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Moon Writing

James C. Humes


In late October 2005, my namesake and grandson, James, who lives with his parents in London, was “trick-or-treating” with some of his English friends around Sloane Square. A big harvest moon, like a yellow pizza pie, lit up the sky. James looked up at the moon and bragged to his companions, “See that moon? My grandfather wrote on that moon.” The other boys giggled jeers at James’ boast. But if the boy’s braggadocio was outlandish, there was a kernel of truth in the observation.

I was one of the White House writers who helped craft the inscription that would be left on the moon. In June 1969, President Nixon had communicated to us that the moon journey would be launched possibly the next month. We were cautioned to say nothing to anyone—“including Dianne” (my wife), said Nixon to me. (She was always a favorite of the President since his Vice Presidential days, when she drafted messages for him.)


Nixon told us our words would be an inscription on the LEM vehicle. “LEM,” he said, “is an acronym for Lunar Exploratory Module [actually it was not “exploratory” but “excursion”]; it’s the cart they’ll ride over the moon and it’s powered by battery, not gas.” The final changes we wrought ended this way: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” There would follow the name of Richard Nixon and the three astronauts: Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins. Later, at Gusti’s, an Italian restaurant a few blocks from the White House, I jotted down, after a couple of glasses of chianti, as a prank, this revision: “Just As Man Explores Space, Hope United Mankind Exalting Science” and sent it along in. Bob Haldeman was outraged when Pat Moynihan revealed it was an acronym of my own name.


But back to the original text…. The Jewish Bill Safire questioned the “Anno Domini”; “CE” and “BCE” (“Common Era” and “Before the Common Era”) had not yet become popularly accepted usages. When Nixon later saluted the landing as the greatest event in the history of mankind, Dr. Billy Graham severely chastised him for his omission of Jesus and his resurrection. Safire would also send this memorandum to the President: “What if the mission crashed, shouldn’t we have a statement ready?” He was told to write one. Safire thought of that World War I English poet’s death words from Greece and he asked me, the resident Anglophile, his name. I answered “Rupert Brooke” and quoted the verse from memory.

Mr. Humes (left) and Sir John Hamilton Wedgwood, 2nd Baronet, inspect a statue of Sir John's great-great-great-grandfather, master potter Josiah Wedgwood.

(Photo courtesy of James C. Humes)

“If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England.”


Safire wrote, “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.”


On July 19th about 60 White House staffers crowded into the Oval Office to listen in on the billion- dollar phone call to Nixon’s speakerphone on his White House desk. We waited in hushed reverence. The words from Armstrong came out haltingly in transmission.


“Mr. President” (and it echoed “esident”), “we have placed this plaque…. plaque. “ Then he ended with, “We came in peace for all mankind.” My eyes misted with tears.

The next year, when my wife and my family visited Sir John Wedgwood, I related my little part in composing the inscription and being in the Oval Office when the words on the plaque were read. He recalled how moved he was when he watched it unfold on television with his wife. It had special meaning for him, for he was preparing to pilot an historic voyage of his own the next year: captaining the yacht HMS Beagle II to the Galapagos Islands. Both he and his wife—a Wedgwood herself and a third cousin—were direct descendants of Charles Darwin.


For me he had the Wedgwood Company make a special plate of Jasperware blue with the LEM vehicle featured in white. One was presented to President Nixon, another to me. Ours hangs in our China closet with the names autographed in white ink on the back: John Wedgwood, Bart., Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins.


My friend Michael Collins got his colleague “Buzz” Aldrin to sign. I had been made Mike Collins’ deputy when he was appointed by Nixon to be Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. (After leaving that post he would be director of the new Space Museum at the Smithsonian.) Specifically, his role at State was to sell the Nixon Doctrine (i.e., no more U.S. troops in Asia). Mike was modesty personified. He was a Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper, not in celluloid, but a real American hero.


For him, I once had to write the most difficult speech of my life—a talk to the Flat Earth Society! There’s none so blind as those who refuse to see. The audience in Cleveland was not convinced of the moon landing. “How can you make us believe you when that U.S. flag stood straight up when there is no wind up there?” Collins’ answer: “Because we pinned it up!” The fact that over 100 heads of state wrote to congratulate President Nixon was not persuasive.


Collins was the astronaut who never walked on the moon. He stayed in the spaceship. But from that vantage point he imparted these facts of interest. The earth seems to assume a greenish hue from there. The only man-made thing on earth that may have been visible is the Great Wall of China.


Speaking of Mike Collins and China, in 1998 I went to China with Nixon’s younger brother, Edward, to replicate Nixon’s historic visit in 1972. On this trip, we interviewed for the first time the Chinese diplomats who prepared and briefed Zhou Enlai for the mission that would revolutionize relations between East and West. For our trip, I got Mike Collins at the new Space Museum to give me photos of the earth from the moon, which then were signed by the astronauts. I used them as gifts to my hosts at the various sites in the People’s Republic Nixon had visited: Beijing, Hangzhou (the lake district that was Mao’s retreat, where he wrote poetry) and Shanghai.


In Shanghai, our host was the aged former mayor of this southern city. He explained to us that the mayor in 1972 was one of the “Gang of Four” (that included the alienated Madame Mao) who were plotting to have Nixon killed during his trip. After we gave him the signed photo in remembrance, the 90-year-old mayor delivered a reply in response to Ed Nixon’s toast:


“The two things I never expected to see in my life was man walking on the moon and the U.S. President landing in the People’s Republic. And of the two, the second was the more surprising and more difficult.”

James C. Humes is a visiting historian at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. A former White House speechwriter, one of his recent books is Only Nixon: His Trip to China Restudied and Revisited, University Press, 2009, co-authored with Dr. Jarvis Ryals.

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