Putting a man on the moon. Many of my friends and co-conspirators like to evoke that 1960s goal as they search for some way to harness the energy, talent and hard work of Americans in pursuit of an overarching national goal. I’ve used that metaphor myself for the same reason.
Yet on reflection, I’ve come to realize that Neil Armstrong is the wrong icon for what lies ahead us as a country. Instead, I’d propose Rosie the Riveter. After Pearl Harbor, she moved from the farm to places like Detroit after Pearl Harbor and used her brain and brawn to produce the hardware that won a world war.
The Apollo program was a national achievement, to be sure. It helped us catch up with the Russians’ lead in space technology, lifted our spirits after a botched invasion of Cuba, and helped the country get over a series of political assassinations that shook confidence in our democracy.
But what did Apollo require of us as individuals? Sure, some of our tax dollars were devoted to the space program. And we watched the big events on television, awestruck by the take-offs, splashdowns and that glorious July night adventure on the lunar surface. But we didn’t have to change a single thing in the way we lived, earned our incomes, or managed our expenses.
During World War II by contrast, we saved, conserved, rationed, reused, substituted, and melted down unneeded metal – all for the war effort. Ordinary people as exemplified by Rosie did extraordinary things. In a period shorter than the current conflict in Iraq, we won a global world and laid the basis for a period of spectacular growth and prosperity.
In the midst of the meltdown of the postwar system, we need to emulate Rosie and all the ordinary citizens who won the WWII on the home front. We need to change many aspects of our lives, learning new skills and developing new habits. While we’ve been profligate and irresponsible, these changes shouldn’t be regarded as a form of punishment or purgatory. If we see them that way, we’ll get over them as quickly as we seem to have $4 a gallon gasoline. Rather we need to dedicate ourselves individually and our country collectively to the pursuit of a new, overriding national objective.
As I’ve written before, the goal for me is clear: Invest. Produce. Export. Pay down our massive foreign debt. Organizing our policies and our personal behavior to pursue those goals will pay off in terms of better jobs, higher incomes, a cleaner environment, a legitimately strong dollar, a more secure country, and a legacy for future generations that we can take pride in. Like World War II, this is a challenge we must accept and conquer. And as Rosie would say: We Can Do It.