Longing For The Cold War   Leave a comment

Who’d a thought?

March 1, 2016

For some of us, perhaps many of us, the Cold War years had clarity. Believe it or not while there weren’t rules, the Cold War gave us lines and boundaries. There was fear and yet our government sought to soothe our worried minds. Of course both sides—East and West—had people on the extremes but, to borrow a football metaphor, the ‘cold warriors’ generally played between the 20 yard lines. Not much scoring but no nuclear missile strikes either.

During the half century after WWII, America had a more unified and purposeful society, not to mention better friends, better enemies, better politicians, and better music. The 220px-Nagasakibombunification of spirit felt during that political “ice age” was likely the end result of our collective fear of being destroyed, in spite of assurances from those in authority that we could ‘survive a nuclear attack’. What senior citizen does not recall being lovingly informed by a kindergarten teacher that if we wanted to get home safely toniP.S._58_-_Carroll_&_Smith_Sts._Bklyn._hold_a_take_cover_drill_01489vght, we’d better know how to duck and cover, as in duck under your desk when you hear the warning or see the flash of the A-Bomb, and then cover your head. Right. Even the older children were fed the idea that they could ‘survive an atom bomb’. No discussion of those pesky radiation burns or ingesting some residual particle of U-235. Instead, “OK kids, the bright light is gone, the mushroom cloud is pretty, the city’s destroyed, but we’re just fine. Get home safe! And don’t forget to read Silas Marner for tomorrow.”

This is not an attempt to trivialize the Truman-to-Reagan era, (or for that matter Stalin-to-Gorbachev.) We felt the tension, witnessed occasional provocations, and were sometimes heartened by moments of detente. Khrushchev visited America, and then that silly U2 spy plane thing happened. There were years of atmospheric nuclear tests with regular forays into unilateral brinksmanship. The proxy war with China, also known as the Korean “Police Action”, morphed into an uneasy and often violated truce along the 38th Parallel. The militarization of western Europe through NATO was a reflection of the occupation of eastern Europe under the guise of the Warsaw Pact. We lived through the Berlin Wall, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Everywhere the raison detre was expressed as defeating the “Decadent Capitalism” of the West, or the “Godless Communism” of the East.

Providing additional boundaries for our lives were some lighter cultural influences. Like Mad Magazine (“What-Me Worry?”) and its offbeat humor. Its satire was sometimes dark, and like other cultural touchstones it had double-entendres Mad30for intergenerational readers, i.e. the oddball humor of Spy vs. Spy. On television there was Rocky & Bullwinkle providing viewers with A-Bomb comic-relief featuring Boris & Natasha; a bit like the Addams Family with nukes. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. gave us the organizations UNCLE and THRUSH squaring off as “good” and “evil”. There was even a credit at the end of each episode thanking the United Network Command For Law Enforcement for its assistance in the production. (No such organization existed but suggesting it was a real agency was a little like the childish joke ending with “. . . made you look”.) The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was mirrored with humor in Get Smart with its agents of “Control” and “Kaos”.

Two big screen offerings in 1964 were Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). In the drama of the former, Henry Fonda portrayed “The President”, attempting to be a rational voice with his Russian counterpart. In the end, the wayward American nukes destroyed Moscow, and Fonda’s president prevented a full out Soviet nuclear response by dropping an American nuke on New York City. (Ted Cruz probably liked that part of the film). Strangelove’s black comedy was center stage with Peter Sellers in three roles: as Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake (suggesting Britain’s WWII Field Marshal Montgomery), American President Merkin Muffley, telling the members of his cabinet that even when discussing global thermonuclear war, decorum is required: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.” And finally there was Dr. Strangelove himself, an obvious preview of Dr. Henry Kissinger’s role in the Nixon White House. Ironically Kissinger helped open American relations with “Red” China by organizing a meeting between conservative Nixon, and Mao and Chou en Lai. (Twenty years later, the cultural relevance of that meeting was not lost on fans of Star Trek, when Spock tells Kirk the old Vulcan saying, “Only Nixon could go to China.”) You Only Live Twice, the 1967 Bond film was contrasted with The President’s Analyst. Deadly suave vs. deadly humor. Exposed to both fiction and fact, by the 1970s we continued to see the lines.

In the 1980s the acronym MAD emerged providing a shortcut to imagining the end result of unleashing weapons of war in the Atomic Age: Mutually Assured Destruction. MAD reinforced a simple premise: nuclear war was insane. We ALSO accepted another new phrase: Nuclear Winter. It took “MAD” and further defined the outcome of a nuclear war in two words. So instead of launching a global thermonuclear war, over the decades the East and West engaged in proxy states and proxy wars, as in Vietnam, Angola, Korea, Syria, Israel, Nicaragua, Palestine, and Cuba. But the world began to believe that there were actual lines, and launching a nuclear war was a line not to be crossed.

Through all those years, music was an important ingredient in American culture. There was always someone, somewhere, inspired and willing to write and record a song about the times in which we lived. Something to give us a tweak on the nose, a slap to the back of the head. Today we sometimes feel as if there is no relevant music, or we’re less inspired by music, or music is no longer enough. (Name me two widely recognized songs that we all came to know as the anthems of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests. . . . time’s up.) In keeping with the current state of technology, protests have become less frequent, but more visual; like standing up at a Trump rally asking for tolerance and being thrown out of the room, often with disregard for personal safety. Highly visible buy hardly new. Trump has (as ha16moore_CA0-popups the GOP) become the new “Bull” Conner. Half a century ago Conner—the Commissioner for Public Safety—enforced racial segregation and denied civil rights to black citizens in Birmingham, Alabama by using attack dogs, firehoses, and worse. (See the Charles Moore photograph). The difference then, the abuse was a wakeup call to anyone on the sidelines. Today’s boorish and thug-like behavior seems to embolden the supporters, while those in opposition can complain for one news cycle; and like the introduction of another shiny object, the noise dies down as the media loses interest. Until it happens again.

It’s my belief that we are not sufficiently confronting today’s bigots, warmongers, and racists in our midst. Trump, Cruz, Rubio, and the others say anything and the greatest casualty is the truth. We can only hope that at some point they will each be called to account. Whether by a citizen in the streets, a famous newscaster, a war veteran, or a musician on stage. Presidential wannabes are calling for “carpet-bombing” the Middle East, deporting 12 million people, building a wall along our border, excluding members of one or more religions from entering the U.S. solely on the basis of their religion, and declaring that we need waterboarding and [actually] it should go further. A counter-message to these dismantlers of the Constitution must emerge, and soon.

As I prepared to write this column, I reviewed a list of recordings. I kept searching for a contemporary narrative to protest the warmongers, to counter the nativists, and to refute those with a flawed history of the founding of the Republic. The more I thought about it, the less important a long list of recordings became. Beyond David Rovics, who is constantly writing, recording, touring—his website declares “Music is no spectator sport, [we should] become a co-conspirator and organize a gig, translate my songs into other languages or join the Better Anarchist™ Club and help me get to the next protest”—we need music to transcend the moment. We need today’s Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Woody (or Arlo) Guthrie, Nanci Griffith, or Shona Laing to raise their voices. But we must recognize that the lines are no longer as clearly drawn as they were during the Cold War.

Racists are getting away with being racist. Warmongers are wrapping themselves in the flag to justify bombing indiscriminately. Bigots are openly expressing their abhorrent bigotry. Don’t ask where the “anti-ISIS” songs are. Instead, understand that hatred is obvious within America today. Everyone has a duty to protest the borderline insanity of these modern day John Birchers. As New Zealander Shona Laing asked thirty years ago in her song “Soviet Snow”, are we keeping “One eye on the winter? Are we wide awake? Is the world aware?” While I’d like to believe that we are awake and aware, it seems, maybe, not so much.

David Steffen

©2016 David Steffen


Note: An edited version of this was published in the March 2016 issue of the monthly Lighthouse Peddler.



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