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Webb, James Edwinlocked

(07 October 1906–27 March 1992)
  • Stephen G. Marshall

James Webb

James Webb [right], presenting President Harry Truman with a collection of rocket models for the presidential library, 1961.

Courtesy of NASA (GPN-2000-001678).

Webb, James Edwin (07 October 1906–27 March 1992), lawyer, was born in Tally Ho, North Carolina, the son of John Frederick Webb, a county school superintendent, and Sarah Edwin Gorham. Webb entered the University of North Carolina in 1923, dropped out to work for a year, and reenrolled in 1925. While taking classes toward a degree in education, Webb worked part time in the university’s Bureau of Educational Research. He then stayed on with the bureau as a full-time employee after earning his B.A. in 1928.

In 1929 Webb began working as a stenographer and law clerk at a law office in Oxford, North Carolina. The following year he enrolled in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and learned to fly at the Naval Air Station at Pensacola, Florida. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1931.

Webb moved to Washington, D.C., in 1932 and began working as a secretary for Democratic congressman Edward W. Pou of North Carolina. Two years later Webb became an assistant to former North Carolina governor O. Max Gardner, who practiced law in Washington and was general counsel for the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce of America. Finally, after taking evening classes at the George Washington University Law School, he was admitted to the bar in 1936.

In 1936 Webb was hired by the Sperry Gyroscope Corporation, a maker of aeronautical instruments, and moved to Brooklyn, New York. Webb married Patsy Aiken Douglas on 14 May 1938. The couple had two children. Although he started as personnel director and assistant to the president, by 1941 he had become secretary-treasurer. He was appointed a vice president in 1943, and that same year he also became assistant secretary-treasurer of the firm’s parent corporation, the Sperry Corporation.

In 1945 Webb returned to Washington to work in Gardner’s law office. When Gardner was appointed undersecretary of the treasury in early 1946, Webb became his executive assistant. Then, in July 1946 President Harry Truman appointed Webb the director of the Bureau of the Budget, where he drafted the first balanced budget since 1930. Three years later, Webb was appointed undersecretary of state, serving under Secretary Dean Acheson, who handled substantive foreign policy, while Webb handled the department’s administration and supervised the reorganization of the department as recommended by the Hoover Commission. Webb also served as an informal foreign policy adviser to Senator Robert S. Kerr, a Democrat from Oklahoma, who was making an unsuccessful campaign for the 1952 Democratic presidential nomination.

Webb resigned from public office in 1952 and moved to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, where he became a director and assistant to the president of Kerr-McGee Oil Industries. Webb also served as president of the Republic Supply Corporation, a corporate affiliate.

After Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson was elected vice president in 1960, Kerr succeeded Johnson as chairman of the Senate Aeronautical and Space Sciences Committee, recommending that Webb be appointed the new head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The post was considered a nonglamorous backwater in the Kennedy Administration, and more than a dozen other persons had turned down the appointment. The agency was then concluding its series of Project Mercury one-man flights, which had begun taking humans into the space above the earth’s atmosphere. Webb accepted, however, after being personally requested by President John Kennedy, succeeding the first NASA administrator, T. Keith Glennan, on 14 February 1961.

Shortly after Webb took over NASA, unexpected events caused President Kennedy to give NASA a major role in his administration. In April 1961 the Soviet Union scored a technological victory by sending the first astronaut into orbit around the earth. That same month American prestige suffered further damage from the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion by American-sponsored Cuban exiles. In order to boost national morale, Kennedy made a speech to Congress on 25 May 1961, in which he announced that the United States would embark on a policy designed to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade.

The administration’s commitment to a manned moon shot increased NASA’s annual budget from $1 billion to more than $5 billion during the mid-1960s. Webb found himself heading a project whose scope and magnitude was comparable to the wartime Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. While presiding over the expansion of the agency, Webb helped guide its major decisions: choice of the Cape Kennedy launching site; development of the two-man Gemini project to precede the three-man Apollo moon shots; and selection of technology and contractors for the booster rockets, command modules, and earth station equipment. Webb also presided over other NASA projects, particularly communications and weather satellites, as well as unmanned observation flights to Venus and Mars.

Webb delegated most of the technical decisions to his two chief subordinates, Deputy Administrator Hugh L. Dryden, a holdover from the Eisenhower administration, and Associate Administrator Robert C. Seamans, Jr., a Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist. Webb considered his main duty to be representation of NASA in meetings with Congress and other government agencies. He kept a low public profile, staying in Washington during all launches to implement political damage control in the event of any mishap.

NASA experienced a major crisis on 27 January 1967, when a fire during a launch preparation killed three astronauts. Webb met with President Lyndon Johnson and persuaded him to allow the initial investigation of the accident to be performed internally by NASA itself, rather than by Congress or by an independent commission. Congress had full access to the investigation records and approved the agency’s recommendations, which resulted in changes in NASA procedures and the reassignment of Joseph Shea, the engineer in charge of the Apollo spacecraft development.

During the mid-1960s NASA and the moon shot program became increasingly subject to public criticism because of the growing discontent with the Vietnam War and with the Johnson administration’s policies. Many Democratic members of Congress also suggested that the funds spent on NASA would be more useful in urban renewal and other social programs. The growing public discontent eventually led President Johnson to announce he would not seek reelection in 1968, and the growing disarray in the Democratic party convinced many that the Republican party would win the next presidential election.

Webb believed that his association with Johnson and Kennedy in the public’s mind would impair NASA’s abilities under a Republican president. Thus he decided to resign his post shortly after Johnson’s announcement, although it would be only another year until the proposed moon shot, Apollo XI. He resigned on 16 September 1968, effective 7 October 1968, and was succeeded by his nonpartisan deputy, Thomas Paine, who was head of NASA when man first set foot on the moon on 20 July 1969. Still, most journalists and NASA personnel attributed the moon landing’s success to Webb’s leadership during the preceding decade.

After leaving NASA, Webb gave a series of lectures at Columbia University, which were published as Space Age Management: The Large-Scale Approach (1969). He called for a “large-scale approach” to management that combined government, industry, and university resources into a single organizational system. He believed that “our society has reached a point where its progress and even its survival increasingly depend upon our ability to organize the complex and to do the unusual. We cannot do these things except through large aggregations of resources and power” (p. 15). The book was poorly received in the United States, however, where there was a growing distrust of big government. Ironically, Webb later observed that his administrative philosophy and call for large-scale management was better received in Japan.

President Johnson had awarded Webb the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1968, and in September 1981 Webb traveled to West Point to receive the U.S. Military Academy’s Sylvanus Thayer Award. During his post-NASA years, Webb became a member of the Board of Directors of the Gannett Corporation and of George Washington University. He also served on the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. He died in Washington, D.C., and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


Webb’s voluminous papers are at the Harry S Truman Library, Independence, Mo. NASA records from Webb’s tenure may be found at the National Archives and at the Johnson Space Flight Center, Houston, Tex. For a full-length biography see W. Henry Lambright, Powering Apollo: James E. Webb of NASA (1995). Other biographical sources include Leonard R. Sayles, “James Webb at NASA,” Society (Sept.–Oct. 1992), and Elmer B. Staats, “James E. Webb, Space Age Manager,” in Giants in Management, ed. Robert L. Haught (1985). Webb’s early work in Washington is mentioned in Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department (1969), and his Oklahoma years are discussed in Anne Hodges Morgan, Robert S. Kerr: The Senate Years (1977). Webb is frequently mentioned in the official histories published by NASA, including Courtney Brooks et al., Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft (1979), as well as nonofficial histories, including Howard McCurdy, Inside NASA: High Technology and Organizational Change in the U.S. Space Program (1993); Charles Murray and Catherine B. Cox, Apollo: The Race to the Moon (1989); Walter McDougall, … the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (1985); and John M. Logsdon, The Decision to Go to the Moon: Project Apollo and the National Interest (1976). Obituaries are in the New York Times and the Washington Post, both 29 Mar. 1992; the Times (London), 30 Mar. 1992; and Aviation Week and Space Technology, 6 Apr. 1992.