Sunday Essay: The 80s Gets Its Foreign Policy Back

In 2012, incumbent President Barrack Obama made an offhand and otherwise bland joke while debating a characteristically limp-wristed and supine Mitt Romney about how the 80s wanted their foreign policy back. This joke was in reference to Romney’s alleged claim that the Russians were American’s biggest enemy.

Obama cracks a joke about the 80s

Given that even then, there were plenty of American enemies to choose from, why this debating point came up will perhaps be a mystery to historians in the future, but it is telling that President Obama made a joke about the deep past, otherwise known as “the 80s,” and the Russians. They were our friends in 2012, right?

The comment is entirely in character for President Obama, however, and dovetails nicely with the view that history only moves in one direction; towards justice, peace, tolerance, equity, diversity… take your pick. Those that take this view believe they are on the ‘right side’ of history, and everyone else is an old revanchist who needs to get with the hip new program.

Sadly, history refuses to cooperate. Somalia, for example, was once a poor but peaceful part of the British Empire and now it’s largely without governance. Food is scare and no one has rights of any kind that don’t flow from the barrel of a warlord’s gun. What is now mapped as Israel has changed hands so many times that there is little agreement what to even call that spot on the earth, and the fighting is continuous. Until recently, Ukraine was on course to be another European country in peaceful demographic decline. But, alas, no more.

American society has been mostly well ordered for generations now and so naturally, Americans think history goes one way and things always work out for the better. The end of the long twilight confrontation with the Soviets encouraged this line of thinking; we won, again.

But, the foreign policy thinking of the actual 80s wasn’t so sanguine about how the world worked. The popular view that it was a dangerous world primed for nuclear exchange was evident in the cultural documents left behind. Even otherwise meaningless pop songs had references nuclear Armageddon between the Russians and the Americans.

Neunundneunzig Jahre Krieg, Ließen keinen Platz für Sieger

Nena from 99 Luftballons

Translation: Ninety-nine years of war, Leaving no room for winners…

The presence of the Soviet menace was present in many movies. One such movie was the 1984 film Red Dawn. The movie features many of the young actors that made fun 80s films like Dirty Dancing and The Outsiders. So, its easy to forget that Red Dawn is a dark tale of guerrilla warfare conducted at great cost by American high school students.

The premise of the movie is summed up nicely in a series of title cards at the beginning. Wheat crops have failed in the Soviet Union. The Green Party has taken over in Germany and kicked out all US nukes. NATO has disbanded and the Soviets have linked up with the Cubans and other Latin American dictatorships. Mexico has gone into revolution. Emergency conditions prevail and suddenly, in the middle of a lecture about Genghis Khan, a high school history teacher sees men parachuting from the sky and they begin firing on the school. These men are not coming to talk or negotiate. Several of the high school boys, led by Jed (Patrick Swayze), grabs guns and food and head for the mountains where they’ve hunted and camped all their lives.

After spending weeks in the mountains, the boys decide to go back to town and find out what’s happening. What they discover is that the Soviet and Cuban forces are operating a brutal occupation of their once bucolic Colorado town and have put those they find on a list of gun owners into a re-education camp at the local drive-in. The boys go to the drive-in and talk through a fence to one of the fathers (played brilliantly by Harry Dean Stanton) who tells them to stop crying, watch out for each other, and head back to the hills. In short, they are told to toughen up and fight.

“Avenge me!” he cries out like the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

The boys stop by the home of another older man who provides further details about the occupation. They learn there are mass executions as well as re-education camps, so the whole panoply of communist oppression, well documented in actual history, is occurring. The old man says he has one more thing to show the boys; his granddaughters, who have come to the attention of the rapacious Russians and Cubans. Mass rapes and exploitation of woman are also part of the dictatorial package once well-known in the eastern bloc and in totalitarian Latin America.

The boys, with the two girls in tow, head back to the mountains and report to the others what they’ve seen. There is no going back to town they report; it is behind the enemy lines. They are told by the girls there are parts of the country, called ‘Free America’ that are not controlled by the enemy and perhaps in time, they will receive help. But now, it is time to fight. They take as the name for their group ‘Wolverines,’ which was the mascot of their high school.

From today, it would be difficult to recall what a formidable foe the world communist powers were, and how many destructive wars they launched. The war in Korea was entirely generated by the communist North and it claimed 37,000 American lives between 1950 and 1953. South Vietnam would have lived in peace with the communist North, but they too were under continuous attack. That war claimed 57,000 American combat deaths between 1965 and 1973. Both northern belligerents had, as benefactors, Russia and China, and those countries had nuclear weapons. Both nations tortured and killed their own citizens as a normal course of governmental policy. They were feared in Europe and America for good reason, and yet in 2012, according to the sitting President, fear of the Russians was a hold over from the 80s.

Now, it seems, if the 80s wanted their foreign policy back, they got it. In 2022, the Russian military rolled into Ukraine and began shelling hospitals, apartments, and power stations, including nuclear power stations. They have seized the hulk of the ruined power station at Chernobyl which exploded while under Soviet control in 1986. The NATO countries are trying to push back without triggering a nuclear exchange. The Ukraine boys are setting up road blocks and resisting the Russian menace at tremendous cost.

The question now is would the 80s like to have its high school kids back? Jed, his brother, and the other boys instinctively knew to head for the hills, survive as previous generations of Americans did, and organize a guerilla resistance to the enemy. Why? Because, as Jed says, “We live here.”

Even the girls morph into bloodthirstily ambushers in time.  One of them, played by Jennifer Grey of Dirty Dancing fame, takes a Russian bullet and is dying. Jed gives her a hand grenade and she booby traps her own body so that when she dies, she’ll take a dirty commie down with her. These kids know who they are and what they love.

Do the American kids watching Ukraine be depopulated and destroyed have the same impulses? Are there still Wolverines in our midst? Right on time, Quinnipiac has released a pol asking the same question. From the poll:

As the world witnesses what is happening to Ukraine, Americans were asked what they would do if they were in the same position as Ukrainians are now: stay and fight or leave the country? A majority (55 percent) say they would stay and fight, while 38 percent say they would leave the country. Republicans say 68 – 25 percent and independents say 57 – 36 percent they would stay and fight, while Democrats say 52 – 40 percent they would leave the country.

Quinnipiac poll, link in notes below

So, in the some towns and states, there are still plenty of Wolverines in our midst. One could only hope that those who wouldn’t fight would actually leave the country and not openly join the other side. That would be the natural consequence one would expect from those that have been told all their young lives that their country is bad, irredeemably racist, and run by a revolving series of bad people.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaseless into the past,” said Nick in The Great Gatsby, a book by F. Scott Fitzgerald, one the ‘Lost Generation’ that followed the First World War.

As the Russians dismantle Ukraine, prices are rising, and life is getting more difficult for the poor in the US and everywhere else. These are pre-revolutionary times. We can only hope that the 30s and 40s don’t want their foreign policy back, and these times are not the precursor to a massive worldwide bloodletting to follow.

Russian and Cuban occupiers in Colorado
99 Luftballons

Here is the Quinnipiac poll – HERE