Pictured is a postage stamp that recalls the tense standoff between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
When I was a child, we lived close to the-now-defunct Gowen Field, a strategic airbase near Boise, Idaho that, I was told, was one of the main targets for nuclear annihilation by the Russians. The Cold War was growing intense, and it was not too long before President Kennedy was staring down the Soviet General Secretary of the Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev, seeing who would blink first. Either the Soviets turned their ships carrying nuclear weapons to Cuba around or…the worst-case scenario seemed likely. The worst-case scenario? Nuclear annihilation.
It didn’t help that I was a child and didn’t yet know the difference between reality and rhetoric. I thought we were going to die. It didn’t help that on a regular basis we would have air raid drills at school where we either crawled under our desks shielding our eyes from windows and a possible nuclear blast, or we huddled in the hallways, putting our heads between our knees and kissing our asses goodbye. These practices scared all of us and made us believe that we would die, sooner than later. It didn’t help matters that at church, there were mock attacks where church members playing Russians stormed the church and held us captive. We all believed that the Russians were on the verge of attacking and overrunning the United States and in the long term, we were going to die.
So, living just miles from the strategic airbase, Gowen Field, when jet planes flew high above my bedroom at night, I would pull the covers tight over my head and huddled in my bed because I knew I was going to die. Nuclear annihilation was at hand. The end was near.
The reason Trump called Putin’s actions genius was because he knew that it would further divide the country and if President Biden blinked in his chess match with Putin, it would make Biden look weak strengthening Trump in the eyes of his base.
The Russians didn’t attack; the Soviet convoy carrying nuclear warheads turned around and there were no nuclear blasts to threaten our safety. In fact, the Cold War ended with the fall of the Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall was torn down and both the United States and the Soviet Union began to dismantle many of their nuclear weapons based upon accords achieved between the two countries. We didn’t die; at least we didn’t die from a nuclear war.
Today, centered in what author Timothy Snyder calls the “Bloodlands,” the center of which seems to be the region we now call Ukraine, Russia seems intent to take on the entire world if NATO and the United States doesn’t back off and allow Russia to have its way with the Ukrainians. To the Russians, the Ukrainian people have always seemed a lesser people and the country Ukrainians call home simply a province of Russia except when it was a province of Germany. To get his way, a Russian Despot. Vladimir Putin is once again threatening nuclear annihilation. Should the world blink? Should it back down allowing Putin to have his way? Or should NATO and the United States call Putin’s bluff and continue to aid Ukraine in its war for independence?
While these are difficult questions, answers are exacerbated by the fact that at least ostensibly, there are important people in the United States that seem to support the insane tactics of Putin, e.g., Donald Trump who called his invasion of Ukraine “genius.” While Trump’s followers seem to be more circumspect in their profession of loyalty to Putin, their loyalty to Trump is not so thinly veiled and as a Party, Republicans seem to be taking pages out of Putin’s playbook about regulating the press, overthrowing constitutional rule, and deepening the divide between U.S. citizens through voting regulations. Said differently, while Republicans feign a unified front against Putin’s treachery, their behaviors and policies seem to suggest that Putin’s behaviors are not that foreign to the Republicans; their tactics differ but the outcome is the same. Those deemed undesirable are marginalized, controlled and if necessary, eliminated.
Divisiveness, and the chaos it births, lends itself to hotheads rather than cool heads. So today, when I lie in bed and hear a jet plane roar across the sky, I pull my blankets tight around me and hope we won’t die.
While the United States has never been as unified as its historical narratives suggest, it seems that Republican tactics have done nothing but deepen the divide and intensify hatred. What does this have to do with Putin and his invasion of Ukraine? During the Cold War, there were many Republicans who did not like President Kennedy, but when it came to Kennedy taking on Khrushchev, the Nation seemed more unified. Even those who did not care for Kennedy’s politics cheered him on in the dangerous nuclear chess match he played with the Soviets. I’m not sure that is true of our country today. The reason Trump called Putin’s actions genius was because he knew that it would further divide the country and if President Biden blinked in his chess match with Putin, it would make Biden look weak strengthening Trump in the eyes of his base. In this, I don’t think Trump thought Putin was/is serious about nuclear war any more than Trump was serious about using nuclear weapons against North Korea. It is all rhetoric, dangerous rhetoric for sure, but I don’t believe Trump thinks that the world is on the brink of disaster at least not because of Putin’s missiles.
On Putin’s side of things, he loves to think that the United States is divided and weak. Our weakness makes him look more powerful feeding his narcissistic ego. He may lose his war with Ukraine, but I’m not sure losing is the point. The playbook of Putin, Trump and the Republican Party is to gain power by creating chaos. What better way to do that than start a war that brings the world to the brink of World War III? I’m not saying categorically that the end is not here, that we won’t die due to nuclear warfare. We have the missiles; Russia has the missiles; and there is always the threat that cooler heads won’t prevail, and the buttons will be pushed. But I think the intent is chaos not nuclear warfare. Why? Because chaos is the context in which despotism thrives.
When I was a child, I failed to realize the difference between rhetoric and reality. I hope that this distinction still exists today, and people will begin to demand that cooler heads prevail. I don’t know if this will ever happen. Divisiveness, and the chaos it births, lends itself to hotheads rather than cool heads. So today, when I lie in bed and hear a jet plane roar across the sky, I pull my blankets tight around me and hope we won’t die.