James E. Webb

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James E. Webb
James E. Webb, official NASA photo, 1966.jpg
Official NASA photo, 1966
2nd Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
In office
February 14, 1961 – October 7, 1968
PresidentJohn F. Kennedy
Lyndon Johnson
DeputyHugh Dryden
Robert Seamans
Thomas O. Paine
Preceded byT. Keith Glennan
Succeeded byThomas O. Paine
United States Under Secretary of State
In office
January 28, 1949 – February 29, 1952
PresidentHarry S. Truman
Preceded byRobert A. Lovett
Succeeded byDavid Bruce
7th Director of the Bureau of the Budget
In office
July 13, 1946 – January 27, 1949
PresidentHarry S. Truman
Preceded byHarold D. Smith
Succeeded byFrank Pace
Personal details
James Edwin Webb

(1906-10-07)October 7, 1906
Tally Ho, North Carolina, U.S. (now Stem)
DiedMarch 27, 1992(1992-03-27) (aged 85)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Resting placeArlington National Cemetery
Political partyDemocratic
Patsy Aiken Douglas
(m. 1938)
Military service
AllegianceUnited States
Branch/serviceUnited States Marine Corps
Years of service
  • 1930–1932
  • 1944–1945
RankLieutenant colonel[1]

James Edwin Webb (October 7, 1906 – March 27, 1992) was an American government official who served as Undersecretary of State from 1949–1952. He was also the second appointed administrator of NASA from February 14, 1961, to October 7, 1968. Webb oversaw NASA from the beginning of the Kennedy administration through the end of the Johnson administration, thus overseeing each of the critical first crewed missions throughout the Mercury and Gemini programs until days before the launch of the first Apollo mission. He also dealt with the Apollo 1 fire.

In 2002, the Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST) was renamed the James Webb Space Telescope as a tribute to Webb.

Early and personal life[edit]

Webb was born in 1906 in the hamlet of Tally Ho in Granville County, North Carolina. His father was superintendent of the Granville County public schools.[2] He completed his college education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he received an Bachelor of Arts in Education in 1928. He was a member of the Acacia fraternity. Webb became a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps, and he served as a Marine Corps pilot on active duty from 1930 to 1932. Webb then studied law at The George Washington University Law School, where he received a J.D. degree in 1936. In the same year, he was admitted to the Bar of the District of Columbia.

Webb married Patsy Aiken Douglas in 1938, and they had two children. He was a Freemason.[3]


US House of Representatives staff[edit]

Webb began his long career in public service in Washington, D.C., by serving as secretary to US Representative Edward W. Pou of North Carolina from 1932 to 1934. Pou was chairman of the Rules Committee and Dean of the House. With Webb's assistance, Pou was influential in pushing through the first legislation of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal during the first hundred days of Roosevelt's term. In addition to his secretarial duties, Webb provided physical assistance to the aging and ailing Pou.[4]

Assistant to private attorney[edit]

Webb next served as an assistant in the office of Oliver Max Gardner, an attorney, former governor of North Carolina and friend of President Roosevelt, from 1934 to 1936. Gardner supported Webb in finishing law school.[5]

During the Air Mail scandal of 1934, the government halted the carrying of airmail by private airline companies. A group of airline executives, led by Thomas Morgan, the President of the Sperry Gyroscope Company in Brooklyn, hired Gardner's firm to represent them. The successful resolution resulted in the resumption of contracts to private airlines.

Personnel director for Sperry Gyroscope[edit]

As a result of their interactions, Sperry Gyroscope hired Webb as the personnel director and assistant to Thomas Morgan, the president of Sperry. Between 1936 and 1944, Webb became the secretary-treasurer and later the vice president of Sperry. During his tenure, Sperry expanded from 800 employees to more than 33,000 and became a major supplier of navigation equipment and airborne radar systems during World War II.[6]

Marine re-enlistment[edit]

Although he wished to re-enlist in the Marines at the start of the war, Webb was deferred because of the importance of his work at Sperry to the war effort. By 1944, however, he was allowed to re-enlist in the Marines, where he became the commanding officer, Marine Air Warning Group One, 9th Marine Aircraft Wing, first as a captain and later as a major. He was put in charge of a radar program for the invasion of the Japanese mainland. He had orders to leave for Japan on August 14, 1945, but his orders were delayed, and the Surrender of Japan on September 2, 1945 meant that he did not see combat.[7]

Bureau of the Budget[edit]

After World War II, Webb returned to Washington, DC and served as executive assistant to Gardner, now the Undersecretary of the Treasury, for a short while before he was named as the director of the Bureau of the Budget in the Office of the President of the United States, a position that he held until 1949. Webb was recommended for the appointment to Truman by Gardner and Treasury Secretary John Snyder. Because of Webb's association with the Treasury Department, his appointment was seen as subordinating the BoB to the Treasury. His appointment surprised Webb, who had not been told of the final decision to appoint him. (During the appointment announcement, Truman forgot Webb's name and had to look it up.)[8]

The Bureau of the Budget prepared the President's proposed budget each year for presentation to Congress. Truman's objective for the budget was to bring it to balance after the large expenditures of World War II.[9]

State Department[edit]

President Harry S. Truman next nominated Webb to serve as an undersecretary of state in the U.S. Department of State, which he began in January 1949. Webb's first assignment from Secretary Dean Acheson was to reorganize the Department, adding 12 new Presidential appointees and reducing the power of subordinate officers. Webb also consolidated the flow of foreign policy information and intelligence through the secretariat. When the new organization became law in June 1949[specify], the Department, which had been losing power and influence to the military, strengthened its ties to the President.[10]

A question facing the Department of State at the time was whether the Soviet Union could be contained through only diplomatic means or whether the military would be needed. Paul Nitze, as Director of Policy Planning, wrote a classified memo, NSC 68, arguing for a military build-up of NATO forces. Although Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson opposed an increase in the Defense budget, Webb got Truman to convince him to support the recommendations of NSC 68.[11]

On June 25, 1950, the North Korean Army invaded South Korea. Webb and Secretary Acheson devised three recommendations: involve the United Nations, send the Navy Pacific Fleet into the Yellow Sea, and authorize an Air Force strike on the Korean tanks.[12] Truman implemented the first two recommendations immediately but delayed the use of force by several days. The Defense Department was blamed for the lack of US preparedness, and Johnson tried to blame Acheson. Webb worked with his contacts in Congress and others to convince Truman to replace Johnson, and George Marshall was called out of retirement to become the new Secretary of Defense.

From 1950 to 1952, following State Department rules put in place in 1947, Webb was in a leadership role at the time of what is now called the Lavender Scare, during which hundreds of LGBTQ personnel were fired from the department. Records show Webb met President Truman on June 22, 1950 in order to establish how the White House, the State Department, and the Hoey Committee might "work together on the homosexual investigation" and Truman agreed to send two White House aides with Webb to meet with the Hoey Committee to establish a modus operandi.[13] Purges of LGBTQ state employees continued throughout Webb's tenure at the State Department, with Webb's subordinates continuing to report the dismissals of dozens of LGBTQ workers from 1950 to 1952.[14]

In 1950, Webb established an alliance with university scientists, Project Troy, to bolster the United States' psychological warfare capabilities, in particular studying how to circumvent Soviet attempts to jam Voice of America broadcasts.[15]

With the attention of the Department focused on the Korean War, Webb's influence weakened. As the author of NSC 68, State Department Director of Policy Planning Paul Nitze became the principal advisor to Secretary Acheson, and a misunderstanding between Webb and Nitze led to Nitze outwardly calling for Webb's resignation. Although the rift blew over, Webb started suffering from migraines and resigned in February 1952.

Webb left Washington for a position in the Kerr-McGee Oil Corp. in Oklahoma City, but he was still active in government circles, for instance in serving on the Draper Committee in 1958.[16]


Webb presents NASA's Group Achievement Award to Kennedy Space Center Director Kurt H. Debus, while Wernher von Braun (center) looks on.
Webb, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Kurt Debus, and President John F. Kennedy receive a briefing on Saturn I launch operations during a tour of Launch Complex 34, September 1962.

On February 14, 1961, Webb accepted President John F. Kennedy's appointment as Administrator of NASA, taking the reins from interim director, Hugh L. Dryden, Deputy Administrator. Webb directed NASA's undertaking of the goal set by Kennedy of landing an American on the Moon before the end of the 1960s through the Apollo program.

For seven years after Kennedy's May 25, 1961, announcement of the goal of a manned lunar landing until October 1968, Webb lobbied for support for NASA in Congress. As a longtime Washington insider and with the backing of President Lyndon B. Johnson, he was able to produce continued support and resources for Apollo.

During his administration, NASA developed from a loose collection of research centers to a co-ordinated organization. Webb had a key role in creating the Manned Spacecraft Center, later the Johnson Space Center, in Houston. Despite the pressures to focus on the Apollo program, Webb ensured that NASA carried out a program of planetary exploration with the Mariner and Pioneer space programs.

After the Apollo 1 accident in 1967, Webb told the media, "We've always known that something like this was going to happen sooner or later... Who would have thought that the first tragedy would be on the ground?" Webb went to Johnson and asked for NASA to be allowed to handle the accident investigation and to direct its recovery, according to a procedure that was established following the in-flight accident on Gemini 8. He promised to be truthful in assessing blame, even to himself and NASA management, as appropriate. The agency set out to discover the details of the tragedy, to correct problems, and to continue progress toward the Apollo 11 lunar landing.

Webb reported the investigation board's findings to various congressional committees, and he took a personal blaming at nearly every meeting. Whether by happenstance or by design, Webb managed to deflect some of the backlash over the accident away from both NASA as an agency and from the Johnson administration. As a result, NASA's image and popular support were largely undamaged.[17]

Webb was a Democrat tied closely to Johnson, and since Johnson chose not to run for reelection, Webb decided to step down as administrator to allow the next president, Republican Richard Nixon, to choose his own administrator.[18]

Webb was informed by CIA sources in 1968 that the Soviet Union was developing its own heavy N1 rocket for a manned lunar mission, and he directed NASA to prepare Apollo 8 for a possible lunar orbital mission that year. At the time, Webb's assertions about the Soviet Union's abilities were doubted by some people, and the N-1 was dubbed "Webb's Giant".[19] However after the collapse of the Soviet Union, revelations about the Soviet Moonshot, have given support to Webb's conclusion. Webb left NASA in October 1968, just before the first manned flight in the Apollo program.

Drawing on his NASA experience, Webb published Space Age Management: The Large-Scale Approach (1969), in which he presented the space program as a model of successful administration that could be broadened to address major societal problems.[20]

In 1969, Webb was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Johnson. He is a 1976 recipient of the Langley Gold Medal from the Smithsonian Institution.

Later life and death[edit]

After retiring from NASA, Webb remained in Washington, DC, serving on several advisory boards, including serving as a regent of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1981, he was awarded the Sylvanus Thayer Award by the United States Military Academy at West Point for his dedication to his country.

Webb died from a heart attack at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington on March 27, 1992, at age 85.[21] He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.[17]


Webb was played by Dan Lauria in the 1998 miniseries From the Earth to the Moon.[22]

Webb was played by Ken Strunk in the 2016 film Hidden Figures.

Telescope name[edit]

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, originally known as the Next Generation Space Telescope, was renamed in Webb's honor in 2002. This telescope, launched on December 25, 2021, is described as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.[23]

In March 2021, a commentary in Scientific American urged NASA to rename the James Webb Space Telescope, alleging that Webb had been complicit in the State Department's purge of LGBTQ individuals from the federal workforce.[24][25] In July 2021, a related telescope renaming article appeared in the journal Nature.[26][27] Scientists who opposed naming the telescope in Webb's honor pointed to the case of NASA budget analyst Clifford Norton, who in 1963 was accused of homosexual behavior, arrested and fired, with NASA calling his suspected conduct "immoral, indecent, and disgraceful". While critics argued that it would have been difficult for Webb not to be aware of these proceedings, direct evidence did not come to light.[28] Astrophysicist Hakeem Oluseyi wrote an article saying that the initial accusations that Webb was part of the Lavender Scare were based on a quote attributed to Webb which he never said, and that there is little to no evidence Webb took part in anti-gay discrimination.[28] On September 30, 2021, NASA announced that it would keep the JWST name after running an investigation and finding "no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name".[29][30]


  1. ^ Knapp, Richard. "Webb, James Edwin". NCpedia.
  2. ^ Sumner, Jim. "Tar Heels in Space" (PDF). NC Museum of History. Archived from the original (PDF) on April 17, 2012.
  3. ^ "Famous Freemasons (A – Z) - THE END". March 3, 2018.
  4. ^ Lambright, p. 18.
  5. ^ Lambright, p. 20.
  6. ^ Lambright, pp. 20–22.
  7. ^ Lambright, pp. 28–29.
  8. ^ Lambright, p. 32.
  9. ^ Lambright, pp. 34–35.
  10. ^ Lambright, pp. 50–51.
  11. ^ Lambright, p. 59.
  12. ^ Lambright, pp. 60–61.
  13. ^ Johnson, David K. (2004). The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 104. ISBN 0226401901.
  14. ^ Shibusawa, Naoko (September 2012). "The Lavender Scare and Empire: Rethinking Cold War Antigay Politics". Diplomatic History. Chicago: Oxford University Press. 36 (4): 723–752. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7709.2012.01052.x.
  15. ^ Wolfe, Audra (December 1, 2018). "Project Troy: How Scientists Helped Refine Cold War Psychological Warfare". The Atlantic. Retrieved January 25, 2021.
  16. ^ "To the Aid of Aid". Time Magazine. March 30, 1959. Archived from the original on November 12, 2006. Retrieved November 11, 2006.
  17. ^ a b "James E. Webb". NASA. Archived from the original on April 25, 2009. Retrieved July 12, 2017.
  18. ^ http://www.lbjlibrary.net/assets/documents/archives/oral_histories/webb-j/webb.pdf Webb oral biography. Transcript, James E. Webb Oral History Interview I, 1969/04/29, by T. H. Baker, Internet Copy, LBJ Library. Accessed May 28, 2009.
  19. ^ Slayton, Donald K. "Deke"; Cassutt, Michael (1994). Deke! U.S. Manned Space: From Mercury to the Shuttle (1st ed.). New York City: Forge (St. Martin's Press). pp. 216–217. ISBN 0-312-85503-6. LCCN 94-2463. OCLC 29845663.
  20. ^ Launius, Roger D. (August 1, 2008). "Managing the unmanageable: Apollo, space age management and American social problems". Space Policy. 24 (3): 158–165. Bibcode:2008SpPol..24..158L. doi:10.1016/j.spacepol.2008.06.007. ISSN 0265-9646.
  21. ^ Lambert, Bruce (March 29, 1992). "James Webb, Who Led Moon Program, Dies at 85". The New York Times. Retrieved December 29, 2021.
  22. ^ James, Caryn (April 3, 1998). "Television Review; Boyish Eyes on the Moon". The New York Times. Retrieved August 5, 2018.
  23. ^ Amos, Jonathan (January 7, 2021). "James Webb will be the 'launch to watch in 2021'". BBC News. Retrieved January 26, 2021.
  24. ^ Prescod-Weinstein, Chanda; Tuttle, Sarah; Walkowicz, Lucianne; Nord, Brian (March 1, 2021). "NASA Needs to Rename the James Webb Space Telescope - The successor to the Hubble honors a man who took part in the effort to purge LGBT people from the federal workforce". Scientific American. Retrieved March 3, 2021.
  25. ^ Francis, Matthew R. (May 7, 2021). "The James Webb Space Telescope Hasn't Launched Yet. In One Way, It's Already a Relic". Slate. Retrieved June 3, 2021.
  26. ^ Witze, Alexndra (July 23, 2021). "NASA investigates renaming James Webb telescope after anti-LGBT+ claims - Some astronomers argue the flagship observatory — successor to the Hubble Space Telescope — will memorialize discrimination. Others are waiting for more evidence". Nature. 596 (7870): 15–16. doi:10.1038/d41586-021-02010-x. PMID 34302150. S2CID 236212498. Retrieved July 23, 2021.
  27. ^ Overbye, Dennis (October 20, 2021). "The Webb Telescope's Latest Stumbling Block: Its Name - The long-awaited successor to the Hubble Space Telescope is scheduled to launch in December. But the NASA official for whom it is named has been accused of homophobia". The New York Times. Retrieved October 21, 2021.
  28. ^ a b Mark, Juian (October 13, 2021). "NASA's James Webb telescope will explore the universe. Critics say its name represents a painful time in U.S. history". The Washington Post. Retrieved October 13, 2021.
  29. ^ Greenfieldboyce, Nell (September 30, 2021). "Shadowed By Controversy, NASA Won't Rename New Space Telescope". NPR. Retrieved September 30, 2021.
  30. ^ Witze, Alexandra (October 1, 2021). "NASA won't rename James Webb telescope — and astronomers are angry - The agency found no evidence that the flagship observatory's namesake was involved in anti-LGBT+ activities, but some say that Webb bears responsibility". Nature. 598 (7880): 249. doi:10.1038/d41586-021-02678-1. PMID 34599318. S2CID 238251014. Retrieved October 2, 2021.


External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by Director of the Bureau of the Budget
Succeeded by
Preceded by United States Under Secretary of State
Succeeded by
Preceded by Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Succeeded by