Today, precisely 50 years after humans first set foot on the moon, many wistful Americans are surely experiencing peak nostalgia, longing for a time when millions of people could put aside their differences and delight in the nation’s scientific ingenuity and spirit of exploration.
But while the exceptionalism of the Apollo 11 achievement cannot be denied, perhaps the popular conception of a time when all Americans could briefly ignore politics and social unrest for a few days of national glory deserves to be questioned.
The letters to the editor below were published in the Los Angeles Times in the days after the Apollo 11 moon landing. They’re from readers who express concerns on a wide range of topics that may ring familiar to us half a century later.
On July 28, 1969, author, publicist and journalist A.S. “Doc” Young lamented a missed opportunity:
“Many [African Americans], like other Americans, were glued to their television sets over the weekend, watching the moon broadcasts. I happen to know that many of them, on leaving home, took transistor radio sets with them, so they wouldn’t miss a word of the great happening.
“Nobody will catch me denying that the moon flight was a great achievement for man.
“But, there is something I’ve got to say:
“The people who put this project together were simply stupid not to include a colored person on the trip.
“The inclusion of a colored person would have made the moon flight far more significant to the majority people of the world.
“That, perhaps, would have been the most humanitarian deed ever performed by Caucasian Americans. That, perhaps, would have been the most politically astute act of Caucasian leaders. That simple act would have proved our nation’s greatness beyond rebuttal....
“The world is by no means all-white.
“The world is about to blow up behind the white man’s arrogant belief that nobody down here counts but him.”
On July 24, 1969, Terry Campbell of Hermosa Beach exulted:
“A man on the moon! It was mankind’s finest hour, for as those two human beings stood on the lunar surface, the world watched in silent unity. It is as close to total unity as we will ever be.
“The incredible voyage; it outdid everything that the blind poet Homer could have dreamed of. A victory for Galileo and Da Vinci, and thoughtful Copernicus — what would he think? Indeed, this was truly the cumulative accomplishment of all men.”
In the same day’s paper, Ruth D. Goodman of Los Angeles expressed earthly concerns:
“Without minimizing this colossal achievement, I am, nevertheless, acutely aware of mankind’s ills on earth; and until giant steps are taken to solve our domestic problems in the United States, I shall not pay taxes for adventures on Mars and other planets.
“We must first use our tax dollars on poverty, on health problems here, on educating our people, on food, on air and water pollution, on ocean exploration.
“It is inconceivable to me that persons on earth should go hungry, uneducated, die of cancer while technology has put man on the moon.”
Also on July 28, Henry D. Alberts of San Luis Obispo talked about the Vietnam War:
“The United States, on Sunday, July 20, 1969, achieved the unenviable position of being the most schizoid nation on the face of the earth. While landing men on the moon, it persists, at the same time, in a gross self-deception in Vietnam.
“The tragedy is that the scientific methods, precision of planning, and the specific and sane language used to get Americans to the moon are not being used with the same fervor to conduct the affairs of mankind on this planet.
“Not only does the left hand not know what the right hand is doing; it is undoing it.”