As probably you know, the People’s Republic of China has a serious and robust moon landing program. Late this year or early next, China is preparing to land a probe on the moon that will dig up some rock samples and then return safely to Earth. China has made it clear that it intends to send men and women to the moon — soon — and as John F. Kennedy said, “return them safely to Earth.”
So let’s say that China pulls off a human lunar landing mission sometime in the next few years. It is at least possible that the People’s Republic might try to do something even more impressive than our July 1969 achievement. Perhaps it would land a manned mission on the dark side of the moon, or at one of the poles, or perhaps the landing team would spend an extended period, perhaps even weeks, on the lunar surface.
All the American news channels interrupt regular programming to break the news.
Here’s my question. How would America respond? How would our news media respond? How would the pundisphere respond? How would members of Congress respond? How would our allies and adversaries across the globe respond? How would the administration in power respond? What do you think?
What is more likely? That we would freak out as we did when the Soviets lobbed Sputnik into Earth orbit Oct, 4, 1957? Or that we would throw our national will and resources into a Manhattan Project-style effort to get back to the moon — and beyond, perhaps, to Mars? Or that we would shrug our shoulders as a people, not without some disquiet, but without any panic or emergency response? What do you think?
I can tell you what happened in 1957. I’d say we freaked out but it was infinitely more serious than that. The Cold War was at its height. The United States and the Soviet Union thought they were locked in a contest for national survival. Nikita Khrushchev boasted that the West could not keep up and had declared Nov. 18, 1956, in Moscow, “We will bury you.” The Soviets taunted that President Eisenhower’s grandsons would grow up in a Communist America because it was clear that capitalism was in its death throes.
Disgusted with America’s lackluster performance, former Manhattan project scientist George R. Price wrote in Life magazine that each of the two superpowers “is apt to get the things it values most. And so we will probably continue to have the world’s best TV comedians and baseball players, and in a few years Russia, will have the world’s best teachers and scientists.”
On the day of Sputnik, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson said, “What happened this morning is one of the best publicized and most humiliating failures in our history.” Rep. Victor Anfuso of New York said, “I want to see this country mobilized to a wartime basis because we are at war. I want to see schedules cut in half. I want to see what NASA says it’s going to do in 10 years cut to five.” Sen. Johnson said, “I do not believe that this generation of Americans is willing to resign itself to going to bed each night by the light of a Communist moon.”
It was not really about space exploration. The Soviet rocket that put Sputnik II into orbit on Nov. 3, 1957, was large enough to deliver a nuclear warhead anywhere on Earth. That made the United States vulnerable to a first-strike, nearly instantaneous nuclear attack. Soviet nuclear capacity was no longer a matter of speculation. Our ham radio operators could track the beeping of these ICBM-delivered satellites as they whizzed over the North American continent.
But the crisis wasn’t just about nuclear brinksmanship. The United States had been the world leader in science, technology, invention and innovation for so long that it seemed unthinkable that primitive Russia — barely emerging from Tolstoy’s world of serfdom, pogrom and famine — could have caught up with America. And yet it was true. The Russians put the first satellite in space. The Russians put the first man in space. The Russians put the first woman in space. The Russians performed the first space walk outside an orbiting capsule. Meanwhile, America’s rockets had a habit of blowing up on the launchpad.
If the Soviets really were striding ahead of the United States, that meant that the Communist East had caught up with the capitalist West. Maybe a command economy without the need for congressional committees, majority rule, federal court review, without the requirement of competitive bidding, without the necessity to satisfy workers’ unions, was actually superior to a what the Free World, with all if its cumbersome checks and balances and its need to win popular approval for major government could achieve, at least in these major engineering projects.
The geopolitical thinkers who wrestled with this shocking development also wondered if emerging post-colonial societies in Africa, Asia, and South America would now choose to align themselves with the Soviet system rather than oursbecause it seemed to many that the Soviets were winning the race for world supremacy.
That was the mind-set of the American establishment then, and it soon became the mind-set of the American people.
But we all know the Cold War is over. We just celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down. The West won. Neither Russia nor China is Communist anymore. There is no serious Communist threat in the world.
The question now is whether the people or the leaders of the United States regard the People’s Republic of China as an existential threat.
According to economists:
- China’s economy will surpass that of the United States sometime in the next decade and India may surpass the United States by 2035.
- China ranks third in the world in overall military strength and it already has a larger navy than the United States.
- China is investing heavily in gross infrastructure projects all over the planet, in Africa, South America, the Pacific, even in the United States.
- China has many internal problems, but nobody who studies international relations fails to realize that the People’s Republic is making a serious run at regional and perhaps world hegemony, while we watch the Kardashians and debate concussion protocols in the NFL.
Does this matter? It doesn’t seem so. At the moment, we don’t even have a rocket that can put a human in space. We have to let the Russians loft our astronauts to the International Space Station. I find that humiliating. I find it appalling and unacceptable that we now have to beg rides into orbit from a nation that does what it can to undermine America’s democracy and its place in the world.
John F. Kennedy believed that the United States must win what he called “the long twilight struggle” because it would determine whether we would survive as a free society. He was prepared, as he put it in his first inaugural address, to “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Here’s my question, Jefferson Hour readers and listeners: What would you think we should do in the face of a Chinese or Russian manned moon landing? Maybe it doesn’t matter. This is not 1957. Maybe our parents and grandparents over-reacted back then in the heart of the Cold War. Maybe a moon landing is no longer the measure of national greatness. Since we have weapons that are infinitely more sophisticated than what could be lifted by a Soviet ICBM and 21st century delivery systems are infinitely more flexible in their capacity to deliver destruction, perhaps a national panic over a Chinese moon landing would be nothing more than playing old tapes, created in the age of the Edsel Ford, Elvis, 45 rpm records and Ozzie and Harriot.
That was then and this is now.
Still, I believe these things very strongly.
- First, China is a much bigger threat to the United States than most American citizens understand. Those who are willing to let the United States slip to second- or third-class status as a nation state have not, I believe, done the hard reading.
- Second, whatever precipitated it, the American space program was one of the greatest achievements not only in the history of the United States but in the story of humankind. The Cold War may have launched the rockets, but what they represent is not victory in a geopolitical contest so much as the pivotal moment when humans left the home planet to explore the universe beyond.
- Third, national prestige is as important as national power. I feel honored to be a citizen of the nation that put man on the moon in 1969, and I hope to see it happen again during my lifetime. Heck, I hope I live long enough to see us land on Mars, but I don’t actually expect that because we have gone from JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you,” to a slovenly hedonist-materialist-consumerist society with no agreed upon national aspirational goals. If you doubt me, name one national goal we all agree on in 2019. We cannot even agree on polio vaccination.
- Fourth, I don’t speak for you, but I know I will feel a profound sense of shame when China lands its cosmonauts on the moon.