men walk on moon

1000 years from now, when they talk about the American Century, what will they say? If a textbook from the year 3000 only has about a paragraph to devote to the 20th century – and let’s face it, how long did your history books linger on the 10th century? – what will be left in, what will be left out?

I can think of a few persons that might come up, or not. But there’s two words I can’t imagine being left out: “42 years.” Of the six or seven sentences they’ll have time for, I have to believe that one will go something like this: “The first man to cross the Atlantic Ocean in an airplane was followed, just 42 years later, by the first man to fly to and walk on the moon.” As we take a moment this weekend to celebrate the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11’s unparalleled achievement, I find myself thinking about those 42 years. When Neil Armstrong stepped off of Apollo 11, he began three years of moon landings which suggest the peak of the American Century. And then, 42 years ago this December, we stopped going to the moon. We’d spent an almost incalculable amount of manpower and time and energy on this one intangible goal, and were left with…existential questions. The moon program was both a symptom and a symbol (like Moby-Dick; he’s a real problem in the book, but he also carries symbolic value) of the limits of our power (as was Vietnam at the same time), of the questions we should ask before any undertaking. And thus began another 42 years dedicated less to building things and more to building arguments.

When you read about 1969, the moon shot and Woodstock – Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” notwithstanding – don’t really get put together, they’re more like two important people who happen to be at the same party. The peaks of NASA culture and the counterculture are treated like a historical coincidence, not unlike the 1848 discovery of gold in California during the same month that Mexico signed California over to us. (Still working on figuring out that one.) But the expansion of our horizons to both the moon and to greater equality were part of the same thing – part of that 42-year RISE.

After The Spirit of St. Louis made the first safe inter-hemispheric flight in 1927, the following decade hardly became one deserving nostalgia. Within two years of Charles Lindbergh’s flight, we entered our most severe Depression, one that lasted at least a decade. Yet even during the worst moments of the 1930s, American ingenuity counted for something. No country competed with our steel industry. Henry Ford led the world in car-making. Hollywood led the world in movie-making. Our media led the world in newsprint, magazines, radio programs. If America offered the world scant evidence of literary giants during the 19th century (other than Mark Twain, perhaps), during the 1930s the world took note of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner. There would have been something very American about the world’s 1930s even if Franklin Roosevelt had never become President and if World War II had never happened.

But they did, and America became a colossus at home and abroad. We built bridges like the Golden Gate; we made the world’s steel (historians cite 1940 to 1970 as the peak of our steel industry); we brought Hitler to his knees; we split the atom and invented the A-bomb. The postwar expansion was the largest in the world’s history; we made the American Dream come true for most of the middle class. We turned baseball into a kind of national religion. History books credit the civil rights movement to dedicated, far-seeing activists and to World War II, something like “how could we fight Hitler’s racism and then practice it at home?” What they leave out is a palpable sense of possibility, of an improvable society. Other countries were stuck in centuries of tradition; our tradition was restless self-starting on the way to greater freedom and equality. It seemed like we’d have been working to improve America even without the Cold War.

At the outset of the 1960s, one might have thought that America would have looked at the previous 30 years and just sat back and counted its blessings. But like a corporation whose profits had doubled (or a gambler on a hot streak), the majority of Americans sought not retrenchment, but more, more…more freedom, more equality, more improvement, more enfranchisement. Another two things that aren’t paired enough by history books were President Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon and his “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” They were in the same speech! We could do anything. Unfortunately, too many in the government took this as license to send troops to an ill-defined war in Vietnam. Other than that, the era of possibility generally had salubrious effects. The future would look like the Jetsons. Even the Vatican met to evolve! After the civil rights movement succeeded so spectacularly, everyone said “us too!” Before that, you didn’t say “Polish-American” or “Irish-American”; now people were wearing their hybrid identity. The Supreme Court ruled against “miscegenation” and Sandy Koufax refused to pitch a World Series game on Yom Kippur. Pluralism and populism were indispensable parts of the progressivism of the 1960s.

But something happened during that first Nixon administration, during the only time in human history people have walked on another celestial body. As one of the few people who has written a book closely examining just the 1969-1971 period, let me tell you that many trends seem to be peaking or newly awakening at that time: feminism, environmentalism, rock’n’roll, drugs, baby boomer youth, Black Panthers on the streets, Cesar Chavez’s strikes, and the Native occupation of Alcatraz. Was it all too much? Maybe. Tom Wolfe laughed at the end of “radical chic.” His contemporary Hunter Thompson put it more mournfully in his 1971 book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda.… You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.…
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply
prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

42 years ago, the wave ended, we pulled out of Vietnam, we stopped going to the moon, but as Don McLean sang in “American Pie,” there was “no time left to start again.” As McLean knew better than anyone, rock certainly wasn’t going back; nor were sex nor drugs nor TV nor fashion (I mean, look at those 70s ties). However, America after the moon landings was like your husband after finally running a marathon; okay, you did that, now why can’t you fix the house? The phrase “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we…?” became watchwords to our sudden, surprising existential malaise. If you asked 1972 Americans about more, more…no, by then we wanted less, less. That’s why we re-elected Nixon and made American Graffiti the biggest hit (relative to cost) in American history. Nixon didn’t say “ask not what you can do for your country, ask what you can get out of it” but he didn’t have to; he led by example, burglarizing the Democrats when he really didn’t need to. The postwar economic expansion shrank and the partisan finger-pointing began. Our post-Armstrong decade was as bad as our post-Lindbergh decade, but for many complicated reasons, we never really emerged from it. One of these was the absence of a World War II; another was a less patriotic, less tax-paying citizenry and corporate class who, like Nixon in 1972, asked what their country could do for them.

As our way of life contracted, shrunk — if you’re not in the 1%, then the value of your wages has scarcely changed since the 1970s — our very imagination seemed to be playing smaller-ball. That’s what this recent article is saying about the absence of Jetsons-like optimism. Sure, we’ve had a few good times in the last 42 years. But are we still a nation that could build a Golden Gate Bridge and knock out Hitler if we had to? We’re letting our infrastructure languish. The World Trade Center took ten more years to replace than it took to build the first time.

They say America goes in waves; historians have charted these going back to Benjamin Franklin. Perhaps our post-9/11 digitalia suggests a new dawning of possibility. I have hopes, because I know how our nation was founded, and I see the optimism and populism of millennials. Let us do what we can where we can, and hope the nation will remember its roots and make a truly American 21st Century.