I have a copy of Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience. The book was compiled by Shaun Usher. It’s one of my favorite flip-it-open-to-a-page-at-random books. It seldom disappoints, and never takes more than a few minutes to read something really interesting.
This morning I happened on a memorandum written on July 18, 1969, from William Safire, President Nixon’s speechwriter, to HR Haldeman. Apollo 11 was approaching the moon, and of course the world was fixated on what everyone hoped would be an incredible triumph. We all know how it turned out!
Success wasn’t assured, though. We were doing a thing never attempted before, and failure could come from almost any direction. Safire prepared remarks for the President to deliver in case the mission failed, with recommendations for communications before and after.
The thing that hits me hardest is Safire’s acknowledgement that Armstrong and Aldrin might survive the immediate emergency, and that they, their families and all the world would have to face their death in full knowledge of its inevitability. We would be able to talk to them, but not to save them.
It’s a breathtaking piece of writing.
To: H.R. Haldeman
From: Bill Safire
IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER:
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 Adrin, 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.
They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.
In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.
In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.
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 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.
PRIOR TO THE PRESIDENT’S STATEMENT:
The President should telephone each of the widows-to-be.
AFTER THE PRESIDENT’S STATEMENT, AT THE POINT WHEN NASA ENDS COMMUNICATION WITH THE MEN:
A clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to “the deepest of the deep,” concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.