A Postcolonial Moment? Apollo and American Empire

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 3:30 PM
Salon 12 (Palmer House Hilton)
Stephen Buono, Indiana University
The Apollo 11 moon landing contained contradictions. Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, according to the plaque they left behind on the Moon, were "men from the planet Earth," yet they plunged the American flag into the lunar soil. The astronauts had "come in peace for all mankind," but had been plucked from the military. Richard Nixon propounded the unity of the human species even as he laid plans to expand the Vietnam War and while civil strife tore his country to pieces. This tension between rhetoric and symbol, between word and deed, expressed itself most fully in the US contention that although Apollo represented a national achievement, the United States sought no sovereign claim to territory on the moon, and that universalism of Apollo signaled the end of American empire. This claim was substantiated in 1967 when the United States ratified the Outer Space Treaty, which forbade territorial claims in space and on celestial bodies. But the nation's occupation of South Vietnam, its far-flung overseas bases, and the penetrating influence of its businesses belied the declaration that Apollo marked the final act in the United States' shedding of colonialism. Indeed, this presentation argues that Apollo served as an adjunct – a benign mask – for the more imperial dimensions of American foreign policy unfolding back on Earth. It examines the fraught political environment in which sovereignty, colonialism, and US empire were debated in the wake of the moon landing, and suggests that this discourse tempered the moment's triumphalism, both at the time and in history.
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