When cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to go to space on April 1961, it was an embarrassment for the U.S. and a coup for the Soviet Union, who leveraged it as an indication that the USSR had the technology lead and communism was the future of humanity. A month later, America’s response was verbalized by President John F. Kennedy in his historical “Moon Shot” speech. Indeed, JFK’s promise of having a human on the moon within a decade materialized in July 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon and were brought back safely to Earth together with Michael Collins in the Apollo 11 mission.
As a child growing up in Brazil, I watched that scene in black-and-white T.V. with my whole family together, mesmerized with the images broadcasted from Earth’s intriguing satellite. I was surprised that the astronauts posted the American flag on the moon. I thought of it as an achievement of the human race, not of a single nation-state. I was also amazed many years later to find an article in the New Yorker magazine, written by E. B. White in 1969, expressing the same sentiment: “It is traditional, of course, for explorers to plant the flag, but it struck us, as we watched with awe and admiration and pride, that our two fellows were universal men, not national men, and should have been equipped accordingly,” wrote White. He noted that the flag “looked stiff and awkward, trying to float on the breeze that does not blow. (There must be a lesson here somewhere.)”
The lesson might be in White’s freedom to write critically about it in a period of soaring American national pride.
It’s true that the Cold War accelerated American space exploration, justifying the billions of dollars required to succeed. However, White’s take on the moon shot’s achievement makes me believe that America’s Cold War victory was more than technological, financial and military—it also resided in its democratic institutions that allowed, for example, nationalism, even in the tense moments of the Cold War, to be questioned in the press. Liberty, freedom of speech and contestation make America a great model for all people on Earth. Gazing at the moon from Brazil in 1969, during one of the many periods of authoritarian rule in the country, America shined for much more than its technological accomplishments.
As the U.S. sets its sights on a new Cold War with China, technology, along with financial and military might, will again play a key role. Let us remember a valuable lesson from the first Cold War: technological prowess, military power and the financial ability to buy allegiance are not alone what makes a country a global leader. As China executes its plan for supremacy in technologies of the future, it tightens its grip on dissent. Meanwhile, the U.S. nears a “constitutional crisis,” and white nationalism rises with increasing levels of social violence. Will we learn the lesson of the first Cold War?