Tuesday, January 1, 2019

1983 On My Mind

"Seconds" is one of U2's best obscure songs, about the very real fear of nuclear war in 1983

When people these days recall the year 1983 their main associations are probably kitschy nostalgia for things like "Come On Eileen" and Cabbage Patch Kids. In reality, they ought to recall that year with sheer terror.

1983 may well have been the closest the world came to nuclear war during the Cold War, closer than maybe even the Cuban Missile Crisis. At least that crisis had roots in an actual conflict, the nuclear war that almost came in '83 was the result of rhetoric and shadow-boxing. Ronald Reagan's aggressive posture towards the Soviet Union, the "Star Wars" missile defense program, as well as his "evil empire" rhetoric prompted Soviet leaders to suspect that Reagan was willing to launch a preemptive strike.

Reagan's rhetoric was a big show, of course, but he didn't know that the Soviets didn't know that. Events that year exacerbated the tensions, such as the attack on US marines in Beirut, the US invasion of Grenada, the Soviet shooting down of a South Korean airliner, and NATO military exercises codenamed "Able Archer" that the Soviets interpreted as cover for preparing an attack. The West did not know that at that moment the button could well have been pushed, all over a misinterpretation of events by the Soviets that America was unknowingly contributing to. In the autumn of 1983 this possibility finally got through to Reagan. A KGB double agent cultivated by British intelligence let the US and UK know about just how paranoid Andropov and the Soviet leadership had become. Furthermore, Reagan watched the TV movie The Day After, which scared the shit out of 8 year old me and millions of others. The former Hollywood actor, so prone to living in a fantasy world of signs and symbols, finally seemed to understand the stakes of his recklessness.

I've been thinking a lot about this moment because I feel that the world today is similarly dangling above an abyss. Since 9/11 Americans have conditioned themselves to fear terror attacks, but I am more concerned by what having an unstable, brain-addled amoral black hole in charge of America's military and foreign policy means for us. I get the feeling from what we keep hearing from people who have left the Trump administration that his aides have held him back from even worse and more destructive acts than he has already committed.

In 1983 the world hung in the balance as president with his head in the clouds behaved recklessly and the paranoid secret police operative on the other side wildly overreacted. At the end of the day Reagan and Andropov were both irresponsible, but also capable of seeing their mistakes. Trump is a man with zero capacity for self-reflection. His aides are departing him, and he is backed into a corner.

One of the scariest things about the state of the world in 1983 is that so much of it was kept from the public. Very very few people knew in November of that year that the Able Archer exercises brought the world close to annihilation. While I was on the playground at recess in the second grade the mushroom clouds could very well have come. Every day I wonder about plots that are hatched out of public view, and the paranoid fantasies much more likely to be brought to fruition by a man with zero sense of restraint. As the song at the top says, it takes only seconds to say goodbye.

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