11 March 2013

Fear of MAD in the 1980's

No, not the magazine, which I still like.  Nor the TV show, which didn’t exist yet.

Between my two stays in Paris in the spring and summer of 2011, my son David and I took the drive tour around Enterprise Nature Park on the former Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant site.  As a side attraction off the main tour route is Bunker Hill Loop.  Wondering what that was all about, we took the detour.

It turned out that the detour is so-named because the bunkers for the technicians and support personnel in the event of a global thermonuclear war when the plant was operational lie along that road.  As for why the powers-that-be decided these were needed, the plant, along with TVA headquarters, the dam, and the Sequoyah nuclear power facility helped place the Chattanooga area in the top ten list of targets for Soviet missiles.

Most of the bunkers are closed, but at least a couple are open so visitors can see inside.  These even have mock supplies and stores of “explosives” to show how it was laid out for real.  With conical roofs, the space inside is not that big and the walls are six feet thick concrete.  Upon stepping inside and gaping in astonishment for several minutes, David exclaimed, “Holy shit!  The Cold War was real!”

At which inside my head I replied, “Nah, us and the Soviets, we were just kidding!”  Right?

Most people, including folks who like me were college-age in the early 1980’s, have forgotten or refuse to recognize just how perilous those times were for us, for the Soviets, and for the whole world.  In large part, the wall between a tense but secure peace and MAD (mutually assured destruction) became paper-thin due to the phallus-waving, mine-is-bigger-than-yours foreign policy brought to us, along with his “Voodoo Economics”, by Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan, who has been aptly nicknamed Ronnie Raygun.

All this came back to mind when I was catching up on FX’s new series “The Americans”, especially when I was watching the fourth episode.  The show stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Soviet KGB case officers who have been living in Washington, D.C., for nearly twenty years as deep cover “illegals” supposedly masquerading as a middle-class American couple n the suburbs with two kids, etc.  I say “masquerading” because after twenty years of “pretending” the two case officers are finding the lines somewhat blurred.

Despite the fact that while in the Navy in the late ‘80’s I worked for its branch of NSA’s Central Security Service (the former Naval Security Group, now the Information Operations Directorate of the Naval Network Warfare Command), I find myself rooting for the two KGB case officers as well as the KGB secretary blackmailed into becoming an agent for the FBI counterintelligence agent who lives across the street from the deep cover KGB couple.

A few points of information: KGB was the main foreign intelligence agency for what was once the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR); KGB is the initials of the Russian language for Committee of State Security.  Roughly, it corresponds to our CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), and the reason the FBI is their antagonist in the series is because FBI has responsibility for domestic counterintelligence. 

Operatives of intelligence agencies who are actual employees of those agencies are called “case officers”; the ones from whom they actually get the information are properly called “agents”.  The FBI is a bit of an anomaly in this regard since their employees are called “special agents” and those who supply intelligence are confidential informants (CI’s).

The successor agency in the Russian Federation to the KGB is the FSB, or Federal Security Service.  The ring of ten agents busted in 2010, including red-headed “bombshell” Anna Chapman whose picture appeared on the cover of dozens of magazines after the bust, were case officers for FSB.

In the fourth episode of the above-mentioned TV series, called “In Control”, the reaction to the attempted assassination of President Reagan is shown from the perspectives of both the FBI special agents and the KGB case officers.  It was very realistic, as I can remember some of the same things being speculated about in the media.

Even more dramatic displays of the paranoia revolve around Reagan’s almost laughable (in hindsight) attempt to build a missile shield, the Strategic Defense Initiative (dubbed “Star Wars Defense” by its detractors, which were many).

Thanks to Ronnie and the other crazies in his administration, all we had to worry about when I was at UTC (University of Tennessee at Chattanooga) in the early 1980’s was achieving peace through mutual annihilation via through global thermonuclear holocaust. 

(That, and opposing the apartheid of the regime in South Africa which he and his allies supported.)

In the early 1980’s, just before another surge in the arms race began, the United States and the Soviet Union had roughly 40,000 nuclear warheads aimed at each other.  According to some of the anti-nuke literature of the period, each nation had the capacity to destroy the entire planet and all life on it 30 to 40 times over, though after the first five or ten times, does it make a difference?

According to Soviet sociologists Stanislav Roshchin and Tatiana Kabachenko, after citing results of similar studies done by American scientists in their own country during that same period, stated that the results of their own studies showed that the number one fear of Soviet young people ages 12-22 was dying in a nuclear war, or surviving one alone.

In the waning years of Leonid Brezhnev’s rule over the USSR and the installation of a new administration in the White House, tensions between the two countries began to rise significantly.

The United States announced that it was planning to find a way to ensure the survival of the United States after a nuclear war, making a nuclear war winnable.

The United States furthermore announced that it was initiating the placement of nuclear-tipped missiles on Continental Europe, within easy striking distance of the USSR. 

The Soviet Union announced development of a new line of nuclear weapons offensive capability. 

The United States began attempting to develop the capability to strike down incoming ICBM’s with ground-launched missiles, which was in violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972.

Thus began a period of heightened tensions and escalation in the production and development of nuclear arms that spread a pall of fear across both Europe and North America.  Every day we, the people of the USA, the USSR, and Europe, lived in fear that the next incident, the next misunderstanding, between the two superpowers would lead to the launching of missiles by one side or the other which would result in a counter-action by the side targeted.

If that happened, both sides would have launched their entire stockpiles of ICBM’s (intercontinental ballistic missiles) and SLBM’s (submarine-launched ballistic missiles) in order that they not be destroyed by those of the opposing side. 

Given the average time it would have taken all those missiles would have reached their targets, World War III would have lasted about 45 minutes.  After such a war, according to former Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev, the survivors would envy the dead, not that they would be living much longer.

The mood of many people, the ones who were aware of the danger, is best summed up in the lyrics of a song by a German pop group called Nena, first released in German in 1983 and in English in 1984, called “99 Red Balloons”.

At the beginning of the song, Nena and a friend buy a bag of 99 red balloons, fill them up with helium and release them into the sky.  A bug in someone’s early warning system signals that an attack is underway, planes and missiles are launched, and at the end of the song, she sings,

It's all over and I'm standing pretty.
In this dust that was a city.
If I could find a souvenir
Just to prove the world was here.
And here is a red balloon
I think of you and let it go.

The small hope that this would not happen, and that sanity would prevail, is summed up in the lyrics of the song “Russians” by the artist Sting, at the end of which he sings,

We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
What might save us, me and you
Is that the Russians love their children too.”

Not long after I arrived at Clark Air Base in December 1987 when I was with the Navy, I learned from one of my shipmates, who had been the Sixth Fleet was in the Eastern Mediterranean in support of the Marines in Lebanon, that in September 1982 World War III had almost happened.

Our forces there went to DefCon 2 along with at least those of Europe, CENTCOM (Central Command), and NORAD (North American Air Defense Command), a greater number of forces than were at that level during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  And the heightened threat level remained for nearly two weeks.

The threat level was raised because of the defensive actions of the Soviets taken due to the proximity of so many American forces combined with the carelessly belligerent rhetoric coming from President Raygun and the rest of the White House crew (many of the same people who later brought us the war in Iraq during the Bush II administration).

One wrong move and that would have been it: no them, no us, no more.

I would have died at age 19, a university sophomore studying political science and at the time pre-seminary.  My son David never would have been born; in fact, his mother and I never would have met.  The Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant would be an irradiated wasteland instead of Enterprise South.  The FX series “The Americans” would never have been made.

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