That America Once

When most people think of the US space program, they think of the moon landing. But for me, as a kid, it was all about the Mercury mission: those first few experimental flights, knowing nothing for certain, racing to catch up with a terrifying enemy for control the very skies above our heads.

I learned the names and stories of all seven Mercury “astronauts”, as they were called (a term invented only the previous year). My favorites? Alan Shepard, first American to leave our home world’s atmosphere (for all of 15 minutes) in 1961. Gus Grissom, whose dramatic rescue after a splashdown mishap electrified the millions listening at home on their radios. And John Glenn, an instant household name when he completed America’s first earth orbit in February 1962. Those stories gave me all my formative ideas of the nation I called home: courageous, innovative, energetic, optimistic. And one more: generous.

You see, also in 1961, a newly elected president, telecast for the first time in living color, stood before a nation laboring under the daily threat of Soviet nuclear annihilation. (The first year of his administration would witness both the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis.) And with his first official words as president, he spoke to our hated enemy, words that stirred my young soul decades later when I read them. Here is what he said:

So let us begin anew— remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce. Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah— to "undo the heavy burdens, and let the oppressed go free.” All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin. (emphasis added)

Those words were spoken to a flawed nation, and by a flawed man, but a half century on, I still treasure that vision of who we could be— in the model of Christ, entertaining aspirations of grace and peace even with the most chilling of adversaries. 

Recently we inaugurated another new president, capping a long, bitter, and divisive campaign, and whatever your feelings toward the new administration, one thing became inescapable: at some point in the past 50 years, our nation has departed from the gracious words and generous aspirations of the past.

Then as now, our nation had many dark secrets and much injustice to answer for. But where a newly minted President Kennedy saw fit to extend an invitation of common ground to a foreign adversary with the will and ability to kill hundreds of millions, we now struggle even to be so charitable to the political opposites among our fellow countrymen. 

Once, our national self image was closely connected to astronauts, willingly perching themselves atop converted ballistic missiles with a very recent history of exploding on the launch pad more often than than they actually launched. Now our chief desire seems to be for an illusory sense of our own safety in a fallen world where we can never be truly safe.

Once, our hope for progress was rooted in our faith in one another's humanity. Now, we seldom dare aspire any higher than a perpetuity of well-funded antagonism. 

Once, we were a people with a vision of our connectedness to a cause greater than our own survival. But do we still have a higher cause? And looking back on our lives as a nation now, and the place we now seek in today’s world, could we still summarize ourselves with this reflection from that bygone era? “We came in peace, for all mankind.”

We could be that America again. We were that America, once.

Photo on Foter.com

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About the Author

Robert is a mild-mannered computer programmer by day. In his sinister alter-ego, he is a blogger and seminary school dropout who teaches theater to kids, raises chickens, and juggles proficiently. He and his wife and daughter found their way to Sojo in 2016 and have been here ever since.

His blog appears at www.oneforjesus.net