09 October 2012


On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American to fly into space. His flight lasted just a few seconds more than 15 minutes. The first American orbital flight was still over nine months in the future. Nonetheless, three weeks later, President Kennedy, in an address to Congress, said
First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.
Think of it. Most of the technology necessary to accomplish this task was not even on the drawing boards. Shepard’s flight had been postponed and postponed again due to all sorts of glitches. But in a public address, the President challenged America to do great things and to do them quickly. America responded, and we all know that in July 1969, eight years after Kennedy issued his challenge and 18 months before the end of the decade, his vision was transformed into reality.

 As I have listened to the debates and speeches and advertising and robo-calls sparked by the 2012 general election, it has struck me that we no longer have politicians who are willing to go out on a limb and take big chances. I think they fail to do so for two reasons: a total lack of vision and an abominable lack of political courage.


 In 1920, Harvard Professor Frederick Jackson Turner published The Frontier In American History (Henry Holt and Company, New York (1921)), a collection of essays in which he discussed the importance of having a frontier to the development of a recognizable national character and culture. Chapter 1, "THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE FRONTIER IN AMERICAN HISTORY," is based on a paper Turner presented in Chicago in 1893, just after the Superintendent of the 1890 Census had declared that
Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it cannot, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports.
Thus the American Frontier was declared closed. Turner went on to comment
This brief official statement marks the closing of a great historic movement. Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.
Throughout the rest of the book, he notes the varying positive effects the existence of a frontier had on the Nation. Trade fostered exploration, by first sending out people to find new resources and then following them to provide the goods and services necessary to exploration.
The pioneer needed the goods of the coast, and so the grand series of internal improvement and railroad legislation began, with potent nationalizing effects. …From the conditions of frontier life came intellectual traits of profound importance. The works of travelers along each frontier from colonial days onward describe certain common traits, and these traits have, while softening down, still persisted as survivals in the place of their origin, even when a higher social organization succeeded. The result is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom-these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier…. And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.
The rest of the book discusses the effect the frontier had on the political, social, economic, and religious development in “the first period of American history.” Turner also noted that “He would be a rash prophet who should assert that the expansive character of American life has now entirely ceased. Movement has been its dominant fact, and, unless this training has no effect upon a people, the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise.”

The 20th Century, the so-called “American Century,” proved Turner right. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W, Bush governed a country that still saw frontiers to be conquered. Our national energy focused outward, from the Spanish-American War and its brief resulting American Empire, through its grudging involvement in the problems in Europe in World War I and culminating in its leadership of the free world in World War II and the Cold War. The next one hundred years after Turner’s 1893 essay were marked by a continuing American movement on the world stage. Canals were dug,roads were built, air and space were conquered, and continents were exposed to a new world. Polio was conquered and small pox eradicated.

Sadly, frighteningly, I submit that Kennedy and Reagan were the last American presidents to express any sort of recognizable national vision. In particular, Kennedy’s space challenge, a hallmark of his “New Frontier,” led to such drastic changes in technology that in thirty years, the “flip-phone” went from being an impossible dream of the 1966 television drama, Star Trek, to a staple of the American teenager just three decades later. The developments in miniaturization, materials, and information technologies have transformed every aspect of life in America and the world in the space of a single generation.

It is the cruelest sort of irony that, in the centennial year of Turner’s initial paper, it can be argued that the second period of American history ended. A new age dawned in America, an age of exhaustion, timidity, selfishness and confusion. These changes were forecast in the disastrous Johnson and Carter presidencies, but they came to fruition under Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and to a lesser degree, George W. Bush. I suggest that the lack of vision that has marked the last two decades started on January 20, 1993.

Suddenly, there were no frontiers to conquer.

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