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Magical History Tour

A Traveling National Archives Exhibit Offers Rare Glimpses Into the Land of the Brave--and the Brazen By Mark Edward Harris

September 21, 2003|Mark Edward Harris | Mark Edward Harris is a Los Angeles photographer and writer. His last piece for the magazine was a look at life along the DMZ between the two Koreas.

Like many in the crowd, Kelly Bellanger could scarcely believe what she read in the museum case. The display, included in a unique National Archives traveling exhibit, was of a speech written for President Richard M. Nixon in 1969. It said, in part:

"Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice. These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding."

"Thank God they never had to use this," says Bellanger.

Count Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin among those who would agree. Aldrin, who now lives in Los Angeles, says he learned just a few years ago about the prepared remarks, which became moot when the spacecraft that carried the first two lunar explorers to the surface of the moon launched them flawlessy back toward Earth, ending fears they would be stranded, waiting to die without possibility of rescue.

The author of the speech, Nixon aide William Safire, now a columnist for the New York Times, says he thought the remarks had sunk into obscurity long ago. He never imagined that instead they would be unearthed at the National Archives in the 1990s and later tour the nation, including a stop in Los Angeles next month.

Bellanger was among the throngs of visitors to the exhibit at its last stop before L.A., the Witte Museum in San Antonio, Texas. "American Originals: Treasures from the National Archives" will be on display at the Los Angeles Central Library from Oct. 4 through Jan. 4, 2004. The exhibit features 25 historic documents, including the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, the Emancipation Proclamation and Germany's surrender in World War II. But it's Safire's words that drop jaws, perhaps because so many viewers remember the uncertainty and drama of that first moon landing 34 years ago.

"I was thinking of the crews of the Challenger and Columbia and their families as I read it," says Linda Heinze, another of the San Antonio visitors.

Asked about his own never-delivered speech, Safire says that at historic moments, speechwriters often turn to poets, as he did for Nixon: "I drew on a poem by Rupert Brooke ('The Soldier'). 'If I should die, think only this of me: That there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.' I played on that on the last line of the speech."

Indeed, the speech ends with: "Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts. For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind."

Was it common practice to have speeches ready in case of such a disaster? "No, at least I don't know of any," Safire recalls. "It just occurred to me when Frank Borman, the astronaut who was our liaison with NASA, and I were discussing the Apollo flight and he said, 'Is there a plan for disaster?'

"That brought me up short. I prepared a memo including a brief speech."

Twenty-one hours after touching down on the moon, the spacecraft, Eagle, lifted off to rendezvous with the command module and astronaut Michael Collins, and the three men returned to Earth safely on July 24, 1969. Safire's memo, "In Event of Moon Disaster," was filed away.

"I had forgotten completely about it," Safire says. "I never kept a copy. Thirty years went by. Your colleague dug it up," he said, referring to Jim Mann, a former reporter in the Los Angeles Times' Washington Bureau who found the speech while doing research in the National Archives.

"People are amazed at the Safire document," says Stacey Bredhoff, curator of the exhibit. "The moon landing was such a triumph. To read that, you realize just how badly things could have gone."

The National Archives and Records Administration, established in 1934, oversees the management of all federal records, some 4 billion documents, photographs and films--including a letter from the King of Siam to President Abraham Lincoln offering to send two elephants "to be let loose and multiply in the continent of America. Inhabitants of America will be able to catch them and tame and use them as beasts of burden . . . . " Lincoln politely declined.

Other documents in the exhibit are not so innocent.

During the 19th century, Americans grew to dominate Hawaii's economy and politics. When Queen Liliuokalani assumed the throne of the sovereign Kingdom of Hawaii in 1891 and tried to reassert the will of the native Hawaiian people, she was deposed by a group of American businessmen, with the support of the U.S. Navy. On the afternoon of Jan. 17, 1893, the group proclaimed establishment of a Provisional Government, to which the United States Minister then extended diplomatic recognition.

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