The death of Astronaut Neil Armstrong on Saturday should cause all of us to reflect on the Apollo moon landing and what it said about the American people at the middle of the 20th century.
In 1961, President John Kennedy issued a daunting challenge to the country to “Land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth before the end of the decade.” It was a bold challenge, full of optimism and faith.
And Americans responded. The best and brightest of us set about to bring to reality a dream of mankind for thousands of years. And the rest of us enthusiastically cheered them on.
Eight short years later, we did it. It was a bold response to a bold challenge. The Apollo program said all one needed to know about the American spirit at that time.
But what of the 43 years since? What have we as a nation accomplished together since that amazing day? Did we seize the moment and look forward and upward to even bigger challenges? Did we forge ahead in the face of uncertainty or even doubt? Did we have the will? Not just in space. In any venue. Did we dare to do big things?
No we did not. Soon after that most amazing triumph of skill and determination, we plunged into the ’70s with all of its strife, recrimination, doubt and malaise.
Ten years later, the polarization and creeping cultural decline of America was apparent for anyone to see. But we did not see or want to see. And so it continued.
In the next 33 years, our inner cities crumbled, our education system sank to the bottom of the industrialized world, our manufacturing output withered, our families fractured, our transportation infrastructure rusted and our financial system imploded. Worst of all, our sense of national pride and purpose eroded. Today we have neither the national will or confidence that we relied on to go to the moon.
There is no ignoring the obvious: We are in decline. We can point all of the fingers we want, but the fact is, we are all to blame.
A few of us actively worked to destroy the culture and spirit that made us capable of landing on the moon. More of us looked for others to do for us what our parents did for themselves. And most of us stood by while it happened.
As a nation, we are now less industrious, more selfish, less educated, more debased, less principled and more divided.
No society realizes that its time has passed when the decline begins.
History may record that America reached its zenith on July 20, 1969, never again to become the world’s beacon for freedom and prosperity.
Or it may record that America was reborn in the 21st century after almost a half century on the same track as the Roman Empire. It might record that we as a people finally looked back and applied the genius of the Founding Fathers, rolled up our sleeves and boldly stood against the forces of decline.
But history will not make that choice. We will.