I came of age during a very stressful time. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the Viet Nam war. Domestic tensions and protests. Riots. Assassinations. Walter Cronkite reading casualty numbers on the nightly news. Polarization right down to the family level. Politicians who wanted to open doors and sooth relations were condemned as spies or backdoor Communists. Stooges of the Kremlin. McCarthy was recent history.
I watched détentes. Nuclear test bans. Strategic arms limitations. ABM missile bans. Greater cooperation between the nuclear powers. Our leaders talking and shaking hands. Cultural exchanges. We looked at that as a good thing. A hopeful sign of peace, however fragile. An open door policy to China. More decompression of tension. Trust but verify. I got used to the fact that we could work together with our enemies as long as we both were open and trusting. But still cautious. Two steps forward. One back. But always forward. Always looking for a way for us all to live in peace. That's what we wanted. That's what they wanted, too. We were not so different.
And then the Reagan years. The Soviet leaders always believed that they had equal partners here in the west. People they could work with and trust to abide by treaties, properly overseen by mutually trusted Inspectors, UN resolutions, proper auditing. Trust, but verify. Of course there was politics, cloaks and daggers, spy vs. spy. But both sides did it and it was anticipated and countered. The CIA had a toy. A submarine that they used to spy on the Soviets. They probably had something similar. It was later revealed that the CIA and the KGB had so thoroughly infiltrated each other that they were basically one entity. And this actually sometimes was a good thing. There were instances where the CIA-KGB had information that they withheld from their respective Oval Office/Kremlin because they knew it would be misinterpreted. Odd bedfellows.
But Reagan! They thought they had an adversary that was literally insane. He seemed to escalate the Cold War to microwave levels and wantonly trash 30 years of hard fought compromises. All could be lost. Literally.
But it had been a ruse. A stupid ruse, I think. One of the bone headed ideas going back to Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's security advisor, was to fund Afghanistani terrorists to fight, and hopefully defeat, the Soviet Union. It didn't work but he managed to create al-Qaeda. The enemy of my enemy. Good work, Zbig.
Reagan hoped to bankrupt the Soviet Union and force them to the negotiating table. He never followed current events when he was hanging out with Bonzo, I guess. Want to talk? Just use that red phone thingy in the oval office.
Still. He succeeded. Reagan and Gorbachev. Negotiating an end to the Cold War. Enemies, recent enemies, no, current enemies, discussing an end to hostilities. We thought it was epic. Historic. Like World War 2 was finally ending!
There would be a peace dividend. No more billion dollar boondoggles. No more expensive weapons that we hoped would never be used. No more bases around the world filled with men trained to kill. We can go back to space exploration, medical research, and enriching the global community. The one I once glimpsed in the 1965 World's Fair.
But I didn't know about Zbig. The guy who thought supporting thugs who threw acid in girls’ faces and repressed education and freedom in Afghanistan was a good idea? That guy. He had other ideas for the world.
The first Gulf War. 1992? 93? How soon we forget. I supported that war. I believed that Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator whom we must overthrow for some reason. I never quite understood why. I bought the rhetoric. I watched the parodies and laughed at the posters of someone shoving his head back down into a toilet. Though that bothered me. And people making jokes about Sodomy Hussein. I definitely paused at that. And jokes about Islam. Those She-ites! Time to flush ‘em! I was appalled at that one.
What, exactly are we fighting for? How exactly do crude jokes and insults advance dialog? Is this really how we know our enemy? And ourselves? I knew nothing of our enemy and I didn’t like what I was learning about ourselves.
The war ended quickly enough. With Baghdad Bob posing for Worst Job magazine. It all seemed so surreal. But it ended. Evil was destroyed. The people were liberated. The country was devastated. Good work.
Well, things were good under Clinton. The economy was great. Oil prices down. The stock market in overdrive. Russia now a country free from the over burden of the Soviet Union, building a free market economy and a democracy. There was something going on in Kosovo and Serbia. More bombing and overthrowing governments that had done nothing to us. Probably Zbig’s doing. But they weren't on the radar. Just a blip. A big, fiery red blip that had nothing to do with us. OK.
When the Sept 11 terrorist bombing occurred, I was outraged, as was everyone else. The whole world was. Dozens of nations had citizens in the towers, it was the World Trade Center, after all. This was an attack against the World! Vladimir Putin, the new president of the newly created Russian Federation, was the first world leader to call President Bush. He offered condolences and an offer to join forces in the fight against terrorism. Russia had fought terrorists, some supported by us, sadly. But, no. There was no cooperation, no sharing of intelligence, no joint actions. That would have been monumental. Think of it? The USA and Russia, once enemies under the fallen Soviet Union, now allies in the fight against world terror? That would have made a bold statement on the world political scene. Two former enemies now joined against a common enemy! But I had forgotten about Zbig.
Didn't know, actually. I knew nothing of the background machinations, the 'Enemy of my enemy' friendships, the scheming of a modern Dr. Strangelove. The political landmines that, once planted, can blow up in your face. What the CIA calls, 'Blowback.' If we mess with other peoples' countries, they will return the favor. I just knew 9/11. My nephew went to school right around ground zero. And the plane crash in Pennsylvania. And the Pentagon? This was an act of war! Someone had attacked us. Who?
I wanted action, like everybody else. I wanted to see something done. Afghanistan! They supported the terrorists. We must invade Afghanistan. So we did. I think we got a UN resolution. I know we did later when we reinvaded Iraq. But that was different. That war was because Iraq had WMDs! Anthrax! A nuclear program! Yellow Cake! Aluminum tubes! So in we went. And we heard the usual propaganda and the usual jokes and brave mockery. CNN broadcasting images of bombings. I remembered back to images from Viet Nam. We weren't allowed to see pictures of civilians burnt by cluster bombs and white phosphorus, like we saw them burnt by Napalm in the 60's. I just knew they were there. They always are.
But I wasn’t quite as automatically patriotic as I had been. What exactly is going on here? What’s the background? Everything has history. Even history has history. Every act, every action, every intrigue has a predecessor. Something further back that makes this current thing, while not necessarily right, at least understandable. And with the understanding of one’s adversary and history, you are able to use the most powerful weapon we have. Diplomacy. Know thy enemy. Know thyself.
Why not? It worked before. It worked between Kennedy and Khrushchev. It worked in reducing nuclear weapons by 90% during the Cold War. And it worked ending the Cold War under Reagan and Gorbachev. It should have worked between Bush and Putin, if we had accepted his offer.
Olive branches have more power than plutonium.
But instead the war drums beat louder. The rhetoric. The condemnation of dissenters more shrill. Old Cold War rhetoric began to resurface. People don’t remember history, but they do remember animosity. Advocates for détente and diplomacy were called traitors. Un-American. Kremlin stooge. Putin’s Puppet. Just like all the past times people sought peace. But that's history. People prefer animosity. This threat could only be met by force. A pound of plutonium can destroy a grove of olive trees.
And now we are back to 1962. Where is there a Kennedy today?