Reviewed 6/08/2004

Powering Apollo, by W. Henry Lambright

W. Henry Lambright
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995




ISBN 0-8018-6205-11 271pp. HC/BWI $?

Herbert Kaufman's theory of organizational behavior holds that it is shaped largely by vast, impersonal forces. His view of the U.S. government is that the many offices and organizations making up its vast bureaucracy are likewise controlled by external forces — that no one individual can make much of a difference. The nineteenth-century historian Thomas Carlyle expounded a contrary view: the "great man" theory, in which strong leaders determine the outcome.

W. Henry Lambright notes correctly that, as with the "nature vs. nurture" controversy, the truth lies somewhere in between. Yet he also notes that there are occasions when an extraordinary leader can remold the organization he leads, directing outcomes as he chooses. James Edwin Webb was by all accounts an extraordinary man.

Webb was born in 1906 in rural Tally Ho, North Carolina2 to parents who were both college graduates — a rarity in those days. His father, an idealistic educator, instilled in his children a love of learning and a drive for academic achievement. Webb broke his shoulder at the age of ten, and this injury troubled him for years, reinforcing his bent toward scholastic achievement versus athletics. Meanwhile, his mother taught him the value of expertise in practical matters, such as running a household on the meager income a teaching job provided. Webb enrolled at the University of North Carolina, but had to drop out after his freshman year for lack of money. He found a job with a construction firm near his home town, learning other practical skills such as shorthand, typing and how to fix his own car. These skills, plus new contacts, let him return to UNC after another year and work in its Bureau of Educational Research while completing his degree.

After graduating in 1928, Webb considered teaching science, but chose a more lucrative path, clerking at a law firm and studying law at night. However, the Depression put an end to these plans. Desperate to escape the stagnant economy of North Carolina, Webb applied to a marine aviator group just forming in New York. Despite knowing nothing about aviation or the military, he was accepted. He did well, also meeting the secretary to Congressman Edward Pou (D-NC), chair of the House Rules Committee. That position later became Webb's; it gave him still more contacts, taught him the ways of Washington, and fostered his own love of power.3 He moved on to become aide to lobbyist O. Max Gardner, former governor of North Carolina. An aviation dispute which Gardner helped resolve brought Webb to the attention of Thomas Morgan, president of Sperry Gyroscope. Morgan brought Webb aboard that company just as it began rapid growth at the outset of World War II. Webb's own role grew rapidly as he demonstrated a talent for executive leadership. His desire to fight the Axis powers warred with his role as a vital part of the war effort at Sperry. Finally in 1944 he convinced Morgan and the marines to let him enlist. He became commander of a marine radar unit destined to take part in the invasion of Japan. His orders had him shipping out on 14 August 1945. As it turned out, that was the day Japan officially surrendered.

Webb could have returned to Sperry and embarked on a lucrative career, but he wanted a change. Consulting O. Max Gardner led him to work half-time in Gardner's firm while pursuing a political career. But in a few months President Truman tapped Gardner to be his Undersecretary of the Treasury, and Gardner introduced Webb to Truman. So it was that Webb became Director of the Bureau of the Budget. Here he excelled, bolstering the agency's influence with President Truman4 and earning a say in matters of policy.5 He did less well at his next appointment, as Undersecretary of State. Dean Acheson, the Secretary, had alienated many congressmen through open disdain for the lack of foreign-policy expertise evidenced by their questions. (He had a similar disdain for Webb; but, like Webb, he was loyal to Truman. So they cooperated.) Then, as now, there was a war on, and State — not helped by Acheson's patrician attitudes — was losing the influence battle to a hard-charging Secretary of Defense.6 There were squabbles within the State Department as well. Webb, on good terms with Congress, mended State's fences there and was able to hold up the Department's end against Defense. But these struggles wore him down. In 1952, suffering from intense migraines exacerbated by too much alcohol and tobacco, he resigned.

After a period of convalescence, he moved his family to Oklahoma City and went to work as president of Republic Supply, a division of Kerr-McGee Corporation. Republic was bleeding about $40,000 per month. Webb discovered it was more a collection of individuals than a company. He reorganized it and soon it was in the black. He also had a favorable effect on the parent corporation. Once these changes had taken hold, and with the trust they engendered among the locals as a basis, Webb turned his attention to the public sector. Oklahoma's fiftieth anniversary of statehood was fast approaching, and he wanted the celebration to focus on the state's future. In 1955, working with other public-spirited leaders, he set up the Frontiers of Science Foundation to coordinate the efforts of Oklahoma businesses and educators in improving the teaching of science in the Sooner State's high schools and colleges. The Foundation was successful. It was also well-timed; for soon after that statehood celebration, a little sphere called Sputnik made a big splash and excellence in technical education became the order of the day for the entire nation. President Eisenhower visited Oklahoma City in November 1957, praising the state and the Foundation in an address. By 1958, Webb had fulfilled his committment to Kerr-McGee and was ready to return to the national scene. He had his pick of offers and chose to concentrate on science education, gradually ramping up activities on the east coast. By January 1960, He and his wife Patsy had returned to the city they loved best, Washington DC.

The offer to become NASA Administrator came a year later. It was a surprise to Webb, and not a welcome one. Not being a technical man, he felt unsuited for the post. For this and other reasons he tried to decline. But John Kennedy insisted, pointing out that the principal need was for management and political skills, and Webb could not refuse his president. As it turned out, Webb was the ideal man for the job, and it became his greatest triumph. This review is already too long, so I'll say no more about that triumph or its context. On pages 9-10, Lambright provides a concise summary of both:

The congressional consensus behind Apollo lasted barely two years. By 1963, NASA's requested budget was heavily debated, and while NASA received more than in 1962, it obtained far less than Webb had sought. In the mid-1960s, the country turned to the Great Society, which substantially expanded social programs and federal spending, and by the late 1960s, the overriding priority, Vietnam, was tearing the country apart. The wind shifted steadily against Webb as priorities changed and rose sharply against him in 1967, when the Apollo fire killed three astronauts. The way Webb handled that crisis highlighted his strengths and weaknesses. In the view of some, he allowed his end to justify his means, violating proper administrative accountability in a democracy. Webb's conduct then in defense of NASA helped make him the issue.

His reputation diminished by the experience, Webb survived the Apollo fire and its aftermath, drew even more power to himself within the agency, and propelled NASA toward a full recovery where Apollo was concerned. But when he could not sell a post-Apollo program, he largely abandoned the task, casting aside most of the items on his personal agenda, such as using universities to strengthen regional economies and moving the United States toward what McDougall called a "Space Age America." In the end, Webb used his diminishing political capital to give NASA one last push toward the moon, finally sacrificing his own position on the altar of Apollo.

As astronauts walked the moon, Webb proclaimed to all who would listen that Apollo's real achievement lay in demonstrating that a democratic nation could outmanage an authoritarian state. He said that if the United States could go to the moon, it could solve its other public problems. Few listened. Richard M. Nixon, president in 1969 when the moon landing took place, ushered in a lengthy conservative era. Rather than an engine for problem solving, government was depicted as part of the problem. Even Democrats—among them President Jimmy Carter—cast aspersions against government, especially government bureaucracy. Big technology, which Webb embraced, was also suspect in the wake of Vietnam, a counterculture movement, and the rise of environmentalism. The longstanding partnership between federal officials and scientific and technical experts, forged in World War II, was shattered. Apollo seemed the end of an era rather than the prototype for a future civilian science and technology relationship.

The book presents a wealth of detail in a very readable manner. Especially helpful is the way it gives hints to identify names that recur in the text; helping the reader keep such a huge cast of characters straight can be a challenge. Extensive chapter notes are provided. They are followed by an essay on sources (pages 255-263). Organized according to the eras of Webb's life, it cites books and other resources useful for those who wish to dig deeper. (Also, not incidentally, it points up the depth of Lambright's own research.). A thorough index of proper names rounds out the book.

I found just one typographical error (listed in the Errata page.) Lambright is inconsistent about capitalizing titles, giving them in lower case (e.g. "under secretary of state", "air force") where I would capitalize them, while using capitals within quotations (see e.g. page 52.) My opinion is he should stick to one form or the other throughout. But since he consistently uses one form within quotations, the other without, I see this as a choice rather than a mistake.

To sum up: While this book may not be the definitive reference on the birth of NASA and the life of the man who was its most effective Administrator, it is an excellent introduction to those topics. I recommend it.

1 The ISBN given here is for the paperback edition of the book. Hardcover is 0-8018-4902-0.
2 Now vanished, Tally Ho was near the city of Oxford, where Webb attended school.
3 The author differentiates (see pages 24-25) between "power over" and "power with". Webb preferred the latter. In this he followed Mary Parker Follett, who wrote on organizational sociology early in the Twentieth Century.
4 This was no small achievement amid the incessant political turf battles of the nation's capitol.
5 Among those policy matters was the organization and implementation of the Marshall Plan: a momentous policy if ever there was one.
6 This was one Louis Johnson. He was devious as well as combative, never hesitant to talk behind someone's back or leak damaging information to the press. Truman fired him. Lambright ascribes this to adroit political maneuvering on Webb's part.
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