In October 1957, Sputnik 1 went up, and America panicked: My gosh, the Soviets are winning the Cold War! At least that's how it seemed as the little satellite's beep-beep was heard around the world. President Eisenhower hated spending money, but even he was persuaded that an aggressive space program was crucial. The United States' prestige was at stake, and so NASA was born as an instrument of nationalist competition.
But that's not how it evolved, at least in global public perception. Teasel Muir-Harmony’s engaging Operation Moonglow: A Political History of Project Apollo reveals that the 1969 Apollo moon landing mission was the single most successful U.S. diplomatic effort of the late 20th century—precisely because it consciously avoided jingoism.
Muir-Harmony, a curator at the Smithsonian, draws on a rich cache of documents from NASA and the United States Information Agency, among other sources, to bring to vivid life the ground-level public relations onslaught surrounding the Apollo project. When U.S. diplomats organized exhaustive worldwide tours and exhibits about their country's successes, they quickly learned that American boasting was a turnoff. Instead, millions of people across the earth reacted with astounding enthusiasm to a message of global unity. The space mission was "for all mankind."
The astronauts assigned to the mission proved to be natural goodwill ambassadors, indefatigable in their unpretentious friendliness. Muir-Harmony brings us along for their post-flight tours—as Frank Borman wades into Paris crowds to press the flesh and as Neil Armstrong says just the right thing to charm the prickly wife of Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito. The positive feeling generated by Apollo arguably helped Nixon jump-start his secret Vietnam War peace talks.
It feels like such a remote era now: Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon were all instinctive internationalists, despite their political differences. They believed the United States would prevail through U.S.-led alliances and openness, in contrast to Soviet secrecy and bullying. Muir-Harmony notes that, even with the achievement of the moon landing, NASA couldn’t overshadow global disgust with the Vietnam War or the nation's racial turmoil in any lasting way. Still, Operation Moonglow is a winning remembrance of a time when America thought big and optimistically about its role in the world.