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The dark side of the moon – how to remember 1969

Neil Armstrong, who on July 20 1969 became the first human to walk on the moon, died August 25, 2012. In the wake of his passing, the press is awash in reminiscences of “THE MOMENT” (as headlined in The Globe and Mail 2012) when Armstrong took what he famously decribed as “a giant leap for mankind”. Armstrong and his fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin left a plaque behind, reading: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind” (Koring 2012). But 1969 has to be remembered with a little less rhetoric, and a little more analysis.


The Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first human to travel into space, prompting then U.S. president John Kennedy to promise, in May 1961, to land a man on the moon before the decade was out. The Apollo program and the 1969 moonwalk by Armstong and Aldrin, was the fulfillment of that promise.

But the space race, in which the moonwalk was the highlight, was an integral part of the arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. “[T]he first explorative space missions employed hardware originally developed for military purposes … military requirements often still provide the catalyst for space exploration” (Webb 2001, 18). The space program of the United States, to this day, is a deeply militarized portion of the country’s federal budget, an essential part of the development and testing of rocket technology that is the backbone of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Parallel to the Apollo story, is the less celebrated story of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles or ICBMs. Requirements for something called the Minuteman weapon system were issued in August 1958. “The basic objective of the program was the development of a ‘simple, economical ICBM system capable of surviving a nuclear attack and of striking back” (Buchonnet 1976, 27). In October 1960, the year before the Gagarin controversy, the first Minuteman I missile was produced. October 1962, the year after Gagarin, the first operational flight of the Minuteman took place (Buchonnet 1976, 15–16). The Minuteman was not designed to take humans into space. It was designed to carry nuclear weapons to cities and military facilities in the Soviet Union. It did not “come in peace for all mankind” but was part of the very real threat of nuclear annihilation which cast its shadow over the entire decade of the 1960s.

Hundreds of these Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) were deployed in the years that followed. The second generation Minuteman II had its first flight in 1964. By 1969, the year of the moonwalk, the U.S. had a total of 1,054 rockets ready to launch, all armed with nuclear warheads, 500 of them Minuteman I missiles, 500 of them Minuteman II .

But most sinister was the development of the Minuteman III, authorized in March of 1966. The Minuteman III was bigger, faster and stronger than its predecessors. Significantly, it was capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads – the so-called “Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicles” or “MIRVs”. The exhilaration over moonwalking in 1969 happened just eleven months before these WMDs became operational in June of 1970 (Buchonnet 1976, 16–17). Because the new generation of rockets could each deliver bombs to several targets, while the number of rockets ready to launch remained virtually unchanged until 1990, the number of “deployed warheads” doubled to 2,440. Even with a significant reduction in the number of rockets in the 21st century to just over 500, the number of deployed warheads as of 2002 remained at 1,700 (Natural Resources Defense Council 2002).

How deadly would be the actual use of these warheads? “[A]n American attack directed solely against Russian nuclear missiles, submarines and bomber bases would require some 1300 warheads in a coordinated barrage lasting approximately 30 minutes, according to a sophisticated analysis of US war plans by experts at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington DC … The attack would result in approximately 11-17 million civilian casualties, 8-12 million of which would be fatalities, primarily due to the fallout generated by numerous ground bursts” (Cirincione 2008). Those are the casualty figures for an attack on military bases. Should the missiles target cities, the casualty figures would be many times higher.


Remembering the ICBMs alongside the Apollo program is helpful, but our memories of 1969 are still incomplete. Armstrong and Aldrin were both veteran fighter pilots from the war in Korea. While they were landing on the moon, the US airforce and the other branches of the military were engaged in another American War raging in another Asian country. When we remember the moonwalk, we need to also remember Vietnam.

Here are some of details worthy of recall. In April of 1969, the year of the moonwalk, the deployment of the U.S. military in that country reached its peak at 543,400 (Lawrence 2010, 102). Of those half million U.S. young people, 11,616 were killed in 1969 alone, the second dealiest year (for U.S. personnel) of the entire war, surpassed only by the 16,592 killed the year previously. In total, 58,193 U.S. personnel would be killed (National Archives 2007) in what is often called the Vietnam War, but which from the standpoint of the Vietnamese is more accurately referred to as “The American War”.

But the slaughter of U.S. young people, horrible as it may be, pales in comparison to the far greater toll of broken Vietnamese bodies. For this, unlike the careful precision with which U.S. bodies are counted, there are no clear numbers. A 1995 demographic study came up with an approximate figure of one million for the years 1965 to 1975. That is in line with Guenter Lewy’s estimate of 1.25 million. Robert McNamara – who was Secretary of Defence for much of the war – puts the figure at almost double that, 2.358 million “Vietnamese war deaths (1.2 million civilian and 1.158 million military)”. And, according to the government of Vietnam, the figure from 1954 to 1975 is above 3 million, “1.1 million communist military deaths and amost 2 million civilion deaths due to war-related causes” (Hirschman, Preston, and Loi 1995, 807–808 & 791). Even if we take the lowest estimate of one million for the years 1965 to 1975, it means that, for 1969 alone, alongside the 11,000 broken bodies of U.S. youth, we have to line up something like 91,000 corpses of Vietnamese civilians and soldiers.

November 16 1969, the same year as the moonwalk, this slaughter became the centre of international controversy. That day, a handful of surviving South Vietnamese villagers reported that March 16, 1968, “567 unarmed men, women and children” had been massacred by U.S. infantry in “My Lai Hamlet No. 4 … about half a mile from Songmy”. These villagers had managed to survive “because they had been buried under the bodies of their neighbors” (Kamm 1969; UPI 1969).

Remember 1969, remember the moonwalk story, but also remember the ICBM story, the Vietnam story, and the My Lai story. There is one more detail to add.

Werner von Braun

At the end of World War II, a German scientist named Werner von Braun “engineered the surrender of 500 of his top rocket scientists, along with plans and test vehicles, to the Americans” (Marshall Space Flight Center). These scientists began their rocket-designing career in Adolph Hitler’s Germany. In this capacity, von Braun was an officer in the notorious SS, and was complicit in the use of forced labour for the development of the German V-2 rocket. “Atrocities perpetrated at V-2 production facilities at Nordhausen and the nearby concentration camp at Dora – where some 20,000 died as a result of execution, starvation, and disease – stimulated controversy that plagued the rocket pioneers who left Germany after the war” (Dunar and Waring 2000, 7). The Saturn V rocket which carried Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon, was designed by a team of scientists led by von Braun.

John Polanyi says that the moonwalk was a “blow for freedom … it’s the classic exultation of discovery” (Koring 2012). It was neither. The Apollo program to deliver men to the moon was the shiny storefront to the real commodity produced by the U.S. rocket scientists – the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles designed to obliterate entire cities. The U.S. airforce which trained Armstrong and Aldrin had as its principal goal in 1969, not getting these two to the moon, but dropping napalm on the little country of Vietnam. The leader of the team of scientists who designed these rockets, got his start in Hitler’s Germany. If we remember all of this together, then our picture of 1969 will be just a little more accurate.

© 2012 Paul Kellogg. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.


Buchonnet, Daniel. 1976. “MIRV: A Brief History of Minuteman and Multiple Reentry Vehicles”. Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.

Cirincione, Joseph. 2008. “The Continuing Threat of Nuclear War.” In Global Catastrophic Risks, ed. Nick Bostrom and Milan M. Cirkovic, 381–401. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dunar, Andrew J., and Stephen P. Waring. 2000. Power to Explore: a History of Marshall Space Flight Center, 1960-1990. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA History Office, Office of Policy and Plans.

Hirschman, C., S. Preston, and V. M. Loi. 1995. “Vietnamese Casualties During the American War: a New Estimate.” Population and Development Review: 783–812.

Kamm, Henry. 1969. “Vietnamese Say G.I.’s Slew 567 in Town.” The New York Times, November 17.

Koring, Paul. 2012. “An American Triumph That Drove a Dagger to the Soviets’ Core.” The Globe and Mail, August 27, sec. A.

Lawrence, Mark Atwood. 2010. The Vietnam War: A Concise International History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Marshall Space Flight Center. “Biography of Wernher Von Braun.” MSFC History Office.

National Archives. 2007. “Statistical Information About Casualties of the Vietnam War.”

Natural Resources Defense Council. 2002. “Table of US ICBM Forces, 1959-2012.”

The Globe and Mail. 2012. “Neil Armstrong 1930-2012.” The Globe and Mail, August 27, sec. A.

UPI. 1969. “Alleged Massacre Site Has Different Names.” The New York Times, November 25.

Webb, Dave. 2001. “The Militarisation and Nuclearisation of Space.” An Ethical Career in Science and Technology? London, U.K.: Scientists for Global Responsibility.

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