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Thursday, July 9, 2020

July 9, 2020: Presidential Medals of Freedom: Jacques Cousteau and Chuck Yeager

[On July 6th, 1963, President John F. Kennedy’s Executive Order establishing the Presidential Medal of Freedom went into effect. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of the Medals recipients, leading up to a weekend post on the most recent, most controversial honoree yet.]
On two 1985 recipients who embody two very distinct visions of scientific progress.
Ronald Reagan awarded a ton of Presidential Medals of Freedom across all eight of his years as president, but 1985 was a particularly striking year (perhaps in part as it was the start of his second term), as it included one of the 20th century’s most recognizable and influential figures (Mother Theresa) and two of 20th century America’s most beloved cultural icons (Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Stewart). Those three stood out most among the year’s 16 recipients, but for this post I want to focus on two others: the French scientist, conservationist, explorer, and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau; and the American aviator, flight commander, and test pilot Charles “Chuck” Yeager. Both men began their careers in the military and in similar roles and eras (Cousteau as a French naval officer in training to be a pilot in the 1930s, Yeager as an Air Force pilot during World War II), but the similarities mostly end there; indeed, I would argue that the two men reflect profoundly different ways of thinking about the relationship between science, nature, and the nation.
The word that best sums up Jacques Cousteau’s vision of science and nature would have to be “discovery”: his groundbreaking first book and film were titled The Silent World: A Story of Undersea Discovery and Adventure (book 1953, film 1956); in the 70s he published an 8-volume series of books collectively titled The Undersea Discoveries of Jacques-Yves Cousteau; and in the years following his Medal of Freedom he released a new documentary TV series entitled Rediscovery of the World, to cite just a few examples. When it comes to Chuck Yeager, I would say that the word which best sums up his aviation and scientific achievements would be “barrier”—Yeager remains most famous as the first person to officially break the sound barrier, reaching Mach 1 during an October 14th, 1947 flight in the experimental Bell X-1 aircraft; and for much of the next decade he took part in numerous other record-breaking flights and attempts, individually and with partners such as Jackie Cochran (the first woman to break the speed of sound) and Jack Ridley (his lifelong friend and an engineer without whom Yeager would likely never have broken those barriers).
I highlight those two words because they can help us think about a couple layers to the two men’s careers and meanings. Cousteau seems to have approached the natural world as a mystery to be explored, and science thus as both the process of exploration and the understandings that can be developed through that process (but both of which never end). Yeager, on the other hand, reflects a view that the natural world is an obstacle to be overcome, and scientific advancement thus as both the process of overcoming and the technological marvels that can be produced once that process succeeds. Relatedly, Cousteau’s work has consistently been treated (by himself and by his audiences) as for the whole world, which would explain why a lifelong Frenchman would receive a US Presidential Medal of Freedom; while Yeager’s work consistently took place within the aegis of the US military and scientific establishments, which would explain why he continued to fly and command numerous military missions through the Vietnam War. There’s a place and a role for both ways of thinking, but it will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I especially admire and value Cousteau’s vision of a world without barriers (whether between man and nature or between nations).
Last Medal post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other honorees you’d highlight?

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