Why is the term, “American exceptionalism” so readily and predictably panned by writers and commentators, as well as in comments that follow those articles? Do those who condemn and ridicule its use understand the concept and origin of that term? I believe they do not, so let me spell out what American exceptionalism is. First, let me begin by noting that I needed to tell the word processing software I’m using to ignore my use of the word “exceptionalism,” as it is programmed to believe that there is no such thing, signaling to the writer that “exceptionalism” is incorrect usage. Unfortunately it would seem that many Americans have been programmed to believe the same thing.
The United States of America is the first country founded on the principle of individual liberty and freedom. In a world where people had long lived under the dictates of tyrants (suffered lives of serfdom and slavery under government oppression and confiscation), the founding of America by refugees of conscience was a radical departure – an experiment whereby the people decided their own fate and prospered from their own labor. By design, this government was created with limited powers and answerable to the people – where individual rights came from God not from government. This grand experiment created the richest, freest and most successful country in the history of the world. It is the exceptional way that this nation was created and how it encouraged individual success that is meant by the term “American exceptionalism.” It does not mean that Americans believe that they are better than people living in other countries. It means that the political system we have inherited and through which we succeed, is exceptional. The principal reasons for the success of the American experiment are freedom and liberty. And it works everywhere it is tried.
How did American exceptionalism lead to the success of the U.S. space program? As has been written here and in other publications, the race to the Moon between the United States and the Soviet Union was a Cold War battle fought to claim the mantle of ideological superiority – democracy or communism, freedom or tyranny. Freedom and liberty won. Communism and tyranny failed. The Iron Curtain came down and the world clamored for freedom. The United States said they were going to land a man on the Moon within the decade and return him safely home and they did. When President Reagan advocated a missile defense system to protect the free world (dubbed “Star Wars” by a skeptical media), the Soviet leaders bankrupted their country attempting to compete. With the success of the Apollo program, the Soviets understood that Americans would work and achieve what they set out to do. Freedom and liberty were concepts embraced by people around the world, and feared by those who oppressed their people.
Forty-one years ago, Americans left the Moon. Yesterday China put a lander and a rover on the lunar surface. Today, America can’t launch a human into space. China is working toward building a space station and putting people on the Moon. Are America’s days of drive and success behind her? Is China’s era of drive and success ahead of her? Is it even important to ask this question? Wu Ji, director general of the China National Space Science Center believes it needs to be asked. Stating candidly that he is “dismayed by recent changes” in the U.S. space program, Wu told NPR foreign correspondent Anthony Kuhn, “I don’t know if your listeners or people living in the U.S. understand these changes but as I observe them from the outside, I feel that America is gradually contracting and closing itself off. It’s a very strange thing.”
In light of other examples where the United States has retreated from leadership on the world stage, this isn’t that strange. Some of our current leaders believe that America has led too long in world affairs and that our involvement on the international stage has created a more dangerous world. They contend that by the U.S. taking a rearward position, a healthy normalization of international attitudes will rise up, precipitating world peace. Others feel this is a dangerous position to take and an abdication of leadership by the United States – that signaling a weak stance gives encouragement to oppressive regimes.
That China would want to energetically embrace space exploration and exploitation is not the issue, but rather that the United States is wandering aimlessly, without strategic direction. China understands that the Moon is a resource essential to space (as well as terrestrial) leadership and success; the United States apparently does not. China understands that expansion into space improves the economy and lives of their citizens here on Earth; the United States apparently does not. Very perplexing.
China on the Moon is not the issue. The issue – and the problem – is that the United States is not on the Moon, nor planning to return there to harvest resources necessary to build and profit from the inevitable transportation system to be built in cislunar space (the area between the Earth and the Moon, where all of our commercial and national space assets reside). American exceptionalism must stay viable and be a strong presence along side China and other nations.
So when someone mentions “American exceptionalism” in the same breath as space exploration, it is to express the truth that America must not abandon the frontier of the Moon and its economic and national potential to others. Wherever humankind goes, the exceptional and successful experiment of government “by and for the people” must be there too.