111. Editorial Note

The Soviet Union had begun work on an SST design in the late 1950s, and the Kennedy administration begin a feasibility study under the chairmanship of Federal Aviation Agency Administrator Najeeb Halaby soon after taking office. (See Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy John F. Kennedy, 1961, pages 26–43 and page 56.) The Soviet threat to the international prestige of the United States would be a major factor in the decision-making process. (Memorandum from U. Alexis Johnson to McGhee, February 18, 1963; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Records of the Department of State, Central Files, 1964–66, AV 12–7 US, and memorandum from McGhee to Welsh, February 28, 1963; ibid., AV 12 US) State Department officials were concerned that the psychological aspects of the proposal had not been adequately researched and agreed on March 4, 1963, to survey the attitudes of U.S. Ambassadors in key countries. (Memorandum from Welsh to McGhee, March 1, 1963, and memorandum from Johnson to McGhee, March 6, 1963; both ibid.)

Reaction from the Ambassadors was mixed, but all were concerned with the possible impact on the overseas image of the United States. (For example, see telegram 2280 from Moscow, March 14, 1963, and telegram 423 from Budapest, March 15, 1963; both ibid.) In a personal cable for Edward R. Murrow, George F. Kennan, Ambassador to Yugoslavia, wrote: “Would like to say that personally I regret to see question placed in this way. Have long held view … that we should be careful not to give impression to world opinion that our competition with USSR was some sort of sporting contest to show who could first achieve spectacular but unnecessary material successes. Fact is that whether it becomes possible to fly to Paris on American planes in two hours rather than six is matter of supreme unimportance from standpoint of anything that really matters in our civilization.” (Telegram 1258 from Belgrade, March 19, 1963; ibid.)

The State Department concluded that the United States should focus on developing a safe and commercially viable SST and should not compress the time frame simply to “win” a race. (Memorandum from Harriman to Welsh, April 16, 1963; ibid., AV 12–7 US) Others within the administration, especially at the FAA and Treasury, felt the nation needed to move more quickly. Halaby wrote: “If the United States does not develop a supersonic transport, this nation will lose prestige in the eyes of the world. The presumption will be that this country does not have the technological and financial capability to be [Page 207] competitive.” (Memorandum from Harriman to the Acting Secretary, May 22, 1963; ibid.)

On June 5, 1963, President Kennedy told the graduating class at the U.S. Air Force Academy that the United States would commit itself to build an SST: “This commitment, I believe, is essential to a strong and forward-looking Nation, and indicates the future of manned aircraft as we move into a missile age as well.” (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1963, pages 440–443)

In August 1963 President Kennedy appointed Eugene R. Black and Stanley de J. Osborne as special advisers on the financial aspects of the commercial SST program. Their report, completed in December 1963, was made public by President Johnson on February 29, 1964. (Ibid.: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963–64, Book I, page 323) In their report, Black and Osborne concluded: “We recommend that the United States must proceed with the Supersonic Transport program. It is in the national interest so to do, it is of great economic importance to the nation, and failure to do so might well leave our important airline and aircraft industries in potentially dangerous competitive situations.” Black and Osborne did not believe it would be in the interest of the United States either to enter the Anglo-French consortium or to compete with it: “We conclude that one of the basic philosophies of the current program, namely, that of tying the United States effort to the ‘Concorde,’ and therefore compressing the time of development and construction is dangerous, technically and economically. We feel that a superior aircraft which is available within two or three years of the first ‘Concorde’ deliveries will still be able to capture the bulk of the world market.” (Memorandum from U. Alexis Johnson to Secretary Rusk, March 2, 1964; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Records of the Department of State, Central Files, 1964–66, AV 2–7 US) The Anglo-French consortium was a joint development project launched by the British and French Governments because of the high cost of developing a supersonic transport.

The SST project faced considerable technical and economic difficulties. On March 28, 1964, when President Johnson announced the formation of an SST advisory board, he commented: “We believe the technical challenge of the SST is manageable. We think that the main problem lies in the financial area.” (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963–64, Book I, page 428) The project was delayed when potential contractors failed to meet technical standards, and by December 3 the President took the delays and difficulties into account: “The development of a commercially profitable supersonic transport is a very difficult and complex understanding. I believe that this country must take, in the words of Senator Monroney, ‘time for deliberate, proven development’ and time to make certain that this will be the best supersonic in the world’s airways.” (Ibid., Book II, page 1635)