Neil Armstrong’s Disputed Words: “The Ethics of Changing History”

Pop Quiz: What does Neil Armstrong and this classic Western have in common?

[The death of mo0n-walking astronaut Neil Armstrong  ate the age of 82 reminded me of a 2006 essay about Armstrong’s famous quote that I wrote in 2006 on The Ethics Scoreboard. The AP just revisited the issue, and you can read the full text of my 2006 piece, The Ethics of Changing History: Of Crockett, the Titanic and “One Small Step” on the Scoreboard archive site. Here is the relevant portion of that article:]

“When the legend becomes truth, print the legend.”

This cynical endorsement of our culture’s preference for soothing fantasy over harsh historical truth was the intentionally disturbing message of John Ford’s film, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.” But rejecting Ford’s grizzled old newspaper editor’s warped ethic does not justify the equally objectionable modern practice of using spurious logic to substitute one dubious historical account for another. Even more ethically suspect is the common practice of replacing an accepted, well-supported version of a historical event with a “new improved” version that exists less because of its accuracy than because of its advocates’ biases.

[…]

Now an Australian computer programmer says he has discovered that Neil Armstrong’s first words after he stepped onto the moon in 1969, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” were misquoted by NASA, misheard by millions of listeners around the world, and printed incorrectly in the history books. For decades, wags have criticized Armstrong for botching his iconic moment, since “man” and “mankind” mean the same thing, so the literal meaning of his famous words would be “One small step for man, one giant leap for man.” Armstrong has sometimes grudgingly acknowledged his gaffe and at other times maintained that he thought he included the elusive “a.” He hasn’t fought the consensus verdict very vigorously, as represented by NASA’s transcript:

109:24:48 Armstrong: That’s one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind. (Long Pause)

But Peter Ford claims that he found the missing “a” by analyzing the NASA audio through a special computer program. Armstrong is, of course, delighted, and corrections to all the accounts are now underway. Yet nobody actually heard the new version of his statement (“One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”), at the time he supposedly said it, which is the usual requirement for famous quotations. (A notable exception, though fictional, is Charles Foster Kane’s last word “Rosebud!” which launches the plot in “Citizen Kane” that follows a reporter’s fevered search to find out what the dying man meant. Kane utters the name of his cherished childhood sled as he perishes alone. How did anyone find out what he said?) Listening to the tape, one is struck by the non-existent space between between “for” and “man,” as well as the long pause Armstrong takes after “man,” during which you can almost hear him thinking, “Rats! I said that wrong! Should I start again? No, that would sound terrible…maybe nobody will notice…” before he continues with “…one giant leap for mankind.”

Shouldn’t a famous quote be consistent with the experience and the memories of the people who first heard it? Shouldn’t the quote that is preserved for history be what was said, rather than what the speaker intended to say or wishes he had said? The man was landing on the moon; he was excited and nervous and didn’t give the perfect quote. So what? Everyone knew what he meant; everyone knows today. If Armstrong had said, “One small step…Yippeeee! We made it!!!” would we record what he had planned to say?

The Scoreboard agrees with John Ford that ignoring the truth to “print the legend” is usually wrong, but before we discard an established historical account, it is only right to hold the proposed new version to a higher standard of reliability. Too often the primary virtue of a revised historical account isn’t that it is proven or well-supported, but that it serves someone’s agenda.

When that is the real motivation, Ford’s old newspaper editor is right.

“Print the legend.”

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Spark: AP

Graphic: Native American

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