Neil Armstrong. A Lesson in How Fear Shapes History
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
As we mourn the passing of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, let’s not forget what took us there in the first place. No, it was not discovery, nor science, nor was it to make “a giant leap for mankind” as Armstrong said in that ghostly video as he set that incredible footprint in the soft lunar soil. As are so many of the momentous events in history, what put man on the moon was prompted principally by one simple, powerful thing. Fear.
Armstrong’s passing illuminates an important lesson about human behavior. Most of the really big things societies do are done because people put their will and resources together to protect themselves, from threats too big deal with individually If you want to unite people, to get them to work toward some common goal and to sacrifice and spend and act in the name of what they think is the greater common good, then having them all sincerely afraid of the same thing is a great place to start.
And oh were we afraid under the ominous mushroom cloud of the Cold War when The Space Race began in the 1950s. We had seen horrific images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and films of massive hydrogen weapons tests burning like the sun over the Pacific. A National Emergency Alert radio system was created, and we were taught to ‘duck and cover’ under our school desks, should World War III break out. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, the New York Times headline warned ominously that “Sphere Tracked in 4 Crossings Over U.S.” As in, US! The Space Race was about our survival, and the Soviets were winning.
So in 1958, just five months after Sputnik, the White House published a pamphlet for the American public titled Introduction to Outer Space, a public relations piece to build our fear into support for the massive spending this high tech/high stakes competition required. President Eisenhower (a military man, remember) gave four justifications for spending on space; the first, naturally, was the Gee Whiz wonder of it all…“the thrust of curiosity that leads men to try to go where no one has gone before”. (Sorry, Gene Roddenberry, they basically said it way before you stole the line for Star Trek.) But the next reason is really why the money got spent. “There is the defense objective for the development of space technology,” The White House wrote. “We wish to be sure that space is not used to endanger our security. If space is to be used for military purposes, we must be prepared to use space to defend ourselves.” (Reason 3 for the space race was national pride. Science and technological experimentation came in fourth, last.)
There was no specific plan to go to the moon. But then The Soviets won the next lap of the race, putting a man in orbit in April 1961. So it was no surprise that in President Kennedy’s 1961 State of The Union Address in May, after sections on Defense, Military Spending and Intelligence, Civil Defense programs, and Disarmament, he spoke so stirringly about the space program, saying “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” That’s the line people remember. But here’s the first line in that paragraph, Kennedy’s reason for going to the moon;
“…if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.”
And just for good measure Kennedy added
“space achievement…may hold the key to our future on earth.”
How’s that for tapping into our fears? Eight years later, Americans felt not only a lot of national pride, but a good deal safer, as we watched Armstrong plant the American flag on the moon. The Good Guys were winning! Freedom Defeats Tyranny! Yes, Armstrong and the moon mission astronauts were all true heroes. They were also unquestionably front rank Cold Warriors.
If you go back through history it’s easy to see the major role fear has played in shaping events. You can see it now, fueling the angry closed-minded polarization that has turned the American ship of state into a vessel trapped in ice and unable to move, it’s hull being crushed by the pressure as the inexorable force pushes in from all sides. The people of the conservative right and Tea Party talk with sincere, fiery passion about how threatened they feel, how under attack they are, and how they are in a battle to defend their values and their way of life. That’s fear.
The social and economic and political history of mankind has been, and always will be, powerfully shaped by fear…often for worse, sometimes for better. It starts wars, and compels us to all sorts of cruelty toward others who make us feel threatened. But sometimes fear prevents wars (fear of Mutual Assured Destruction kept Kennedy and Khrushchev from starting nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis), and sometimes it puts man on the moon. The point is, if you want to get something really big done that requires people coming together to work toward a common goal and to sacrifice and spend and act in the name of what they think is the greater common good, then having them all sincerely afraid of the same thing is a great place to start.
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