Armstrong and the Death of American Exceptionalism

Armstrong and the Death of American Exceptionalism


Op-Ed: To Americans in 1969, Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 astronauts were the ultimate expression of American exceptionalism – though we just called them “heroes.” Back then, America was still a country of winners.

Winning was still deeply ingrained in the American psyche back then. George C. Scott’s “Patton” was right: “Americans love a winner… The thought of losing is hateful.” Back then, no one dared believe we would lose in Vietnam. We were a force for moral right.

In light of Armstrong’s passing, Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH) has called on President Obama to honor the former astronaut with a state funeral, saying, “His one small step on the moon was indeed a giant leap for mankind, and it exemplified what we mean by American exceptionalism.” Johnson added that Armstrong “showed the world Americans can do anything.”

I feel that way, too. But some people in this country right now, people like Barack Obama and other political elites, question the notion of American exceptionalism. They question the exceptionality of a country that has saved the world, fed the world, led the world and inspired the world.

When I was a young boy growing up in 1969, watching as Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon, sent there by scores of men and women who used slide rules and ethical rules, American exceptionalism was not open to question. It was not debated or compared to “Greek exceptionalism.” It simply was because we simply were.

Like millions of other people in this country, I remember where I was on November 22nd, 1963 – but I also remember where I was on July 21, 1969.

I sat up for over 24 hours watching the landing and waiting for the first walk on the Moon. None of us were ever really far from the television beginning with the launch of Apollo 11 to the splashdown eight days later. Most Americans did the same in those days. We all felt part of something exciting and patriotic and terribly, terribly special. The appalling danger never really occurred to us. NASA’s astronauts always came back to us safe and sound. And we just had to beat Russia to the Moon.

The cost to the nation had been a massive $24 billion dollars amid the depths of the Cold War, a commitment to a “crash program,” compared to the Manhattan Project. The Apollo program employed some 400,000 people at its peak and more than 20,000 firms and universities contributed to it.

The nation was not divided over the space program or the goal of “beating the Russians” to the Moon. Both political parties heartily endorsed NASA, and one of the most vigorous anti-communists of the era, Hubert Humphrey, was a fierce and articulate proponent of the stakes involved, citing Churchill’s “the wizard war” as our justification. If we did not win, Humphrey said, we were “doomed.”

As far as everybody on both sides of the Iron Curtain was concerned, this was simply a new form of warfare, and both sides threw in the crème of their talent to win the Moon.

At the time, at age 12, I was a real fanatic for NASA and the whole space program, like many American boys. I clipped newspaper articles, had a telescope, built models, read books and memorized the names of every astronaut in the program. Nobody thought we were nerds as we also played baseball, worked on small engines, and swam and ice skated on local ponds and streams. We got into trouble, and avidly followed the space program the way people now follow the exploits of the Kardashians.

From today’s vantage point, some would call our childhood idyllic. We just thought of it as normal. Our parents encouraged our singular and diverse interests. Individuality was appreciated, but so, too, was conformity.

All of this is why, like so many others, I mourn the passing of Neil Armstrong at age 82. He and the other astronauts were, and are, American exceptionalism personified. Of all the celebrities I’ve met, the most indelible for me were the astronauts – including Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon and now the only living crew member of the American Lunar Module, the Eagle, which first touched down on the surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969, doing so in peace for all mankind.

Many find it mildly curious that Obama says exploring the Moon can be handled by the private sector but health care must be handled the government. Is this a philosophy, or is it the expression of a deeper feeling about power in America and the destruction of one set of principles and idealism to be replaced by another set of politics and order?

As a young boy, John F. Kennedy inspired me. As a middle-aged man, Barack Obama dispirits me.

Our parents and our culture taught us about right and wrong and about good and evil. Not only had the phrase "moral equivalency" not yet been coined, neither had the shameful rationale been seriously put forth.

I wept for Neil Armstrong on Saturday when I heard about his death. But in a way, millions of us were also shedding tears for a way of life we fear this country may never know again.

Craig Shirley is the author of the bestselling December, 1941: 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World and president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs.