Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Where Was I When We Landed on the Moon?

By Hal Lippman

I was at a gathering at someone’s apartment a close friend brought me to, but don’t recall feeling all that excited about what was happening, even though its historic significance was palpable. Some of my muted feeling likely was the lingering effect of having recently returned from a nine-month combined dissertation research (Middle East and North Africa), seeing Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union (so much of my studies at American University’s School of International Service had focused on the Cold War and there were newly minted international relations Ph.Ds. taking teaching positions who’d never been abroad, let alone seen what “the other side” looked like in person), and throwing in for good measure, brief stops in Denmark and Sweden. While the trip had been eye-opening, learning-filled, and often exhilarating (truly, a once-in-a-lifetime happening), it was also exhausting and depleting (at the outset, I almost died of food poisoning in Tunis). And, with “the trip” behind me, I’d become preoccupied with obtaining final approval of my dissertation proposal from my dissertation committee.

At the same time, in 1969 our country was in turmoil; the Vietnam War was raging, intense opposition to it was continuing and, while I’d been away overseas, the Democratic Convention had descended into chaos and Richard Nixon had been elected President (I remember grumbling to myself when it was later announced that he was going to speak with the Apollo 11 crew). The sum total of all this left me feeling not-so-patriotic, even though I’d served proudly in the Army from 1963-65 (“…ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”), getting out in June of 1965, just as the post-Tonkin-Gulf-build-up was beginning. In some respects, what I remember more is the distinct undercurrent that the mission to the moon was more important because, “We Beat the Russians,” rather than the profound scientific and technological accomplishments it exemplified.

Relatedly, at that time (and ever since) I have been uncomfortable with flag-waving patriotism. For starters, I am sure many older people remember the rallying cries, “America: Love It or Leave It” or “my country, wrong or right,” shouted at war protesters in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And then there was the realization that President Johnson and his inner circle (especially, and most lamentably for me, Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, whom I admired and respected, but came to regard as a tragically flawed leader) flat out lied to and manipulated the American people, beginning a pattern that has dogged our country ever since — think Watergate, Iran-Contra, weapons of mass destruction, and the present time. And then, how to make sense of the assassinations of President Kennedy (1963) and Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy (1968) and their effects on those of us who lived through them.

In a certain sense, for me, it’s been a long, continuous downward slide since I was a young, somewhat altruistic Lieutenant in 1963 (who went to the U.S. Capitol from Fort Holabird in Baltimore on the freezing night of Nov. 24 and saluted JFK’s casket), interspersed with too few occasions when I felt truly proud of my country – most notably, highlighted by the astounding election of Barack Obama – si, se puede! (Just to remind, for the past 24 years my work has taken me on short-term assignments to dozens of countries in South America, Africa, and Eastern Europe/the former Soviet Union and, during the past 15 years, Iraq, Afghanistan, Georgia, and Jordan doing evaluations of United States Agency for International Development democracy and governance programming and have had to respond to all kinds of questions from people of all stripes about what was going on in my country.) Also, for a long time I have rarely felt completely comfortable reciting the pledge of allegiance (and, at times, meekly protested by not saying the words); which, among other things, was a procedural formality of every Falls Church City Council and School Board meeting when I served on those bodies.

I’ll close this mini-soapbox, two-cents-worth by saying that amidst these persistent feelings of concern for and worry about my country I have tried with some success not to lose sight of the very real positives of our political system — “…democracy is the worst form of government, except all the rest….” — and have devoted my career to public service in their pursuit. Interestingly, and to bring things full-circle, I was enthralled with the recently released Apollo 11 documentary on the mission to the moon and landing when I saw it about a month ago at the IMAX Theater in the Smithsonian Aerospace Museum. Everyone, me included, applauded…


Hal Lippman is a former Falls Church vice mayor, City Council member and School Board member.