In a few hours we will celebrate the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong on the Moon. I am watching documentaries on History Channel, able to experience still the wonder of a childhood memory. One is a scientist nerd all through life, I'll have you know.
And while we are at it, one of my favorite visits at Washington DC is the Air and Space museum where I stop lovingly under the Lindbergh plane and in front of the Command Module of Apollo 11, for me, each in its own right, two of the greatest human achievements; the Lindbergh one perhaps the most courageous as Science was of not as much help then.
But today I am also thinking about the U.S. of A. glory. As an historian wonk of sorts it occurred to me that July 20 1969 could be the perfect date to mark the apogee of the American Empire, evil or not as you wish it to be.
The fact of the matter is that in 1969 the United States proved that it had won the Moon race, that technologically the capitalist West was ahead of the commie East and that the gap was bound to widen. Maybe it was not obvious then, but with the benefit of hindsight, the writing was on the wall. Or perhaps rather as a foot print on the Lunar dust.
Once the troubled 70ies were left behind, that Vietnam was ended, the 80ies came and the long delayed end of the Berlin Wall finally happened. To some that point would be the ultimate triumph of the US, but I disagree. The US needed Europe to reach that goal whereas in 1969 the US was still pretty much on its own staring down the Soviets. True, the prosperity of Europe West is due in part to the US and its Marshall plan, but like other empires, the US has started needing and relying on allies more and more. In 1969 it was still towering alone, with a few side kicks if you like.
But do not feel bad or upset about this if you are a US reader. Like all Empires the US has a rise and a fall, and that its apogee might have been reached in 1969 does not mean in any way that its end is at the corner, as simple minded know nothing like Hugo Chavez believe. Let me give you the French example. The French Empire probably came to be at Rocroi when in 1643 the French army decisively beat the army of the former European Empire, Spain. The French apogee cannot be really placed but a case can be made that the decline started in 1685 when Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes. Thus the French glory lasted for barely 40 years, in politics, economy and arts, all together in a resplendent period, rarely seen elsewhere in such synchronism.
The decline was long, it did not quite finish in 1789 as the Napoleonic Empire (not only in might but in name) had a final and useless paroxysm. It was succeeded by a brief colonial Empire but that was a very meager consolation since that Empire was built mostly after 1870 at a time when Germany and the US were already stronger nations, and England the ruling empire. The final demise of the idea of a French Empire was 1914-1918 from which France ceased being the veto country once and for all even if it still keeps a UN veto out of tradition.
The American Empire started its rise after the Civil War and came into being when it removed the Spaniards from their remaining possessions in the continent (the official end of another long declining Empire by the way). As such the US of A Empire might be one of the fastest rise of recent Empires. The British Empire, for one, needed the Tudors, Cromwell, and the defeat of France in 1713 to finally put an Imperial claim, though its apogee period certainly lasted more than France, from 1815 until the Boer war.
But the US of A failed to become the Empire in 1919 when the Versailles treaty provisions could not be enforced and where England still could not resign itself to go to secondary status. The failure of the League of Nations that the US never joined eventually allowed for Pearl Harbor and the rise of the Soviet Union, amen of Nazi Germany. If by production the US was numero uno since WW1, politically it reached that position only after WW2 and reached the cultural top spot in 1969 when we had that rare chance of seeing a myth created in front of our own eyes.
Only great civilizations, great empires have the luck, sometimes, to create a myth. Those who saw live that first step on the Moon are blessed.
PS: all dates, opinions and chronology subjected to my very own personal, subjective and totally biased opinion due to the emotion of the day. That you agree or disagree with them leaves me cold. :)