We were VERY reactionary back then. They launched then we launched. They launched a man into space then we did. They orbited then we did. They started looking at the moon then Kennedy said "Hey, we should go to the moon and do that other thing."
I don't think that's a fair characterization. They launched and then we launched. Absolutely true. We could have launched in 1956 but we chose to let the Soviets break that seal.
We almost beat them in the unmanned race to the moon. That was not reactive at all--the plans were laid down in November of '57.
As for orbiting, they beat us to it, but not because we waited for them to get there first but because our rockets weren't up to it.
And as for the moon, the Russians wanted to go there because Kennedy made it the American goal. And then, when the Russians lost the race, they pretended they'd never been in it.
You probably know all this anyway, but I thought it needed to be said.