Remembering a dangerous year

BY

As shocking as the events of September 11th were, what they suggest about the future is more shocking. Over the next 10 or 20 years, it seems likely that the United States will be the target — and perhaps the victim — of a chemical, biological or nuclear attack. Such an event might take the current gruesome toll of 7,000 dead and missing and add one or two zeroes to that sum. In the last two weeks, the unimaginable has become imaginable. The unthinkable, thinkable — and we should all spend some time thinking about it.

One threshold thought is that as dangerous as our future may seem, we have all faced a greater degree of this kind of danger in the past. All of us in this community lived through some part of the Cold War. All of us lived through 1983, which (with the exception of 1962) was probably the Cold War’s most dangerous year. After a period of Détente, the Cold War was heating up in the late ’70s, and by 1983 it was overheating. One source of the danger in 1983 was the very weakness of the Soviet system. During 1983, the Soviet Union was led by Yuri Andropov, an insecure man who professed to his inner circle a deep concern about surprise nuclear attack from the United States and who spent much of his brief 15-month premiership in the hospital. Remember, too, that 1983 was a year when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union “the focus of evil in the world,” while Andropov called Reagan “insane.” In 1983, the Soviets shot down a Korean airliner that mistakenly ventured into their airspace. That year, the Soviet Union continued to pour thousands of troops into Afghanistan, while the U.S. countered with billions of dollars in aid for a group of rebels that included a man named Osama bin Laden. And, in 1983, a misunderstood U.S. nuclear readiness exercise called Able Archer combined with a faulty Soviet satellite to push the Soviets within minutes of a decision to launch a nuclear strike.

In 1983, you could feel the danger, even as a 9-year-old. I didn’t know anything about Able Archer or Afghanistan, but after Nov. 20, 1983, I became very afraid of nuclear war. On that day, I watched the broadcast of “The Day After,” a television movie that depicted a nuclear attack on the U.S. Aside from certain Super Bowls and one Olympics, no television program since “The Day After” has been as widely-viewed (not even the “Tribute to Heroes” telethon that was broadcast on 31 networks last Friday). “The Day After” really scared people — it certainly scared me.

What can we learn from the Cold War beyond the general lesson that we have faced grave danger before and survived it? One Cold War lesson is that our core principles of liberty, equality under the law, democracy and human rights can among be our most powerful weapons. A turning point in the Cold War was the signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975. In one way the signing of the Helsinki Accords represented the highpoint of Détente: The treaty ratified the division of Europe and with it, legal and political legitimacy of the Eastern Bloc. At the same time, the Helsinki Accords contained language obligating the signatories to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.” Neither the Western or Eastern leadership expected that this verbiage would have any real impact on how the Eastern Bloc states ran their countries. But inside the Communist world, dissidents with names like Havel, Walesa and Sharansky seized on this language in the Accords. The words mattered.

A year later, the election of Jimmy Carter ushered in a new American commitment to human rights and with it, the beginning of the end of Détente. The Soviet Union regarded Carter’s human rights offensive as provocative and deeply destabilizing. In many ways, the subsequent rhetoric of Ronald Reagan — his vision of conflict with an “evil empire” — represented a continuation of Carter’s human rights focus. Both presidents were aggressively challenging the moral legitimacy of the Soviet state, undermining control of its internal politics and dampening its appeal abroad. One effect of this new rhetorical challenge to the Soviets was that 1983 became a more dangerous year, but in no small measure this approach helped win the Cold War a few years later.

The use of force is a necessary, important and justified element of what will now become a long twilight struggle against terrorism. But in larger measures this war must be won on principle. We must offer the world a positive vision of liberty, human rights and democracy. We must recommit ourselves to humanitarian projects, to fighting AIDS, famine and poverty not only because these are the right things to do, but also because in doing them we will ultimately make this country much safer.

Comments