At the beginning of this month, in the lists of celebrity birthdays online and in the newspaper, one would see that on the fifth, “astronaut Neil Armstrong is 82” – just as he had turned 81 the year before that, and so on, going back to 1969 when his thirty-seventh birthday arrived two weeks after he had set foot on the surface of the moon and joined the small list of twentieth-century figures whose names would assuredly be remembered a thousand years hence.
One looked at the notice in the paper and gave it no particular thought. After he returned from the moon and left NASA in 1971, Mr. Armstrong – did it seem jarring to anyone besides me to hear President Obama familiarly refer to him as “Neil”? – made it a point to live as far removed from the public eye as possible, only returning to it whenever he believed he had an important message to convey, as in recent years when he argued against cutbacks in the space program.
Then, last Saturday afternoon, came the utterly unexpected news of his death. Upon hearing it, I made a point to telephone my father and talk about that night, forty-three years ago, when we both sat in front of our (color) television and watched grainy black-and-white live footage of Mr. Armstrong and Col. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin walking on the surface of the moon. It seemed important to do that. Then I thought about a distinction that the two Apollo astronauts – and the pilot of their command module, Brig. Gen. Michael Collins – share, apart from having been on that mission.
Like most of the astronauts on the Gemini and Apollo missions, they belonged to a group that Time magazine, over sixty years back, dubbed the “Silent Generation.”
In 1951, the Korean War was well underway. Many of those who fought in it had also been in World War II. But many had been too young for that war. In the cover story of its Nov. 5, 1951 issue, Time gave this group a name that has been little-used in comparison to the “Greatest Generation” (a term coined by Tom Brokaw in the 1990s) or the “Baby Boomers.” But somehow it seems to fit, not least because Neil Armstrong, its most exemplary figure (as much as he would have probably dismissed the idea), was a man who believed in doing things rather than talking about them.
When discussing the generation to which Mr. Armstrong belonged, it is useful to figure out its parameters. The original Time article thought the dates of birth of its members extended from 1925 to 1945. As time went on, the dates narrowed in discussions of this concept. The “Silent Generation,” could be said to include those Americans born starting in 1927 and ending in 1942 – in other words, not old enough for the most part to have seen combat in World War II, and, except for the youngest men in that group, too old to have been drafted for duty in the Vietnam War.
It is a generation that had its disappointments. The one that preceded it produced no less than seven Presidents, from John F. Kennedy to George H.W. Bush. The one that succeeded it has produced two (Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) and may be good for one or two more before it passes from the historical scene. However, the three members of the Silent Generation that were nominated by the Republican or Democratic parties for this nation’s highest office – Walter Mondale in 1984, Michael Dukakis in 1988, and John McCain in 2008 – all met defeat in the polls. Indeed, only Mondale from this generation so much as held the office of Vice President.
But those born in that time had some compensations. One of these is the fact that, with the exception of the late Rear Adm. Alan Shepard who was born in 1923, the dozen men who set foot on the moon, starting with Mr. Armstrong and ending with Capt. Eugene Cernan, were all members of the Silent Generation. Someday a very old Baby Boomer may join them, but right now that moment seems a long way off.
In that Time article, it was stated: “Youth today is waiting for the hand of fate to fall on its shoulders, meanwhile working fairly hard and saying almost nothing. The most startling fact about the younger generation is its silence. With some rare exceptions, youth is nowhere near the rostrum. By comparison with the Flaming Youth of their fathers & mothers, today’s younger generation is a still, small flame. It does not issue manifestos, make speeches or carry posters. It has been called the ‘Silent Generation.'”
There is something to be said for this. The older members of the Greatest Generation had marched in demonstrations and walked picket lines in the 1930s; the Baby Boomers’s days of protest are commemorated in story and, particularly, song. But when one thinks of those born in the late 1920s and 1930s who continued in one tradition and prefigured another – the Beatniks would be one such example – what one realizes at once is how untypical they were of their generation, how noticeably small a minority. Tomorrow I’ll discuss further what sets the Silent Generation apart; how it can be argued that it may best represented the “Silent Majority” President Nixon spoke of in 1968; and how, in Mr. Armstrong’s life and career, we see its strengths and virtues made manifest.