BGSU Professor Discusses Apollo 11 Impact on American Perception

Staff Writer

On Thursday evening, Bowling Green State University Associate Professor Benjamin Greene spoke to a small crowd at the St. Marys Community Public Library about the Apollo 11 mission and its international context. The program was hosted by the Auglaize County Historical Society in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.
Changing perception was the focal point of Greene’s talk, highlighting that leading up to the moon landing, the United States was running out of its good luck following World War II. The economy wasn’t doing as well, tension was growing because of the war in Vietnam and the Civil Right Movement.
With the Vietnam War, many people were on opposing sides of whether or not the war was purposeful. He cited TV Journalist Walter Cronkite’s trip to Vietnam as a pivotal point for the war.
Prior to his visit, and from early on in the conflict, Cronkite was a supporter of the war but when he came back from his visit, his view was drastically different.
“And Cronkite, as many of you will recall, said that, ‘victory is no longer possible in Vietnam,” Greene repeated. “‘It is increasingly clear to this reporter that victory is no longer possible. The only rational way out was to negotiate, not for a victory but as an honorable equal who did the best job they could.’”
The violence of war started to appear on the homefront, he said. Greene pointed to the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy as two incidents that were starts of a more violent era. The deaths of those two individuals signalled to the American people that being peaceful didn’t protect them from negative outcomes, thus inciting them to take strong action.
This led up to Greene’s point that, in 1968, America was divided, but the Apollo 11 mission was going to be used to reunify the people.
Looking at the Nuclear Arms Race and products like Napalm and Agent Orange, up until the moon landing American science and technology was viewed as only being used for negative purposes. The moon landing was intended to show people globally that American advances are not solely negative.
“That is an important part of the international context,” Greene explained of the negative perspective. “It would be clear to multiple diplomats serving abroad that the Apollo 11 mission could serve as a way to counter that impression; to show that American science and technology could be used for the good of mankind and for peaceful purposes.”
Former President Richard Nixon, also came to realize this and planned in advance how he was going to capitalize on the moon landing. He planned a victory lap a month in advance of the moon landing and used it to his advantage to promote some of his plans and programs.
His tour, the Moonglow Tour, took him around the globe and in one location, he decided to announce to the press the Nixon Doctrine. The doctrine states that the U.S. will still contain the spread of communism but will only do so with its air power, naval power and nuclear deterrent, Green said. If other countries wanted to fight a ground war against communism, they had to provide the ground troops.
“It’s essential to his strategy to withdrawal from Vietnam,” Green said. “Vietnamization is the extension of the Nixon Doctrine. This is important because it gets to the broader context of acknowledging the limitations in American power and the Nixon Doctrine is going to be an expression of that and he inserts it in, at the period of the Moonglow tour, after the prestige of Apollo 11.
“See what he’s doing here? He’s taking advantage of the goodwill and prestige of Apollo 11 to now announce that the United States is actually being less aggressive and less involved in the world.”
Bettering the reputation of America was an essential part of all of the tours that happened following the moon landing, Greene said. The three astronauts followed behind Nixon on their own Goodwill tour that, like Nixon’s tour, followed a specific route to countries who were deemed beneficial. Greene said the stops were selected to reward some and to appeal to those the U.S. wanted to gain something from and to demonstrate that the United States is a source of peace for mankind.
All of this was being done to deflect from other things that were going on at the time, such as the Vietnam War, Greene said. He noted a U.S. information service advisor who said the men on the tour, with their modesty and expertise, “projected an image of the kind of Americans others would like us to be.”
Greene concluded that the space program was essential as a foreign relations tool, but it is known now that it wasn’t successful and didn’t put an end to the decline as history details the scandals of Watergate, the Pentagon Papers and the Oil Crisis to name a few.
“But it is certainly a monumental period,” he said. “One that garnered attention of the world and prestige around the world and restored the world’s faith — however fleetingly — in the image of the United States that it wanted to grasp.”