In my most vivid Cold War memory, I’m standing on the asphalt-covered parking lot that served as the playground for the St. Anthony of Padua Parish School, in Baltimore, a short 45 miles from Washington DC. It was lunchtime on some day in October 1962, and my fellow fourth grader Louis Mangione had just informed me that if the world was going to end, it was probably going to be in the next half hour. ‘President Kennedy gave the Russians until noon today to get their missiles out of Cuba,’ he told me. ‘After that—ka-boom!
I had no idea. My sister commandeered the radio in the kitchen in the mornings; we left for school with the The Four Seasons in our ears instead of intimations of Armageddon. But what Louis said made sense: if the Russians were going to annihilate Washington, they would certainly take out Baltimore. For good measure.
“As far as I can see, America had a pretty good Cold War. Never did we think we stood a chance of being blown up”
When the Angelus bell rang at noon, we turned our eyes skyward. When five after twelve arrived, and we hadn’t seen any missiles rocketing above housetops and the church steeple and the big Food Fair sign atop the supermarket, we figured we were safe. The Russians must have backed down. We resumed our games. Forty-five miles away, cool heads prevailed.
As far as I can see, America had a pretty good Cold War (as distinct from the hot wars in Korea and Vietnam). It was expensive and occasionally tense, but the US economy boomed on a torrent of defence spending, and we were treated to a pretty exciting space race and some great spy movies full of girls in bikinis – never did we think we stood a chance of being blown up.
Seldom, anyway. Once in a while the Union for Concerned Scientists would move the minute hand on their nuclear clock a bit closer to midnight and we would we would put on black armbands, and chant ‘End the Madness!’ while bearing an attitude of morbid poetic despair, which in those days intellectual girls found attractive. The madness, of course, was subsumed in the normalcy – the post-demonstration shag, the James Bond wink. Every day the bombers flew to their fail safe positions, every day the rockets were aimed, and every day nothing happened, leaving us reassured. That was the sublime joke underlying Stanley Kubrick’s great film Dr. Strangelove: the lone madman was dangerous, but only because the entire apparatus was insane. Keep the two separated, and we all get a good night’s sleep.
Cold War II is going to be different. This time the madman has the trigger in his hand. And I don’t mean Kim Jong-un.
Last March Sen. John McCain called Kim the ‘crazy fat kid that’s running North Korea’. The facts don’t do much to deny the charge. He’s ordered all male citizens to copy his dashing George Orwell-style haircut. He has an outsized admiration for Dennis Rodman. He has murdered his rivals, including, most theatrically, his half-brother, who was sprayed with poison by female assassins in an airport in Malaysia. The police state he rules is poor, corrupt and isolated, and last year bombarded South Korea with balloons filled with poop, cigarette butts and propaganda leaflets. But it maintains a Pleasure Squad made up of 2000 attractive women who provide entertainment and sexual services for top officials, and mandates that all its teachers learn to play the accordion.
“Cold War II is going to be different. This time a madman has the trigger in his hand”
For all his weirdness, however, Kim is sane. He knows what happened to other pain-in-the-ass tyrants on the world stage. He knows the fate of Saddam Hussein, who only pretended to have weapons of mass destruction, and to Muammar Qaddafi, who gave his up. Like an obstreperous bee, Kim’s buzzing is designed to chase enemies away from the hive, not advertise his sting.
Does President Trump realise that? Who knows? Trump’s reply – ‘North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States, [or] they will be met with fire and the fury like the world has never seen’ – is just the sort of water-roiling bombast one would expect to hear from a rash, bullying, thin-skinned, short-tempered narcissist: Game of Thones’ King Joffrey with a Twitter account. It’s also the sort of gunslinger palaver that might be used by a desperate president who wants to distract attention from his legislative failures and the headline-making investigation that trails his every move. Rally ‘round the flag, boys, before the indictments are served.’
Not to be outdone, North Korea immediately threatened Guam with an ‘enveloping fire’.
In the old Cold War, Nikita Khrushchev had his moments where he thumped his shoe and shouted ‘We will bury you!’ So far, the new Cold War already seems talkier, and more reckless.