'Red Dawn' and the revival of Cold War phantoms

The Long Read: As the DC establishment seeks a new foreign "threat" around which to organize post-Trump national politics, it's worth remembering the fallacies that drove the last Cold War

“The neoliberal elite is deciding, at this moment, whether to prefer Russia or China as the number-one U.S. enemy on the horizon. But must we have one?”

David Bromwich knows the question he’s posing will be ignored as the establishment liberal media, think-tank commanders and politicians desperate for what they deem ‘normalcy’ seek a theme — as if planning prom night — for the post-Trump restoration of the US national-security state.

The traumas inflicted by Trump presidency on the bipartisan norms and pretenses of the foreign policy establishment aside,  this crowd has struggled for meaning and coherence since the collapse of the Soviet Union. How could the US national security state be sustained and justified if its citizenry were no longer haunted by the specter of the Red Army landing paratroops on the playing fields of a Colorado high school?  

So what was it about Red Dawn that made us laugh — a lot — when we’d watch it on repeat in 1984? For me and some anti-apartheid student activist friends in South Africa at the time, it really was the consummate anti-imperialist’s stoner flick. It required some suspension of disbelief to take seriously the spectacle of the army that had defenestrated Hitler’s Wehrmacht a few decades earlier being defeated by a high-school football jock insurgency led by Patrick Swayze. But it wasn’t that; it was the preposterous premise that made us laugh:  a Soviet ground invasion of the United States, with help from Cuban and Nicaraguan special forces who’d crossed the Rio Grande as undocumented immigrants. (Now there’s an ideological twofer for ya!)

As silly as that premise may seem, today, it seemed to resonate with millions of Americans back in 1984, the year this “Bear in the Woods” ad helped reelect Ronald Reagan.

Like the ANC — the South African liberation movement from which we took our lead — our geopolitics was that of the Non-Aligned Movement, and that meant refusing to choose between the Cold War’s rival US and Soviet power blocs. Of those two blocs, actually, the US was the one doing the damage in Southern Africa (not least by its support of the apartheid regime). And the cartoonish anti-communism that Red Dawn trafficked in was the same propaganda narrative of the Pretoria regime,  which told us that the struggle for freedom and democracy in South Africa was, in fact, a key stratagem of the Soviets’ bid for world domination, and therefore that the defense of white minority rule by any means necessary was crucial to the survival of the “free world”. They really spoke this way, not only the regime’s leaders but even the teachers in our government-run schools. So, our own experience had taught us that red-baiting was code for a nasty agenda that had nothing to do with freedom or democracy.

And then there was the military dimension: This was 1984 — just months after we’d seen the US invade of the tiny Caribbean nation of Grenada with no legitimate pretext, just weeks after it had lost 240 Marines in far-off Lebanon. And this was barely a decade after the brutal folly of the US-manufactured war in Vietnam. Only one military in the world seemed ready or able to cross oceans to impose its will, and it wasn’t the Red Army. As long as you didn’t live next door to the USSR and weren’t challenging a Soviet-proxy dictator, you weren’t likely to have Soviet tanks rolling down your streets.

Don’t get me wrong, we were well aware of Moscow’s willingness to use military force to crush any challenges to its diktat in its immediate neighborhood, as it had done in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in ’68, and was on the verge of doing in Poland in 1981 before General Jaruzelski declared martial law to suppress the challenge of Solidarity. But Moscow viewed these countries as all within the Soviet “sphere of influence” agreed between Stalin, Churchill and FDR in the final years of WWII. And, of course, Moscow had idiotically created its own Vietnam in Afghanistan starting in ’79 — a brutal folly that may have done more than Reagan’s arms buildup to hasten the collapse of the USSR — but again, Afghanistan bordered the Soviet Union, and its military planners viewed it as part of their “near abroad” which they sought to control. The only instance of the Soviet military invading a country outside of its “near abroad” that we could recall was when they drove the Wehrmacht all the way back to Berlin and defeated Hitler. (Which, of course, we deemed a splendid thing.)

From our perch in the Global South, it seemed clear that the Soviets lacked the means or the inclination to mimic the long-distance projection of conventional force that was commonplace for their US rival. (The Soviet Navy never had a proper aircraft carrier, that consummate platform of long-distance conventional force projection; the U.S. in 1984 had 13.) So, on watching Red Dawn, for any neutral observer with a modicum of knowledge, there was about as much chance of Soviet paratroopers landing in Colorado as there was of an invasion by Canada.  

The absurdity of the Red Dawn scenario — or even the less cartoonish versions of a Soviet army pouring across Western Europe that had been a central pillar of NATO military strategy  — also became clear to Andrew Bacevich when the USSR expired in a puff of smoke in 1990.

As a serving US Army colonel (now head of an institute dedicated to promoting foreign policy sanity and restraint, against the tide, in Washington), Bacevich was deployed to Berlin in the months following the fall of the Wall, and got a close-up glimpse of the tattered reality of the bogeyman his life had been dedicated to fighting.

The decrepitude of the equipment and the fighting men of the Red Horde against which NATO had been primed to defend Europe was unmistakable. Faced by these disconcerting encounters, Bacevich wrote,

“I began to entertain this possibility: that the truths I had accumulated over the previous twenty years as a professional soldier—especially truths about the Cold War and U.S. foreign policy—might not be entirely true… History—especially the familiar narrative of the Cold War—no longer offered answers; instead, it posed perplexing riddles. Easily the most nagging was this one: How could I have so profoundly misjudged the reality of what lay on the far side of the Iron Curtain?

“Had I been insufficiently attentive? Or was it possible that I had been snookered all along? Contemplating such questions, while simultaneously witnessing the unfolding of the ‘long nineteen nineties’—the period bookended by two wars with Iraq when American vainglory reached impressive new heights—prompted the realization that I had grossly misinterpreted the threat posed by America’s adversaries. Yet that was the lesser half of the problem. Far worse than misperceiving ‘them’ was the fact that I had misperceived ‘us’. ”

My own experiences in South Africa made me more partial to the explanation of the Cold War offered by the dean of leftwing historians, Eric Hobsbawm, in his Age of Extremes:

“The Cold War was based on a Western belief, absurd in retrospect but natural enough in the aftermath of the Second World War, that the Age of Catastrophe [his term for the economic and social collapse that ran over a decade from 1929] was by no means at an end; that the future of world capitalism and liberal society was far from assured… The belligerent countries, with the exception of the USA, were a field of ruins inhabited by what seemed to Americans hungry, desperate and probably radicalized peoples, only too ready to listen to the appeal of social revolution and economic policies plainly incompatible with the international system of free enterprise, free trade and investment by which the USA and the world were to be saved. ”

Hobsbawm notes how little domestic support politicians who identified with the US socio-economic model enjoyed in most of Europe at the end of World War II, and even less so in a quickly decolonizing Global South. Intervention, direct and indirect, would have to become a norm to install and prop up such leaders. Still, he notes,

“This is clearly not enough to explain why US policy… should have been based, at least in its public statements, on a nightmare scenario of the Muscovite superpower poised for the immediate conquest of the globe, and directing a godless ‘communist world conspiracy’ ever ready to overthrow the realms of freedom…”

“It is now evident, and was reasonably probable even in 1945-47 that the USSR was neither expansionist – still less aggressive – nor counting on any further extension of the communist advance, beyond what is assumed had been agreed at the summits of 1943-45.”

“On any rational assessment, the USSR presented no immediate danger to anyone outside the reach of the Red Army’s occupation forces. It emerged from the war in ruins, drained and exhausted, its peacetime economy in shreds, its government distrustful of a population much of which, outside Great Russia, had shown a distinct and understandable lack of commitment to the regime… It was ruled by a dictator who had demonstrated that he was as risk-averse outside the territory he controlled directly as he was ruthless within it.”

 Hobsbawm sees the hysteria that became a bipartisan article of faith and the organizing principle of governance in the U.S. for the half century that followed the end of World War II as driven by domestic political impulses, from Senator Joe McCarthy onward.

“An apocalyptic anti-communism was useful, and therefore tempting, even for [American] politicians who were not sincerely convinced of their own rhetoric… An external enemy who threatened the USA was convenient for American governments … public hysteria made it easier for presidents to raise the vast sums required for American policy from a citizenry notorious for its disinclination to pay taxes.”

In particular, Hobsbawm notes that even among Western allies, the public hysteria over a Soviet “threat” was a uniquely American phenomenon — there was no equivalent or proportional echo in the domestic politics of Western European U.S. allies on whose behalf the US was claiming to wage JFK’s “generational struggle”. De Gaulle may have loathed the French communists, but he never doubted their legitimacy as a stakeholder in French politics (besides their share of the popular vote, they’d been integral to the Maquis, the anti-Nazi resistance of WWII whose significance De Gaulle sought to amplify in the postwar years). Britain and Germany were governed for long periods of the Cold War by social-democratic parties that had no truck with US global anti-communist crusading, and pressed for detente. None of the NATO powers of Europe joined the US in Vietnam. Median public sentiment in those countries by the 1980s would have conveyed a sense of being trapped, fearing that Reagan’s belligerence could trigger a nuclear conflagration that would destroy the continent, even though they found the US system infinitely preferable to the one the Soviets might impose.

The late John LeCarre’s observation in the 1990s that “the right side lost the Cold War, but the wrong side won” expressed a widely held European view.

But today’s search for a new “threat” against which to organize US power speaks to the malaise unleashed in Washington by winning the Cold War. The scorched-earth politics that has become the norm in the Trump era begins, in my memory, with Newt Gingrich, and a reconfiguring of the GOP as a nationalist party that — not unlike the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing — sees itself as America’s only legitimate ruling party. (The link is to Adam Serwer, whose writing on this phenomenon is essential reading.)

American nationalism without a foreign “threat” to rally against has been mobilized by cynical political entrepreneurs like Gingrich and Trump to become a toxic, destabilizing domestic political force.

In the years since the Soviet collapse under the weight of its own decrepitude (taking the US intelligence community completely by surprise precisely because the reality of that decrepitude undercut the “peril” narrative), the foreign-policy “blob” tried to convince America that it still faced existential peril. But somehow, none of Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, and then Saddam again could serve as a durable straw man for a national-security state founded on the Soviet “threat”.

Which brings us to the Blob, today, needing to cast Russia or China in the role of existential threat .

Russia may be a venal autocracy making mischief in the global digital ether and poisoning Putin’s domestic critics, but it’s hardly a credible geopolitical threat to the United States. The Trump era has seen a liberal establishment hyping a Russia threat as if we’re back in the 1950s or that Putin and his army of hackers are stage-managing American political life, but that may speak more to a desire to restore the domestic political arrangements and certitudes of the Cold War era than to any actual threat to the US political economy. Indeed, Putin’s biggest strategic asset may be the space he occupies, rent-free, in the minds of the Cold War liberal establishment.

China? China is a real challenger to the global economic dominance that undergirded the US position throughout the Cold War. There’s an irony there, of course, in that China’s adoption of capitalism (albeit of the state-led variety) and its integration into what had been a U.S.-led global economy would have counted as a major Cold War triumph — except that it has displaced the U.S. as the primary trade and investment partner to much of the world economy. (For all of its grotesque domestic political repression of minorities, China is clearly a more competent capitalist state than the USA in managing the socio-economic perils inherent to that economic system, its transition to capitalism having buried the teleological illusions of US ideologues that imagined liberal democracy as an inevitable consequence of capitalist development.)  

Militarily, though, not unlike the USSR, China’s territorial ambitions seem to be limited to a “near abroad”, mostly to territories to which it lays historical claim, such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China sea. It also clashed a number of times with Indian forces over some disputed areas along their shared border, and similarly with the USSR and Vietnam. China did send troops to fight the U.S. in 1950, but that was in neighboring Korea (not Colorado).

The deadliest Chinese military action of the past three decades occurred in Beijing itself, in the crushing of the Tiananmen Square rebellion in 1989. Ruthless though they may be in their effort to control their own population and their immediate neighborhood, further afield the Chinese leadership seems content to use trade and investment as the primary tools of expanding global influence and economic hegemony.

Which brings us to the unhappy saga of Red Dawn, the 2012 remake. An LA Times report from 2011 tells the story:

When MGM decided a few years ago to remake “Red Dawn,” a 1984 Cold War drama about a bunch of American farm kids repelling a Soviet invasion, the studio needed new villains, since the U.S.S.R. had collapsed in 1991. The producers substituted Chinese aggressors for the Soviets and filmed the movie in Michigan in 2009.

But potential distributors are nervous about becoming associated with the finished film, concerned that doing so would harm their ability to do business with the rising Asian superpower, one of the fastest-growing and potentially most lucrative markets for American movies, not to mention other U.S. products.

As a result, the filmmakers now are digitally erasing Chinese flags and military symbols from “Red Dawn,” substituting dialogue and altering the film to depict much of the invading force as being from North Korea, an isolated country where American media companies have no dollars at stake.

In reality, of course, the U.S. faces no threat of invasion — not from the Soviets, nor China, nor North Korea.

Indeed, the China “threat” on which the military-industrial complex would have the US spend money that could, instead, go to saving tens of millions of its own citizens from penury and building a more sustainable economy for the majority of Americans facing economic and environmental collapse, is not an invasion: It’s China’s growing ability to withstand US military pressure in its own neighborhood.

This headline from the Atlantic could be from any establishment outlet of today, and it captures the new fright-geist:

Literally, we’re being invited to deem it a “national security” peril that Beijing would not lose to the United States in a land war on China’s doorstep.  

A digression: In the first month of the George W Bush Administration in 2001, a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter plane off China’s coastline, killing the Chinese pilot. Here’s what I wrote for TIME on that incident at the time, asking the reader to consider how that episode might look to anyone in China, or for that matter, to anyone of the Non-Aligned persuasion:

Imagine a Chinese plane flying a surveillance mission off the Florida coast colliding with an Air Force F-16 sent on an aggressive monitoring mission. The U.S. fighter goes down and the pilot is lost; the Chinese plane is forced to land on U.S. soil. The incident occurs at a moment when China is about to supply a package of sophisticated weapons to Cuba (possibly including the very same model spy plane now in U.S. hands); is planning to deploy a missile shield that would neutralize the U.S. nuclear arsenal; and has signaled that curbing U.S. regional ambitions is to become the organizing principle of its military doctrine. Imagine further that the incident comes two years after Chinese bombs had destroyed (albeit inadvertently) a U.S. embassy in Europe... It's unlikely Americans would feel in a particularly forgiving mood, either.

The idea that US “national” security requires defending a perimeter that starts at China’s borders is back in fashion, and Vizzini’s wise warning in the Princess Bride – click here for a quick video reminder – must be ignored if the Military Industrial Complex is to have its way. It behooves those who profit from continually expanding the capabilities of a global military behemoth that dwarfs the rest of the world’s fighting forces to persuade Americans that China represents a mortal danger to their well-being. (The political utility of blaming the failures of US governance on Chinese malfeasance has been a mainstay of Trump’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic; it’s a market-tested proposition.)

Nobody should be surprised if there was a digital remake of Red Dawn 2, reverting to the original, Chinese-invasion storyline. But as the military industrial complex and the foreign policy establishment try to convince Americans that “there’s a bear out there” — or, perhaps, that those pandas aren’t as harmless as they seem… — it’s worth remembering the farce that was the first Cold War. The real threats to America’s wellbeing are mostly domestic. And that’s where our attention, and spending, should be focused.

Making a hash of it

If you’ve read this far, you deserve a treat. You really do. So, from the annals of the as-yet-hypothetical Rootless Cosmopolitan Cookbook’s #fakeout section (the art of mimicking takeout), we present… Well, it doesn’t really have a name nor a nationality, and it doesn’t speak an entirely coherent culinary language, but it’s a delicious winter warmer: Before you start, drain a block of extra firm tofu between two side plates with a weight on top, to squeeze out the water. Soften some finely chopped onion, carrot and celery, add thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms and soften, then add crushed garlic, grated ginger and a pound of ground turkey and brown, breaking up the clusters with a wooden spoon to achieve a uniform texture. When almost browned, add a teaspoon of Chinese Five Spice or more to taste, a teaspoon of Aleppo peppers (or shichimi togarashi, or both, though add the latter later), salt and white pepper. Once spices are releasing their aroma, add a tin of sliced water chestnuts, one third of a cup of mirin and a half cup of soy sauce. Cut the drained tofu block into one inch cubes, and add. Let the ingredients get acquainted for another half or so, adding water or a little chicken stock as needed. And voila – serve over rice or thick rice noodles, alongside some sautéed or steamed bok choy, or broccoli for the full takeout effect.