern accent, and a penchant for folksy homilies.” Although he was not the typical Ivy Leaguer that populated the Kennedy administration, Webb “was often one step ahead of the so-called best-and-the-brightest types that showboated around Washington.”
Webb initially entertained reservations about accepting the NASA post, fearing that he would be propelled into the middle of a political battle between proponents of the space program and its multitude of critics in Congress. When he met with President Kennedy, JFK assured Webb that he would be shielded from the worst partisan battles. Moreover, Webb would be afforded considerable latitude to shape the agency in whatever manner he saw fit. Despite his reluctance, Webb did not believe that he could refuse the call of his president or his nation. He accepted the appointment.
Webb’s first order of business was to assure NASA’s 19,000 employees that he fully supported the manned space program. In his typically methodical manner, the new administrator conducted a top-to-bottom review of the agency to assess its strengths and weaknesses. Recognizing the monumental task facing NASA if it hoped to fulfill Kennedy’s pledge to land a man on the moon before 1970, Webb recommended an additional allocation of $300 million to the agency’s budget. The funds were necessary to fast track development of the Saturn booster rockets to ensure that astronauts could be sent to the lunar surface.
If manned space flight had been merely a matter of scientific curiosity, Webb and his NASA engineers probably would not have squeezed the budget out of a skeptical Congress and a president frequently distracted by foreign affairs. Webb understood that the program required exactly the right sales pitch. In the context of the Cold War, he argued that the Soviets were sparing no expense in gearing up their space program. Since the launch of the original Sputnik satellite in 1957, the Soviet Union had bested the United States in the space race. If the Americans hoped to catch and surpass their competitors, sufficient resources must be devoted to the effort. Webb contended that the manned space program would provide enormous technological benefits as well as reinvigorate the United States military establishment and provide numerous benefits to the armed forces.
He found a receptive audience in the youthful president. Kennedy understood the psychological benefits that would accrue from a race to put a man on the moon. As a promoter of a New Frontier and a tireless advocate for strength and vigor, Kennedy could challenge the American people to rise to the occasion and champion advances in science and technology. Although critics would continually argue that federal funding poured into the space program could be better spent elsewhere, President Kennedy was a steadfast supporter of NASA’s mission. In Jim Webb he found a skilled public administrator who sought to fulfill the president’s vision.
Webb understood the need for agency coordination. When he joined NASA early in 1961, the agency comprised a loose network of research centers. To meet the president’s goal of landing a man on the moon, it was necessary to create a coordinated, cohesive unit of professionals working together across all facets of the agency. He also helped to create the Manned Spacecraft Center, which eventually became the Johnson Space Center in Houston. At the apex of the Apollo program to send a man to the moon, NASA employed 35,000 people and employed hundreds of thousands of contractors at thousands of companies and universities in the United States.
Webb was also attuned to changing times and sensibilities. When began his role at NASA, the agency’s record on employing persons of color was abysmal. He consciously instituted programs to recruit talented young black engineers and scientists. When he left the agency in 1968, Webb left behind an enviable record of diversity and inclusion, widely regarded as a model for other federal agencies to emulate.
He was known as a steady hand, a good administrator to have at the helm in crisis times. On January 27, 1967, a fire swept through the Apollo 1 capsule as it awaited a launch at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Three astronauts—Gus Grissom, Roger Chafee, and Ed White—died before they could be extracted from the cockpit. It was a sobering setback for the manned space program.
“We’ve always known that something like this was going to happen sooner or later,” Webb told the press in the aftermath of the fire. “Who would have thought that the first tragedy would be on the ground?” In the subsequent round of investigations and recriminations, Webb accepted responsibility for the debacle even as he defended the agency’s mission and insisted that the space program should continue unabated.
It was a difficult season for Webb. During a Senate investigation of the incident, Senator Walter F. Mondale of Minnesota publicized an agency document detailing problems with North American Aviation, a NASA contractor. Webb had been unaware of the report, which embarrassed him when it came to light.
Webb resigned from the agency in October 1968. The details of his departure vary depending on who tells the tale. In one account, Webb was so closely tied to Lyndon Johnson’s administration that when LBJ chose not to run for reelection in 1968, Webb realized that it was time to leave the NASA post. This version of events suggests that Webb had close ties with Johnson. The administrator certainly worked with Johnson throughout the years, but the two men were not close. Webb’s relationship with Kennedy had been excellent. Following JFK’s assassination in 1963, Webb stayed on to provide continuity in the space program, but Johnson was not a close ally.
A second version indicates that Johnson wanted Webb to leave not because the two figures were close associates, but because they were not. By the fall of 1968, Johnson was weary of Webb’s defense of NASA, as well as his constant references to the Apollo 1 tragedy. According to this version, Webb was meeting with Webb in the White House. During their conversation, Webb mentioned in passing that he would soon celebrate his sixty-second birthday. He was thinking about retiring. It was an offhand remark, but Johnson immediately seized on it. The president insisted that he and Webb immediately walk to the press room and announce Webb’s impending retirement before he left the White House that day. Taken aback, Webb tried to delay, but Johnson would not hear of it. Forced to resign earlier than he had anticipated, Webb resented Johnson’s abrupt action. To smooth Webb’s ruffled feathers, LBJ awarded his former administrator the Presidential Medal of Freedom shortly before the end of the administration in 1969.
In retirement, Webb served on several advisory boards and continued to weigh in on NASA’s missions and operations. In a book titled Space Age Management: The Large Scale Approach, he touted the agency’s achievements (and, by implication, his own) as a model of how to administer a federal agency with flexibility and a willingness to adapt to changing circumstances. He was in great demand as a speaker and consultant for the rest of his life.
During his NASA tenure, Webb had insisted that the Soviets were laboring on the space program during the 1960s, despite little visible evidence. Many critics scoffed, arguing that Webb was imagining a lunar space race to ensure that NASA enjoyed popular support from the public and large budgets from Congress. When the archives were opened following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, numerous documents demonstrated Webb’s prescience. The Soviets had continued their space program far longer than most American analysts had known. It was only after the Soviets’ moon rocket exploded in 1967 that they abandoned the effort.
James Webb died of a heart attack on March 27, 1992, at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. He was 85 years old. Ten years later, NASA named its new telescope the James E. Webb telescope. According to NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe, “It is fitting that Hubble's successor be named in honor of James Webb. Thanks to his efforts, we got our first glimpses at the dramatic landscape of outer space. He took our nation on its first voyages of exploration, turning our imagination into reality. Indeed, he laid the foundations at NASA for one of the most successful periods of astronomical discovery.”