The American Way

We’ve talked some this week about Apollo 11, indeed the whole early space program, and we’re going to today as well.

S[ecofically, how very American the whole thing was. Joshua Lawson at The Federalist says.

In the 2008 space documentary “When We Left Earth,” while addressing the success of the Apollo 11 moon landing, Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders remarked that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were “humans” who “just happened to be Americans.”

Last year, Canadian actor Ryan Gosling played Neil Armstrong in Damien Chazell’s biopic “First Man.” In an echo of Anders’s comments from a decade earlier, Gosling raised the eyebrows of many Americans when he said the moon landing was “widely regarded in the end as a human achievement” and that’s how the team making “First Man” chose to view it.

These statements are part of a trend of historical revisionism that paints every American achievement as universal and global while portraying the nation’s past sins as exclusively American. In truth, NASA’s missions in general—and the Apollo 11 moon landing in particular—represent an odds-defying triumph of American exceptionalism.

In good forthright American terms, “It’s bullshit”. Only in America. It’s another attempt to denigrate America, although more subtle than usual.

Like many of the most inspiring adventures in history, the American moon landing is a comeback story. The United States began the space race trailing the Soviet Union. In 1957, the U.S.S.R. stunned the world when they successfully launched the Sputnik satellite into orbit. The first man in space was not an American but Soviet Yuri Gagarin.

Those involved in the first days of NASA were flabbergasted at the early Soviet success. Space correspondent Jay Barbree recalls the sentiment of the time: “These people couldn’t build a refrigerator…how can they get into orbit?”

Rather than looking at the initial score in the space race and giving up, Americans saw the deficit they had to overcome and were emboldened. The Soviets touched a nerve. Unknowingly, they reinvigorated the determined, persevering, and rugged streak embodied in the very nature of the United States. In the drive to remain the preeminent leader in science and engineering, the NASA missions tapped into something deep within the American character.

The space program that led to men landing on the surface of the moon is part of the grand narrative of Americans braving forth and conquering the unknown. The Apollo program and the Mercury and Gemini missions that preceded them were victories of innovation, adaptation, and a hungry (and distinctively American) competitive instinct. Although there were certainly some non-American-born engineers and scientists working for NASA in the 1960s, the entire endeavor was fundamentally American in its ethos.

Looking back. it reminds me of nothing so much as Babe Ruth in Wrigley Field all those years ago ‘calling his shot’ and then doing it. But then, like the Mitchell Raid showed, America is the Babe Ruth of nations. Tell us something is impossible and we’ll just ‘get ‘er done; quicker.

Like a lot of people, I liked President Kennedy. Part of that is that I was too young (and too sheltered) to understand some of his flaws, but a lot of it was that he believed in the sort of America that I did. At Rice University, he said this in 1961 he said this:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard … [the] challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…

That’s powerful stuff, isn’t it? Echoes that Marine Sargeant in Belleau Wood a half-century before Kennedy’s speech, “Come on you sonsabitches! You want to live forever?” But compare it to this, from William Bradford, from over a century before we even became Americans:

…all great and honourable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and must be both enterprised and overcome with answerable courages…all of them, through the help of God, by fortitude and patience, might either be borne, or overcome.

Once you account for the changes in the vernacular language, it’s the same damn speech! And it’s not a speech, any Frenchmen or Spaniard, and not even many Englishmen would make, although quite a few Aussies might. Good people they may all be, they’re followers. We’re not, we lead. Follow me, it says on the statue at the Infantry School, it does not say, together we shall overcome.

Kennedy was on to something when he harnessed the idea of a “New Frontier” during the 1960 presidential election race. After the U.S. Census of 1890 reported the closing of the American frontier in the West, historian Frederick Jackson Turner revealed that much of what made America so exceptional and successful could be tied to the exploration of its expansive frontier.

This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities … furnish the forces dominating American character. … At the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish. …Early Western man was an idealist withal. He dreamed dreams and beheld visions. He had faith in man, hope for democracy, belief in America’s destiny, unbounded confidence in his ability to make his dreams come true.

In the roughest days of the American West, the harsh, unforgiving, and trying experience of trying to eke out a living was a baptism of fire. The nation’s character was both forged and revealed in the conditions of the Old West.

Turner observed that America owes its most striking attributes to the frontier. It took a particular brand of dogged determinism to fight against the unforgiving climate, an often-hostile native population, and the ever-present threat of failure.

That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism … withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom—these are traits of the frontier.

In short, as General Patton said,

Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser. Americans despise cowards. Americans play to win all of the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose a war; for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American.

It’s time we remembered who we are, and acted like it.

 

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6 Responses to The American Way

  1. Scoop says:

    That does seem a common theme: willful amnesia. We don’t remember who we are or were never taught who we are. The end result is the same: mediocrity. That is not America and that is not Christianity either. We best get on the stick and fast.

    Liked by 4 people

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