It was 40 years ago to the day as I write these words. On the evening of July 20, 1969, my parents, older sister and I gathered around our lone TV in our small one-story house to watch history.
The screen was momentarily blank, but the image would soon appear from some 240,000 miles away. “The Eagle” landed, Neil Armstrong took “one giant leap for mankind,” and America reached President Kennedy’s goal “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
Anniversaries often serve as a hook for celebration, and the media have dutifully offered a healthy heaping of self-congratulation for that monumental achievement. But this anniversary also provides a moment for us to ponder where we were as a nation, where we are now, and where we’re going.
Much of the recent commentary about that 40-year-old event has suggested that the America of 2009 lacks the spirit and commitment to do equally great things. That America has since abandoned moon landings and declined to pursue Mars is supposedly proof positive of our failings.
But the commentators should think more broadly. It is not just the moon landing whose milestone we celebrate this year. This year marks the 30th anniversary of President Carter’s “malaise” speech, which symbolized all that was wrong with that uncertain presidency in a troubled time. And it marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which (just a decade after our malaise) symbolized U.S. victory in the Cold War and the supremacy of U.S.led capitalism and democracy.
Together, these events illustrate the extraordinary ebb and flow of American history. They reflect both hope and despair. They recall the promise of our ideals and the challenges that these ideals have helped us surmount.
These are useful reminders in the year 2009, with the economy in recession, the ranks of the jobless growing, the nation at war, the health care system in crisis and the government in huge and growing debt.
“But why, some say, the moon?” Kennedy asked at Rice University in 1962. “Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
“. . . We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things,” he answered, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
It was a stirring call that would seem out-dated, even quaint, just a few years later. By 1979, Jimmy Carter seemed no match for the challenges of his day – from soaring inflation and oil prices to an Iranian hostage crisis that would begin that fall to a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that would begin that winter.
On the evening of July 15, 1979, Carter sought to revive the public’s spirit. Speaking from the Oval Office, he criticized the materialism that dominated our culture and issued a call to arms on the issue of energy.
But, by then, the hopeful 1960s had given way to the cynical 1970s. In addition, Carter was no Kennedy in oratorical terms, and the president diverted attention from his message just days later by clumsily reorganizing his administration. The American people were adrift and their leader had failed to rally them.
By 1989, however, American despair had given way to euphoria. With the Soviet Union falling apart, inspired publics tore down the Berlin Wall and then removed dictators across Eastern Europe. A once-ascendant Soviet Empire was literally no more.
What do these events of 40, 30 and 20 years ago suggest?
First, that history moves quickly, sweeping away what were once thought to be deep-seated trends. Optimism and despair, hope and fear, vision and short-sightedness – they compete for supremacy on history’s pendulum.
Second, that no problem is insurmountable. The nation that overcame yesterday’s challenges can do so again. The nation that defended freedom and fueled prosperity throughout the last century surely can restore fiscal sanity, fix the broken health care system and protect the environment in this one.