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John Wayne and the "Cowboy Narrative"

Last Tuesday night President Obama took to the Oval Office to reassure the nation of the government’s concerted efforts to solve the oil spill problem in the Gulf Coast. In between hitting the right measure of sympathy for Gulf victims and scorn for BP executives, the president managed to briefly mention his not-so-distant vision for America. We heard the calls for America to wean itself off of its obsession for fossil fuels and a short point on creating a stronger clean energy industry. Most outstanding however, was how the president noted that this time signifies a chance to, “seize the moment.” But what moment are we supposed to be seizing and how?

Many of the greatest achievements in American history are all related to “defining moments” that follow a specific narrative. The Manhattan Project was commissioned under FDR as a response to the perceived potential of the Nazi regime’s destructive power. As a narrative, it was a moment where the U.S. could harness its greatest minds to defend U.S. soil. An imminent threat was involved in large-scale modern warfare and the U.S. was ready to face that challenge with a modern response: science and technology. Subsequently, the Manhattan Project planted the seed for the first real modern national laboratory system, which today still includes many non-weapons-research laboratories.

After Sputnik was launched in 1958, the U.S. mobilized in an effort to beat the Soviets and win the upper hand in the Cold War. The ensuing 1950’s and 60’s space race revolved around a push to the “final frontier,” a narrative that invoked the same frontier spirit that led to the mid-19th century expansion of the United States. Its invocation of the “American cowboy” was accessible to Americans who were already drawn to this same narrative through Hollywood westerns and the ubiquity of its fearless hero, John Wayne. In the 1950’s and 60’s, “the expansion” in this case was not only landing a man on the moon, but also the expansion of funding for engineering initiatives, scientific research, and technological innovation.

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