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If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Book Excerpt

The Conflict Behind the Cliché


It started as a challenge issued by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. If we can put a man on the moon before the Soviets, Kennedy reasoned, we can prove to the world that democracy works better than socialism. The race to the moon was a contest between two systems of government, and the
question would be settled not by debate, but by who could best execute on this endeavor.

When Kennedy issued his challenge, the Soviets had a sizable head start in the space race. They had more powerful rockets, and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had just become the first human in space. But America pulled together. In July of 1969, Neil Armstrong planted an American flag on the moon. In Moscow, Soviet officials could only glare at the sky and mutter in Russian.

Instantly, a new cliché entered the lexicon. If we can put a man on the moon, the saying went, then surely we can achieve anything we set our minds to. We had just overcome perhaps the most difficult scientific, administrative and organizational challenge of all time, and the newly minted phrase expressed boundless confidence in the ability of our country and its government to successfully execute anything it attempted.

While Neil Armstrong was walking around on the moon, such confidence was understandable. In the preceding quarter century, democracy had achieved a series of great triumphs. An alliance of democracies, with a belated assist from the Soviet Union, defeated Nazism, Fascism and Imperialism in World War II. The free men and women of the Manhattan Project, including refugees from the autocratic regimes, split the atom. The Marshall Plan helped the democratic nations of Europe rebuild that war-torn continent. Democracy confronted its ideological opposite during the Berlin Airlift, the Korean War and the Cuban missile crisis. America’s booming economy and strong military showed that democracy could deliver both guns and butter. A track record of effective execution showed that democracy wasn’t just morally superior to collectivism in a theoretical sense — it could actually get the job done as well. This was recognized at the time by the man who led NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) to this great achievement, James Webb:

As astronauts walked the moon, Webb proclaimed to all who would listen that Apollo’s real achievement lay in demonstrating that a democratic nation could outmanage an authoritarian state. He said that if the United States could go to the moon, it could solve its other public problems.

Events of the late 1960s tested this confidence, however. Critics pointed to urban poverty, racial strife and a deteriorating situation in Vietnam as evidence that government “of the people” wasn’t so capable after all. In August 1969, just three weeks after Neil Armstrong’s lunar stroll, Richard Nixon became the first American president to cite the success of the Apollo program as proof of government’s ability to execute when he unveiled his proposal for welfare reform to a skeptical nation:

We face an urban crisis, a social crisis — and at the same time a crisis of confidence in the capacity of government to do its job. . . It is no accident, therefore, that we find increasing skepticism — and not only among our young people, but among citizens everywhere — about the continuing capacity of government to master the challenges we face... Abolishing poverty, putting an end to dependency — like reaching the moon a decade ago — may seem to be impossible. But in the spirit of Apollo we can lift our sights and marshal our best efforts.

The lunar landing had become a rhetorical trump card — who would dare argue that American government wasn’t capable after it had put a man on the moon?

To read the full book preface, download the full PDF below.

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