US Election Memories 1: The Reagan years

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Some might think it a bit silly that I’ve chosen to record my memories of all of the US presidential elections I can remember. I went through the same process for the recent British General Elections last year but that sort of made sense. I am British, after all. I am not American, have never voted in a US election and being a bad flier, have never been to the US, indeed have never even left Europe. As my hopes of there ever being construction of an Atlantic Tunnel recede, it is possible I may never do, especially as I’m not sure I’d fancy going on it anyway. Why should these elections concern me?

The official answer simply is that the United States remains so powerful that its actions have a huge impact way beyond its own borders. It’s sort of like the butterfly effect but one caused by a ginormous butterfly creating a hurricane by flapping its enormous wings. Cool eh?

But the real reason is that I am just interested. I have always been interested. I don’t know why. As some Americans might say: go figure…

Ronald Reagan with George Bush

12 Aug 1988, Washington, DC, USA — Washington: President Reagan acknowledged the applause of senior staff members August 12th, prior to speaking to them as Vice President George Bush looks on. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

 

How Ronald Reagan nearly killed me.

I was pleased when I learnt Americans could all speak English. Personally, I really appreciated the effort. Why couldn’t the French or the Swedish go to the same trouble? Frankly, it smacks of laziness. Regardless, this lack of a language barrier made it easier for my Uncle to move to New York when I was four (an example of the “brain drain” much spoken of in the Thatcher years). Another relative, a cousin moved to the US later. The common language also made it easier for me to consume Dr Seuss books, Bugs Bunny cartoons and episodes of Hart To Hart from an early age.

I was born in December 1976, a month after Jimmy Carter narrowly beat the Republican incumbent Gerald Ford for the presidency. I’d just missed seeing Watergate and Vietnam (on the TV news at least). I am also too young to remember Jimmy Carter being beaten by Ronald Reagan in November 1980 or Carter’s old vice president Walter Mondale being trounced by “the Gipper” (Reagan) four years after that. There is thus not much about elections in this instalment.

I do remember Reagan, however, and despite every cell in my brain telling me otherwise, I liked him and sort of still do. Oddly, despite having a very real fear of nuclear war, Reagan’s rhetoric and massive defence build-up undoubtedly increased already fragile international tensions in the early Eighties. The Cold War was already colder than it had ever been since the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. He pushed us closer to the brink than anyone else.

Like the little girl with the flower in the famous 1964 campaign ad, I could have thus been killed several times before I even knew what was going on. Never mind everyone else.

Of course, some argue Ronnie’s plan all along was to push the USSR into submission through pressure which Gorbachev ultimately did. In fact, there is no evidence Gorbachev’s reforms had anything to do with western pressure. Certainly, nobody ever seems to have said this out loud if this was the case, even in now declassified private conversations.

Reagan actually probably delayed the end of the Cold War, refusing a total ban on nuclear missiles because he wanted to keep his treasured Star Wars program.

Jokes like this didn’t help: “My fellow Americans,” he began during a public sound check in 1984. “I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”

Arguably, the first bit is okay. No one was liked to think Russia had actually been outlawed. But the chilling words “we begin bombing in five minutes” understandably caused a panic.

Despite this, despite the horrendous deficit he ran up, despite the Iran-Contra affair, I still have a soft spot for Ronald Reagan.

Perhaps it was just because he wasn’t Thatcher.

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Why all Democrats love war and all Republicans are wet girly sissies

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We all know the stereotype. Republicans are tough, belligerent and war-like. Democrats are soft, peace loving and wet.
But, regardless of whether you think either of these positions is admirable or not, are they supported by the facts? Consider the last hundred years…
1917: Democrat Woodrow Wilson leads the US into the First World War.
1921-33: Republican presidents avoid involvement in global affairs as far as possible and keep the US out of the League of Nations.
1941-45: Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt leads the US into the Second World War.
1945-53: Roosevelt’s Democrat successor Harry S. Truman drops two atomic bombs on Japan, ending World War II. Truman leads the US into the Cold War and the Korean War (1950-53).
1953-61: Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower ends the Korean War and avoids wider entanglements e.g. In Vietnam. The US is widely perceived to lose ground to the Soviet Union in the Cold War during this period. Cuba goes Communist. Eisenhower warns of a “military industrial complex” on leaving office.
1961-63: Democrat John F. Kennedy attempts to invade Cuba and begins dramatic increase in US military support to South Vietnam. CIA launches repeated assassination attempts on Castro.
1963-69: Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson escalates Vietnam into a major war.
1969-74: Republican Richard M. Nixon ends US involvement in Vietnam, re-opens relations with China and signs the SALT arms reduction treaty with the Soviet Union.
1974-77: US defence spending reaches an all time low under Republican Gerald Ford.
1977-81: Democrat Jimmy Carter ends Détente and begins a dramatic increase in US military spending. Boycotts the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
1981-89: Republican Ronald Reagan oversees the end of the Cold War.
Admittedly, events since the Cold War make this argument harder to sustain…
Qualifications.
All of the above is true. However, bear in mind…
Wilson and Roosevelt were hardly warmongers. Wilson broke down and cried soon after officially declaring war and later attempted to forge the League of Nations.
Eisenhower oversaw a dramatic expansion in US defence spending. The perception that the USSR overtook the US at the time, proved to be utterly false.
Nixon sabotaged peace talks in Vietnam and only ended the war after first attempting to escalate it further and invading Cambodia. Most opposition to Vietnam came from the Left and support from the Right.
Carter initially adopted a far more liberal foreign policy approach turning far more conservative midway through his presidency under the influence of adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Reagan was hugely belligerent and oversaw a massive increase in US defence spending. The Cold War ended in spite of him, not because of him. Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev largely deserves the credit for this, not Reagan or anyone in the West.
Even so…

Red Dawn (1984): The stupidest film ever made?

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Could Red Dawn actually be the stupidest film ever made?

It seems possible. This is, after all, a movie made in 1984 which depicts the United States succumbing to a land invasion by the Soviet Union. That’s right. You read it correctly. A Russian land invasion of the USA. At the height of age of nuclear super power confrontation. The opening scenes see a high school teacher being distracted from his teaching by the sudden arrival of an army of Russian parachutists, suddenly descending on the ground outside. When he goes to investigate, he is promptly machine gunned to death.

A high school massacre ensues. Not the traditional sort of US high school massacre with Americans shooting each other which we have become so used to. The director John Milius would presumably defend every American’s right to do that, after all. No, this is a nasty Soviet-inspired massacre.

The heroes, played by an assortment of Eighties stars and future stars (Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Swayze’s future Dirty Dancing co-star Jennifer Grey and Back to the Future’s Lea Thompson) then go to ground and wage a form of guerrilla warfare against their Soviet occupiers for the rest of the film.

So begins Red Dawn, a film so alarmist it might as well have been called ‘Reds Under The Bed’ and featured a sequence in which Soviets emerged from that very bad to kidnap sleeping American children.

It is a film in which the Russians speak as if they have stepped out of an edition of the British Battle Action Force comic from the same period. “Arraggh! Help me comrades!” says one, who has been shot by an arrow in his back. “I am dying!”

It is quite a violent film and actually has a reasonable cast – the late Patrick Swayze was never a great actor but Harry Dean Stanton is in it (and who would have guessed then that he would outlive Swayze?). Charlie Sheen was still two years away from his role in Platoon and a good decade away from Hot Shots. It is hard to imagine his father Martin was a big fan of this one though.

And nor should he have been. The film is surprisingly boring to watch despite its unintentionally hilarious premise.

Some of you might be scornful at this point. “It’s all very dismissing the Soviet threat in 2013,” you might argue. “We all know in reality Gorbachev and Glasnost were just around the corner to save the day. The Berlin Wall would actually fall just five years after the film was released. But it didn’t seem like that in 1984! The Cold War was very cold indeed. There seemed like there was no end in sight. It wasn’t quite like the book ‘1984’ but it wasn’t far off. The threat of World War III was very real indeed.”

Agreed! You’ve made a fair point. Well donw. Yet it was very much a NUCLEAR threat which the world faced during the Cold War. Red Dawn never adequately explains why the nuclear deterrent isn’t used. The parachuting from disguised commercial planes plot device is unconvincing. It’s easy to see why no scenes featuring the president or any top level military decision making feature at all. If they did, they would expose the plot as a load of hooey.

Indeed, Red Dawn’s world view on virtually every issue totally stinks.

We are told NATO has dissolved, basically because Europe is reluctant to help the US because it feels “twice in one century is enough”. This seems a bit rich bearing in mind the Thatcher Government’s fanatical devotion to the US at the time and the continuance of NATO to this day. All the evidence suggests that unlike the US itself who has only ever entered World Wars belatedly and when it has come under attack itself, Europe would step in were the US to be invaded. Not that this disclaimer is really needed as the premise is so utterly absurd anyway.

The women lose their rag in the film at one point over Charlie Sheen’s expectation that they cook. This seems to be John “Conan the Barbarian” Milius’s half-hearted attempt to show how unlike the rapey Russians, the west tolerates its women, however uppity they may be. Hurrah for the West! We even put up with our grumpy women when they demand crazy things like the right to be treated equally.

Worst of all, is the film’s immature attitude to guns. The closing titles which feature Wild West type images of all the young characters armed, look like an advert for the National Rifle Association.

There is, bizarrely, a remake of this in existence made as recently as 2010. I’ve not yet seen it but can’t imagine it’s any more far-fetched than this one.

Absurd, reactionary, boring and ridiculous, Red Dawn left me wishing the Soviet Union would re-emerge so I could defect to it.

If this is the America that ultimately won the Cold War, I’m almost sorry the Eastern Bloc didn’t triumph.

Whatever happened to the end of Communism?

We all remember the fall of Communism don’t we? Certainly, anyone who is over twenty five will.

Who could, after all, forget the end of the Berlin Wall in 1989? Or Boris Yeltsin’s heroic role following the coup two years later? Or the final collapse of the USSR?

For many, the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to signal an ideological victory for capitalism. Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the triumph of liberal democracy and “the end of history”. Many argued that the end of the USSR proved that Communism and Marxist-Leninism, like fascism before it, simply could not work. It was contrary to human nature, they said. Reagan, Bush and Thatcher claimed the war had been won
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The Forgotten Hero of the Twentieth Century

The 20th century may have been the bloodiest in all human history but it certainly produced its fair share of political heroes. Alongside the likes of Gandhi, Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Franklin Roosevelt, however, should be placed one figure, still living, whose contribution is consistently overlooked.

For make no mistake: Mikhail Gorbachev ended the Cold War. It would not have ended – and it ended relatively peacefully too – without him. Were it not for him we would still either still be enduring the period of unparalleled international tension which resulted from the conclusion of the Second World War or the human race would have succumbed to nuclear destruction.

This is no exaggeration. It is easy to forget now how terrifying the Cold War had become by the time Gorbachev was appointed General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985. Both sides in the forty year old East-West stalemate were actively engaged in an unprecedented nuclear arms race. A single spark at any time could have led to a full scale nuclear conflagration.

The US president Ronald Reagan attacked the USSR condemning it as “the focus of evil in the modern world” in 1983. The shooting down of Korean commercial flight 007 in September of that year raised tensions still further. The USSR passed between three elderly leaders – Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko  – in the space of three years.

In such tense circumstances, Reagan remained remarkably gung ho. “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever.” He notoriously joked during a 1984 radio sound check. “We begin bombing in five minutes.”

Against this backdrop, the succession of the comparatively youthful Gorbachev (he was fifty-four) was very welcome. His policies of Glasnost and Perestroika eased global tensions immeasurably during the second half of the Eighties as did the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the military quagmire in Afghanistan.

Anxious not to look like an “appeaser” (a charge levelled at President Jimmy Carter by many US conservatives during the Détente of the late Seventies), Ronald Reagan responded with caution to Gorbachev’s overtures. The 1986 Reykjavik Summit, for example, in theory, agreed to eliminate all nuclear weapons within the space of ten years. The stumbling block came from the USA not the USSR. Reagan refused to abandon his cherished “Star Wars” programme. In fact, the Strategic Defence Initiative would ultimately prove so expensive and unworkable that it was abandoned by Reagan’s successors anyway.

If there is a serious challenge to Gorbachev’s claim to greatness it is this: he did not actually intend to bring down the Soviet Union. He certainly wanted to liberalise it but he remained a committed Communist. Yet his actions undeniably led to the reunification of Germany, the liberation of Eastern Europe and at least a form of democracy being introduced to Russia.

Today, no one is keen to sing Gorbachev’s praises. In the East, he is blamed for robbing for Russia of its superpower status. In the West, conservatives are eager to claim the Cold War as a victory for themselves.

They do not deserve it. As the architect of the end of the most dangerous period of international tension in world history, Mikhail Gorbachev’s status as one of the living giants of 20th century history has been ignored for too long.