Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Fifty years ago, America sent a man to the moon. It is a feat that will define our civilization in a thousand years.
We hear a lot about how America can’t achieve big goals anymore. We can’t seem to summon political will across partisan lines. Adding to what can seem like an insurmountable hurdle is the fact that the moonshot occurred less than one decade after it was announced by JFK. These days, it can take longer to build a bridge.
Back in the summer of ’69 when Neil Armstrong stepped down from the lunar lander to the surface of the moon and said, “One small step for man…one giant leap for mankind,” America was in the midst of a musical revolution that would shape world culture. The economy boomed throughout the 1960s, extending a nearly decade-long economic expansion with an unemployment rate that was even lower than today.
But if you talked to folks on the streets of America 50 years ago, it did not necessarily seem like we were going through a glory period guided by the greatest generation.
One year after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., murders were at an all-time high – more per capita than the current rate. American cities suffered devastating riots and fires between 1968 and 1969 that led to urban blight and a belief that our cities were in permanent decline. Not only were streets burning but bombs were going off at a frequency we can’t imagine today. Between January 1969 and April 1970, there were more than 4,000 domestic terror bombings in the United States, costing 43 lives and causing more than $21 million in damage, according to one Senate investigation.
Commentators at the time said that our nation had not been so divided since the Civil War.
And while America was still rising as a superpower on the global stage, we were on the way to losing our first war, half a world away in Vietnam, which took more lives than in all subsequent American wars combined. Lyndon Johnson’s ambitious War on Poverty and Great Society would also be among the casualties.
It’s sometimes said that the good old days are good because they’re gone. The fact is that America has always had its challenges. The future is always uncertain.
So if you fear that America’s best days are behind us, it’s worth remembering that a half century ago, when we were putting a man on the moon, many people felt America was divided beyond repair.
But one hundred years before that, the US survived a civil war in which more than 700,000 Americans died and four million slaves were freed. We survived that crisis of confidence in our democracy despite the fact that our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, was bookended by two of our worst – the irresolute James Buchanan and the bitter Andrew Johnson.
So while we should look clear-eyed at all our challenges and recognize that some of them are indeed dangerous and unprecedented – with facts under attack and bigotry enabled from the White House while authoritarianism seem ascendant around the world – we have been through far worse before. We’ve emerged fitfully and imperfectly stronger and wiser because of all we’ve experienced.
We should continue to face the future without fear, bolstered by the spirit JFK summoned when he aimed us toward the moon, telling us that we should aim to new heights not because it is easy but because it is hard.
The challenges we face today are significant but relatively small compared with overcoming slavery and the civil war – or looking at the moon and deciding we would be the first to plant our flag there, despite all the dangers and utterly inadequate technology at the time.
Whether the challenge is at home or abroad or in outer space, the goal to form a more perfect union becomes more bracing when the odds seem long. But it’s invigorating to fight the good fight – to confront fear with hope, lies with truth and hate with love. And we do it armed with the idea that we will be proud of making a lasting positive difference and defining our time for the better.
There is no perfect time in American history to harken back to. The question is always what to do with our time and how to define the challenges we will face and overcome clear-eyed in the knowledge that for all our faults, it’s never been wise to bet against the best of the United States of America.