RETURN TO THE END of the Gulf War, when we did not go to Baghdad. The wave was taking us there, but we stepped off. To go on would have offended our coalition partners, and contradicted our original plans. So we stopped short. Stepped off history's rolling breaker. Have regretted it ever since.
Which takes us back to spring 1945, another time we stepped off the wave instead of riding it in. The Allied armies were pushing into Germany. Churchill begged the high command not to stop short; to move forward and take Berlin. He saw the Cold War coming. He understood that the post-war world would be fundamentally different from what we were used to. But America said no; to take Berlin would offend our coalition partner (namely Stalin), and contradict our original plan. So we stopped short, and regretted it for the next half century.
General Eisenhower was a big believer in stopping short. Berlin, he said, was a mere "prestige objective." Anyway the Russians were closer than the western allies, so naturally they would take the city: "they have a shorter race to run," he said. He did not believe in racing the Russians.
A decade later as president he said approximately the same thing about the space race. He "would not be willing," he said, "to spend tax money to send a man around the moon . . . There is such a thing as common sense," he said, "even in research." A moon project would be just "a stunt." Just a matter of symbolism and prestige, like Berlin.
When Apollo 11 reached the moon in 1969, most Americans were thrilled--but a few still believed, as Eisenhower had, that we should never have ridden this wave. We had risked and lost lives and spent billions to achieve a victory that was merely symbolic. Think of all the other things we could have got for the effort and money, they said--as if the money were a commuter special you could shunt onto any track you liked. A few days before Apollo 11 set out, the then-popular novelist Kurt Vonnegut said: "We have spent something like $33 billion on space so far." (The real figure was probably far higher.) "We should have spent it on cleaning up our filthy colonies here on earth." Not seeing that without Apollo, the money as such would never even have existed. Melt down the world's largest iceberg and you barely raise sea-level at all.
It was good we disregarded the Eisenhower-Vonnegut axis and rode that wave. Statecraft and leadership is a matter of seeing the wave as it gathers, deciding whether it is good or evil--and if it is good, getting on and staying on. Lincoln said: "I know there is a God, and I know He hates injustice. I can see the storm coming, and I know His hand is in it."
Kennedy talked of space as a "new ocean." The wave was departing; America got on and rode it. Many scientists complained from the first (and are still complaining) that the manned space program was stealing money from space science; but human beings need to operate with their emotions and not just their intellects in gear. The philosopher William James wrote about how fine a "moral equivalent of war" might be; modern-day liberals (especially Jimmy Carter) took up the cry without seeming to notice that Apollo had been the moral equivalent of war, and had indeed been fine. The results were spectacular for science, technology and spirit.
Today the space-wave is petering out but we are right to ride it as far as we can. To revive it today would take something bigger than Mars, maybe a manned trip to the moons of Jupiter or Saturn--if it can be revived. I don't know. No wave lasts forever. We should be vigilant to catch the next one. (My guess is it will have nothing to do with space, but that's another story.) And whatever we happen to be doing at the moment, the manned space program is a permanent reminder that we ought to ride the wave all the way in, and that symbolic victories are the ones that matter most in the end.
David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.
Daily Standard Bonus: Be sure to read contributing editor Charles Krauthammer's It's Time To Dream Higher in today's Washington Post.