Back on Planet Earth: what world did Neil Armstrong leave behind in 1969?

As Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Welsh nationalism was on the rise, blood continued to be spilled in Vietnam, and European leaders were debating what to do about Britain. Alwyn Turner explores the issues grabbing global attention in 1969

Striking machinists at Dagenham's Ford plant. (Photo by Getty Images)

Some of the pop music, at least, seemed in tune with its times, hinting at the momentous events unfolding a quarter-of-a-million miles above. As Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their first steps on the moon in July 1969, one-hit wonders Zager and Evans sat atop the American charts with ‘In the Year 2525’, an apocalyptic warning of humanity’s over-reliance on science. Soon to be number 1 in Britain was Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something in the Air’, the title of which – if nothing else – was appropriate. And the BBC television coverage of the moon landings did feature ‘space rock’ band Pink Floyd, performing a piece called ‘Moonhead’. Over on ITV, however, they were less fastidious and went with the safer option, with a bill of light entertainment stars: Lulu, Engelbert Humperdinck, Ken Dodd and Eric Sykes.

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To be fair, broadcasters had a problem. These were the first all-night shows ever screened on British TV, and viewers had to be kept going until the actual landing happened at nearly four in the morning. ITV ambitiously kicked off their programme at six the previous day, giving a full 10 hours of buildup, and although the BBC had stayed with its normal evening schedule – Dr Finlay’s Casebook, The Black and White Minstrel Show – by 11.30 it too was live and waiting for the big moment. That was an awful lot of airtime to fill, and even when Cilla Black and Cliff Richard had sung their new singles, and historian AJP Taylor and song-and-dance man Sammy Davis Jr had debated the value of the Apollo mission, there was still a long way to go. Nonetheless, enough people stayed up that the National Grid reported a huge power surge at 3am, in the last advert break before the giant leap for mankind.

The wider issue for broadcasters across the globe was that Nasa’s technological feat was so far removed from life in July 1969 that it was difficult to know how to communicate the excitement. Because for much of the world, Britain included, the swinging sixties had yet to arrive, let alone the space age.

In Britain, television itself had become commonplace, but only one in 150 sets could receive colour transmissions, and there were still two-and-a-half million households with just a radio licence. And other amenities were far less common: fewer than half of households owned a car, only one in four had a telephone, and a recent survey by the Ministry of Housing of two typical areas had found that 125,000 homes in south-east Lancashire and 80,000 in the west Midlands were unfit for human habitation, lacking basic facilities like indoor toilets, baths and wash-basins.

Much remained to be modernised in the country, and there were also signs that the economy might be starting to struggle – that the good days were over. Growth was steady, at 2.3 per cent in 1969 (even if France and West Germany were growing three times as fast), and unemployment was low, at 2.5 per cent of the workforce, but other indicators were less positive. Inflation was running at 5.4 per cent, the rate steadily rising, and strikes continued to disrupt industry after Labour’s employment secretary, Barbara Castle, had seen her white paper on trade union reform (‘In Place of Strife’) rejected by the cabinet earlier in the year. Inflation and industrial action were to prove the dominant stories of the next decade.

Women’s liberation?

In social, rather than economic, terms, the future looked brighter as the sixties drew to a close. The strike by women at the Ford Dagenham plant the previous year meant the issue of equal pay was high on the agenda, leading to the Equal Pay Act of 1970. Meanwhile the long campaign for divorce reform, seen by its advocates as a liberating move for women, finally produced legislation in 1969. There were around 50,000 divorces that year; once the new provisions were in place, that figure rose sharply, trebling in a decade. The voices of women were being heard louder than ever before, and July 1969 saw the announcement of a new body, the Women’s National Commission, aiming to become as big a player in public debate as the TUC and CBI.

That there was work to do on this front could not be doubted. In the most recent general election, just 26 of the 630 MPs returned were women, down from the 29 elected in 1964, while only 28 per cent of university students were female, a smaller proportion than a generation earlier. As an indicator of contemporary attitudes, one might look to the Wimpy bars, then the largest chain of burger restaurants, which banned women from their premises after midnight unless they were accompanied by a man, on the assumption that only prostitutes would be out alone in public at such an hour.

Or for a juxtaposition of women’s roles, one could look that July to the Durham Miners Gala, one of the annual highlights of the Labour movement. Speaking from the platform, alongside the prime minister, Harold Wilson, and home secretary, James Callaghan, was Judith Hart, a rising star of Labour who was soon to become minister for overseas development. On the other hand, Callaghan also served as a judge in the beauty pageant that saw Rose MacLauchlan of Westoe Colliery in South Shields named Coal Queen for the Durham Region.

These small-scale beauty contests – far from the showbiz glitz of Miss World – were still an integral part of British culture, held in every seaside resort during the summer. And that was where holidays were primarily spent. Only around 5 million foreign holidays were taken by British residents in 1969; the figure is nearly 10 times that today.

The royal soap opera

What is perhaps most striking about popular culture at the time of Apollo 11 is the limited appetite for science fiction. The previous year, Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, filmed in Britain, had been the biggest box-office hit in America, but not in Britain, where twice as many people went to see the Disney animation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. The really big television hit of the year was the rescreening on BBC One of The Forsyte Saga, a huge, sprawling series that ended in March with 18 million viewers. Adapted from John Galsworthy’s novels, it set a taste for period TV drama crossed with soap opera that remains with us. At the same time ‘the royal soap opera’ – a term coined by the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge more than a decade earlier – also reached the screen: the documentary Royal Family provided much closer, more personal access to the monarchy than ever seen before.

Two Welsh nationalists tried to sabotage the line on which Prince Charles was travelling but were killed when their bomb exploded prematurely

The programme had been commissioned by Buckingham Palace to mark the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales, and the ceremony itself was a big success that July, with an estimated 200,000 people flocking to Caernarfon for the occasion. But there were those who opposed the celebrations. An extremist version of Welsh nationalism had risen in recent years, and there were fears of violent disruption to the ceremony. In a pre-emptive strike, the leaders of the Free Wales Army had been arrested earlier in the year; their trial ended on the day of the Investiture, with six men jailed on various charges, including the possession of firearms and explosives. In their absence, two members of another group, Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru (the Movement for the Defence of Wales), tried to sabotage the rail line on which Charles was scheduled to travel, but were killed when their bomb exploded prematurely. Other MAC devices failed to detonate, save for one bomb in a Caernarfon garden, drowned out by the 21-gun salute at the climax of the ceremony.

Welsh nationalism was a pressing issue at the time – the Welsh secretary, George Thomas, even worried that Prince Charles himself seemed to be sympathetic to the cause – but it was soon to be forgotten. Because the following month, riots in Belfast became so violent that the British government sent troops onto the streets to restore order. The Troubles had begun.

Shadow of extermination

Britain of course wasn’t the only nation in which tensions were rising over issues of civil rights and identity in 1969. In Canada, the First Nations Peoples were engaged in a campaign that reached a critical moment in July. Responding to the movement, the Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau (father of current premier, Justin) issued a white paper proposing the abolition of all laws and programmes that were based on ethnicity, specifically the Indian Act that dated back to 1876. The aim was that First Nations Peoples would be treated as full Canadian citizens, without any special status. But the policy was soon shelved, after it met widespread opposition; in the words of one Cree leader, the white paper offered only “extermination through assimilation”. It was an early illustration of an important shift in thinking: the liberal principle of the equality of individuals was now seen as offering inadequate protection for minority cultures, and was challenged by the concept of group rights. An era of identity politics was being born.

Progressive politics was taking less orthodox forms. July 1969 began with an uneasy truce in Greenwich Village, New York, after two nights of rioting that had been triggered by a police raid on a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn. A new movement for gay liberation grew out of these events.

Despite Stonewall, America was more peaceful this summer than it had been in the previous two years. There were fewer riots, and there was less racial violence. But the divisions in society were becoming ever more apparent. Fear of crime meant that there was a boom in private companies providing armed guards to protect businesses and even blocks of flats. Some resented them – they were known as Rent-a-Pigs in radical circles – but others welcomed them as easy employment. “It’s just like the West returning,” said a Boston student, with a holiday job as a guard. “And we’re the hired guns.” It did not augur well for social stability.

The elusive peace

In July 1969 the human population stood at around 3.5 billion people (it’s 7.7 billion now), two-thirds living in rural areas. There were also fewer countries – 126 members of the United Nations then, 193 now – and the global map was still unsettled, with conflicts over the drawing of national borders. “We came in peace for all mankind,” declared the plaque left behind by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, but for much of mankind, peace was a distant dream.

The war in Vietnam dragged on, now in its 14th year, though there were changes in the air. Earlier in the year, the number of American troops had reached a peak, with more than 500,000 service personnel committed to resisting the advance of communist forces from North Vietnam, but now some were beginning to be pulled out. It was part of a process called Vietnamisation, under which the government of the South would take over responsibility for defending the country, a policy announced by Richard Nixon, who’d been sworn in as US president in January.

There was also a changing of the guard on the other side, with the death in September 1969 of Ho Chi Minh, who had led the independence struggle against France back in the 1940s; then 79 years old, he had relinquished power a couple of years earlier, but remained the ultimate symbol of the struggle.

The most notable development, though, came in November when details were revealed of an incident the previous year, when American troops had massacred hundreds of unarmed South Vietnamese civilians in a village named My Lai. It was a decisive moment in swinging American public opinion against the war.

Elsewhere, the War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt was seeing air and artillery conflict over the Suez Canal in the heaviest fighting in the region since the Six-Day War two years earlier. In July 1969 there was also the so-called Football War, when El Salvador invaded Honduras, a move sparked by riots at a World Cup qualifying match between the two countries. It lasted less than five days, and the name of the conflict made it sound trivial, but thousands were killed, most of them civilians, and hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes.

Worse yet, the previous year had seen civil war break out in Nigeria, where the oil-rich south-eastern state of Biafra had declared itself independent, against the wishes of the central government. By July 1969, the fighting had ground to a military standstill, but the government’s blockade of the rogue state was having a terrible impact, leading to claims that famine was being used as a weapon. Already, it was estimated, a million Biafrans had starved to death, and there was no end in sight. Images of emaciated children had begun appearing on British television screens in what was to become an all too familiar appeal for aid. The one positive outcome from an appalling event was that lessons were learnt for dealing with future humanitarian emergencies; the organisation Médecins Sans Frontières emerged from the crisis.

Visions of the future

And meanwhile the greatest revolution of the Cold War era went virtually unnoticed. For years, American scientists had argued that if a missile strike by the Soviet Union took out the telephone system, official communication would come to a halt. The solution, it was proposed, was a decentralised network linking together government computers. In July 1969 the University of California, Los Angeles – one of the institutions working on the project – issued a press statement announcing the creation of this grid, and in October the first message was sent across the network. There were just four computers linking up in what was then named ARPANET, but this, it has been argued, was the birth of the internet.

July 1969 saw an important anniversary in its own right, one that also presaged the future. In a speech marking the 25th anniversary of the failed July plot to assassinate Hitler, Gustav Heinemann, the newly installed president of West Germany, controversially dismissed attempts to see the Nazis as an anomalous episode in the country’s history. “The Third Reich was not an accident,” he said, “and not the result of unemployment or the Treaty of Versailles.” Instead he identified a much longer strand of violent nationalism and an unquestioning attitude to authority. And as if to prove his point, the speech provoked protests, with swastikas being daubed on the memorial to the plotters.

Heinemann’s argument was that nationalism had to be jettisoned entirely: “A German who has national interests at heart can today only be a European,” he asserted. Willy Brandt, then West German foreign minister and soon to become chancellor, was keen to extend this vision for the whole of Europe, particularly in light of the moon landings: “If this event could not shake Europe out of its egoism and its pride in a great past, what event could?” Perhaps, he suggested, part of the answer lay in a swift resumption of negotiations with Britain and others to expand the EEC beyond its original six member-states.

That implied a hope that Britain might play a key role in the modernisation of Europe, which was possibly over-optimistic. Certainly the television coverage of Apollo 11 gave no indication of such a future. On 24 July the splashdown of the command module, Columbia, was carried live by both of the major broadcasters, but then normal service was resumed. On ITV there was the Miss Great Britain contest from the Locarno Ballroom, Portsmouth, while BBC One went over to the Royal International Horse Show at Wembley Stadium.

On the other hand, the previous week had seen the release of David Bowie’s first hit single, ‘Space Oddity’. Pop music, at least, had embraced the space age.

Alwyn Turner is a cultural and political historian. His books include Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s (Aurum, 2008).

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This article was first published in the August 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine