This weekend through Monday, television and the internet will be full of commemorations of the Apollo 11 moon mission, in which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon's surface. If you want to relive the event, you can follow coverage in real time at the interactive site We Choose the Moon. It was 40 years ago today that the mission lifted off from Kennedy Space Center. But those who weren't yet born when Apollo 11 launched don't have the context of that time period, which helps to understand how awed and inspired we were by the accomplishments of the Apollo astronauts and by mankind in general in July of 1969. What follows are some of the events that shaped the mood of the nation at the time.
The Vietnam War
The Unites States was deeply mired in another land war in Asia, and had been for about a decade. As a child, my country had always been at war in Vietnam. The news we watched on TV every night wasn't good, but it wasn't the whole story, either. By 1969, returning veterans were speaking out about how the war was mismanaged and how much worse conditions were than news outlets were telling us. More and more young men refused to serve when drafted, and thousands turned out for protests because although they could be drafted, they were too young to vote.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Civil Rights movement had breakthroughs and setbacks at a pretty steady pace for the 15 years since the Brown vs Board of Education ruling in 1954. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the unelected leader of the movement, due to his oratorical skills and his inexhaustible devotion to the cause. In the late sixties, King had expanded his crusade to include justice for poor people of all races and an end to the Vietnam War. He was not the first Civil Rights leader to be murdered, but he was the most prominent. When King was shot on April 4th, 1968, the event cast a cloud over all the gains the movement had made.
Former US attorney general Bobby Kennedy ran for president in 1968, but only got as far as winning the California primary when he, too was assassinated on June 5th. His death was a shock and brought up all the old feelings Americans had when president John F. Kennedy was murdered in 1963.
1968 Presidential Election
Chaos reigned at the 1968 democratic convention as police fought against hippies, Yippies, anti-war protesters, civil rights activists, and others who had invaded the streets of Chicago. People following the TV and newspaper reports were afraid the protesters would disrupt the presidential nomination process, or worse, poison the city's water supply with drugs! But we also hoped that the protests would somehow shorten the war. Anyhow, with Lyndon Johnson out of the race (due to the war) and Kennedy out of the race (due to his death), the democrats really had no chance in the '68 election against Richard Nixon.
The women's liberation movement was making progress in some areas and suffering backlash in others. Organizations were pressing for abortion rights. The first Women's Studies class for credit was held at Cornell University in 1969. Women went to office jobs wearing pantsuits inside of skirts. Attitudes lagged behind activism, as the movement was condescendingly called "women's lib" and feminist were called "bra burners", even though no bras were ever burned.
The Cold War
The space race was only one side of America's competition with Soviet Russia. The darker side was the nuclear arms race and the threat of global nuclear war. As children, my generation felt it was just a matter of time before the Russians dropped an H-bomb on us. We listened for the Emergency Broadcast System to deliver the bad news of the nuclear attack we came to expect. We learned to Duck and Cover, but we also knew that those defense tactics were useless.
Into this depressing mix of events and conditions, there was a shining beacon of hope. We were going to the moon! The Mercury and Apollo missions fed our pioneering spirit and our thirst for modern technology at the same time. Everyday men became superheroes when they put on a spacesuit and stepped into a tin can to be flung higher above the earth than anyone had flown before. And we got to follow their progress in newspapers and magazine, and best of all, on TV! When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the moon, they took us all with them. If mankind could take this giant step, there could surely be nothing to stop us from taking care of all those other problems.
And that's what it was like in 1969.