THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
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To their great credit the British media have been effusive in their tributes to the accomplishments of the Apollo program and to NASA in this week of commemorations of the 1969 mission of Apollo 11.
The documentaries, newspaper articles and television and radio discussion panels have been of the highest quality. One aspect, however, of that period of human history has only briefly been touched on: the horrific situation in the United States during the most unhinged year in its domestic history since the Civil War. Indeed, astronaut Frank Borman observed in a recent BBC documentary that he had been met with unbridled hostility by crowds in the United States but with unbridled love in Britain and Europe.
This was a period of time in my life I vividly remember because world events were tumbling over one another as I tried to endure adolescence and my first experience of being in an all-girls' school. The Philadelphia High School for Girls was considered the finest in the country; my sister had graduated with distinction and like all of her contemporaries had had invitations to attend the best universities. It was also, however, a period of burgeoning social turbulence that in my estimation started not with the anti-Vietnam-war demonstrations but with the Six-Day War in 1967 in Israel.
The lead-up to 'Swift Sword,' as it became known, included days and weeks of live broadcasts from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) – impressionable young female viewers like me got to know the devastatingly handsome Hans Tabor, Danish ambassador and chair of the UNSC who would eventually broker a peace deal in the region, U Thant, Secretary-General, as well as Israeli emissary Abba Eban, vice president of the General Assembly. I mention this because my household was glued to television; we were sure the Jewish state would be annihilated by Nasser of Egypt and his well-equipped allies. We knew the vast geographical expanse of the nations gathering to destroy Israel had a good chance of triumph.
When Israel won the Six-Day War my father encountered a combination of hatred and admiration at his office in a Philadelphia civil engineering firm; he was the only Jewish partner and I remember feeling his sadness when he came home for dinner lamenting the inexplicably nasty comments that had come his way as he tried to get through the working day. In the weeks leading up to the war many Jewish men around the world, including Holocaust survivors, had flown to Israel to volunteer in the armed forces but my mother was hell-bent on not becoming a widow. My father stayed put.
At school I also experienced a mixed reaction: some of the girls made snide remarks about American tax dollars propping up the Jewish state, but others admired the stunning defeat of five Arab armies whilst our teachers regarded the Six-Day War as a slap in the face of the Soviet Union, the staunch supporter of the Arab combatants.
When school reconvened in September the national mood had turned grim as the Vietnam conflict escalated. By 1968 President Lyndon Johnson had embroiled the United States in a quagmire that was seeing young men cut down, maimed and psychologically seared in perpetuity whilst the people of Vietnam were on the receiving end of relentless violence. This nightmare had been sanctioned by an administration that had men at its helm - Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, Stewart Udall - who were brilliant but had little ability to bring it to an end. (Sound familiar?) The Johnson years had seen the laudable expansion of Social Security to include Medicare and Medicaid, the signing by a Southern president of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, but would be remembered for embroiling the country in a conflict that would continue to spiral out of control in the Nixon years. (Likewise the ultimate irony was the fury of the South engendered by the Civil Rights Act; the end of the 'Dixiecrat' dynasty saw the Republican party regain control of states below the Mason-Dixon Line after one hundred years of Democratic rule because Republican Lincoln had freed the slaves.)
Protests against the Vietnam War gained momentum and spread outside the United States coupled with the widespread student revolutionary movement in West Germany. My 1967-68 academic year was dominated by fear at home that my older sister might be caught up in violent demonstrations at Columbia University where she was an undergraduate at Barnard College. In April 1968 Martin Luther King was assassinated and one night in early June I abruptly awoke from sleep, feeling as if someone had hit me. I turned on the black and white bedroom television my then-boyfriend had made for me from scratch, and there was Breaking News that Senator Bobby Kennedy had been shot in California at a presidential campaign rally by Sirhan Sirhan, a kitchen worker at the hotel venue enraged by Kennedy's support for Israel. At that stage in this ongoing American tragedy few could have cared a toss about the space program.
The 1968 Democratic National Convention was marked by violence inside and outside; 'hard hats' who supported the Vietnam War and the election of Richard Nixon came into conflict with anti-war protesters. At this point my father announced to us that he was considering an offer to join a government engineering unit in Livorno, Italy, and that he thought it would be beneficial for us to leave the country. Many families at that time thought the nation was on the verge of full-scale civil war but my mother made the ultimate decision: we would stay put.
With the death of Martin Luther King and the election of Republican Nixon the tensions at school were palpable. The black students became confrontational and in the lunchroom the militant girls stood on tables and chanted 'Black Power!' The nationwide riots that had ensued after the King assassination constituted the widest wave of social unrest since the Civil War. The rise of the Nation of Islam continued after the assassination of Malcolm X as did support for the Palestine Liberation Organization, whose prominence in world affairs had burgeoned after the Six-Day War.
In the summer of 1969 my mother began embroidering a massive red tablecloth featuring Christmas trees and snowflakes. On July 20th, her closest friend, Lilian Kaufmann, invited us to her house to watch the moon landing. Her husband Mort was in the last throes of mouth cancer but was determined to survive long enough to see the Apollo 11 astronauts achieve their goal. All left-wingers, my parents and the Kaufmanns mourned the absence of John Kennedy, whose dream was a triumphant American space endeavor; I keenly picked up the atmosphere of bitterness that a president they regarded as reactionary would bask in the glory of a NASA mission that ought to have been enjoyed by a Democrat in the White House. Despite this, we paused for one day to savor the realization of JFK's legacy.
Mort Kaufmann died shortly after the moon landing and my mother embroidered into a snowflake '7/20 – 1969.' As I write this the Christmas 1969 tablecloth sits in my living room in London, where I came to live in 1976.
The period after 1969 was a descent into darkness in many ways: the Vietnam War became a source of shame as a growing cohort of liberal voices headed by J William Fulbright, Al Gore Sr, Jacob Javits and George McGovern railed against the Nixon carpet-bombing of the benighted country. Students were murdered at Kent State University, the Watergate scandal plunged the nation into further turmoil and despite the efforts of Nixon's successor Gerald Ford – a mensch who mentored me in Washington - to unite Americans, the wounds would take a generation to heal.
Are we in a period of healing now? No. The United States plunges into darkness with each generation. But my memory of that day in July, 1969, when we forgot our divisions and cancer-riddled Mort managed one last smile as the men in Mission Control told the astronauts 'you've got a bunch of guys here about to turn blue' was one brief shining moment that I will never forget as I look with affection at my mother's exquisite 50-year-old Christmas tablecloth.
Carol Gould is a filmmaker, BBC and LBC political commentator and author of Don't Tread on Me – Anti-Americanism Abroad and Spitfire Girls.