Politics & Policy

The Fear Mongers

U.S., circa 1980s.

While Reagan’s rhetoric may have catalyzed a new activism on the Left, there is little doubt that it also inspired and encouraged those in the center and on the Right, who had never believed that their country was the dangerous or destructive force it was painted as by the Left. As noted above, Reagan’s solidarity with the oppressed peoples of the Communist world offered hope to millions behind the Iron Curtain. And in the West as well, despite the hundreds of thousands who marched and protested, millions more were persuaded that Reagan’s view of the conflict between East and West was correct.

Still, Reagan was up against an enormous headwind. In 1982, Jonathan Schell published The Fate of the Earth, a series of essays that had run in The New Yorker magazine about what would happen in the event of a nuclear war. The book was graphic, detailed, and frightening, and it became a bestseller. The CBS Evening News gave the book favorable mention, as did Helen Caldicott (“the new Bible of our time”). Bill Moyers mused about what would happen if Ronald Reagan and Leonid Brezhnev read the book to one another at the next summit meeting, while Walter Mondale declared the book to be “historic.” The premises underlying Schell’s predictions were simply new iterations of hoary arms-control myths. One was the notion that as stockpiles of weapons multiply, so do the chances of accidental nuclear war. But both the Soviet Union and the U.S. had taken steps by the early 1980s to make the risk of accidental launch much lower than it had been a decade earlier.

There was in Schell’s work and that of other disarmament advocates an absence of moral clarity about the nature of the Communist threat. No mere political value, not even freedom, seemed to them to be worth risking nuclear war. Not every liberal was moved to genuflection by Schell’s work. Harper’s editor Michael Kinsley declined to join in the general adulation. He called The Fate of the Earth “one of the most pretentious things I’ve ever read.” Schell’s writing amounted to little more than “bullying,” Kinsley wrote, and featured “hothouse reasoning: huge and exotic blossoms of ratiocination that could grow only in an environment protected from the slightest chill of common sense.”

But that fairly well describes the environment of the United States in the 1980s. It was an atmosphere composed of equal parts dread and hokum — a childlike perspective. Indeed, the innocence of children who want only world peace was uncritically embraced and celebrated by adults who should have known better. Certainly any adult with common sense should understand that the mere wish for peace, untethered to realistic self-defense, is not a safe posture in this world, and further, that signaling weakness to a bully is probably the most dangerous course possible. But a great many adults made fools of themselves over “space bridges” to the Soviet Union, “Citizens Summits,” “sister city” initiatives, and so forth. Some communities went so far as to declare themselves “nuclear free zones,” whatever that meant. TV performer Phil Donahue probably earned the title “useful idiot” as much as anyone during the 1980s, as he credulously accepted the apologetics of his favorite Soviet “journalist,” Vladimir Pozner, and provided a forum for every left-wing cause imaginable on his popular television program Donahue. In 1987, he happily accepted a joint award with Pozner from the Better World Society, a Ted Turner organ that also supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

With Pozner, Donahue hosted a series of programs linking Soviet and American audiences. And while Pozner served as an indefatigable apologist for the Soviet Union, Donahue maintained a fine impartiality. “There are 60,000 nuclear bombs on both sides,” Donahue wailed, “When is this madness going to stop?” On other occasions, Donahue went out of his way to tell members of his Soviet audience that while “some Americans worry when the Soviet Union expands…the vast majority of people in the United States admire you.” Donahue may have admired the USSR; there is little evidence that a “vast majority” of Americans shared his views. Donahue was moral equivalence personified. The trouble between the superpowers, he explained, was the fault of “a small percentage of people in both countries — yours and mine — who remain hard-line and militaristic.”

Vladimir Pozner was all the rage on American television during the 1980s. Born in the U.S., he lived in Brooklyn until his teen years when his Communist parents moved first to East Germany and then to the Soviet Union. His unaccented English distinguished him from the typical Soviet spokesmen of earlier times. But his undeviating defense of the regime as well as his lies and distortions marked him as utterly in the mold of his predecessors. He claimed, for example, that Soviet authorities failed to explain the Chernobyl disaster for several days due to lack of information, when in fact, they had already dispatched doctors and emergency workers to the scene. Regarding the Korean Air Lines Flight 007, Pozner maintained to the bitter end that it was a spy plane.

But Pozner was extremely popular with American television producers. He became a regular on ABC’s Nightline, made dozens of appearances on Donahue, and was interviewed for countless news programs. ABC even gave him eight minutes of uninterrupted airtime following one of President Reagan’s speeches. (The network apologized for this after receiving a tart complaint from the White House.) When the magazine MediaWatch examined the way Pozner was identified, they found that he was referred to as a “Communist” only once out of 157 references. Most called him simply a “commentator,” which was misleading since it implied objectivity. Twenty-one stories described him as a “spokesman,” which was a lot closer to the truth. And thirteen described him — utterly falsely — as a “journalist.”

The same credulity that permitted Pozner such a long run on the American stage elevated little Samantha Smith, a Maine fourth grader, into an international heroine. Smith got rapturous attention for a letter she penned to Yuri Andropov, expressing her worry about nuclear war. “I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war,” she wrote, in a letter that Pravda reprinted. “…Please tell me how you are going to help to not have a war.” Andropov did not do that, but he did invite Smith and her family for an all expenses paid trip to the Soviet Union and generally made propaganda hay of her. Manchester, Maine, gave her a parade upon her return. She sat perched on the rear seat of a convertible, roses in her lap, and waved to the cheering crowd like the homecoming queen she was. The American press made her a young heroine, and there was lots of talk about the “wisdom” of the young. Columnist Ellen Goodman wrote:

Samantha was just a kid who thought like a kid. She woke up one morning in Maine when she was 10 years old and “wondered if this was going to be the last day of the Earth.” She read about the arms race and thought “It all seems so dumb to me.”

And then she did something that only an unsophisticated kid might do, in the years before diplomacy breeds directness out of them, before cynicism and a sense of powerlessness sets in. She wrote a letter to the Soviet leader….

When Samantha came home, she wrote…”I mean, if we could be friends by just getting to know each other better, then what are our countries really arguing about? Nothing could be more important than not having a war if a war would kill everything.”

Adults cannot say such things anymore. Adults must talk about SALT and START treaties, about Star Wars this and MX that, about parity and verification. Adults must be suspicious, cautious….So we ask children to express the fears that we share and the idealism that is, finally, our hope.

But of course, adults were certainly allowed to say such things and were saying them ad nauseum. As for the childish sense of directness, it is not always supplanted by “cynicism and a sense of powerlessness.” Some adults simply lose their naiveté and face life’s harsher realities, including the reality that it is sometimes necessary to protect oneself with weapons against those who have evil intentions. It was this maturity and realism that was hard for many American wishful thinkers to acquire. In fact, they disdained steady judgment and maturity, preferring to call self-delusion and childishness “idealism.”

Samantha Smith could have been the spokesman for the Democratic Party on the subject of the conflict between the superpowers. It, too, had a weakness for the “if we could only just be friends” style of analysis. It, too, believed that “nothing could be more important than not having a war.” And it, too, failed to see why we couldn’t all get along by seeking to know one another better. It was a trope of liberal analysis during this period (and similar arguments are now advanced vis-à-vis other adversaries like the Islamists) that conflicts arise among nations due to “misunderstandings.” The cure for these misunderstandings could be found in summit meetings, cultural exchanges, sister city initiatives, pen pal programs, and “space bridges.” Because the diagnosis was flawed, the cures were unsuccessful. As it turned out, those who understood the Soviets best were the very “hardliners” so scorned by liberals — a fact that was testified to by many former Soviets after 1991. It wasn’t that both nations, essentially benevolent, mistrusted one another due to the accumulation of weapons on both sides in some sort of mad and inexplicable race to destruction. Rather, the Soviets were aggressive and predatory, and the United States (along with its allies) sought to thwart it. When the Moscow regime changed, the so-called “arms race” was over.

Doubtless Samantha Smith’s letter to the leader of the USSR was motivated in part by the beliefs of her parents. Her mother, Jane Smith, told reporters that Samantha “thinks it would be better to spend more money on programs for the poor rather than on bombs.” She was even asked to question the Democratic candidates for president. (Smith died tragically in a plane crash a couple of years later.) But she had many imitators. The “teachers of peace,” ten school children from California made a similar pilgrimage to Moscow a couple of years later. The National Council of Churches organized a “crayon brigade” of children who wrote to their counterparts in the USSR expressing friendship and best wishes. Just as Jimmy Carter had taken advice from daughter Amy about nuclear proliferation, the nation was to take the counsel of elementary school children on world peace.

Innocence is a precious quality in children. It is less appealing in adults. It is particularly unappealing when it is put in the service, whether intentionally or not, of a deeply cynical and criminal enterprise like the Soviet Union.

Samantha Smith had one more imitator, but this one did not get worldwide attention and acclaim. Irina Tarnopolsky, age twelve, heard about Andropov’s correspondence with the American girl, and was inspired to write a letter of her own to the Soviet leader. She wrote to Yuri Andropov pleading for him to release her father from prison. Yuri Tarnopolsky, a research chemist who taught at Krasnoyarsk, had applied for an exit visa for himself, his wife, and their daughter. Permission was refused and Tarnopolsky was dismissed from his position as a professor. Tarnopolsky then joined other Soviet Jews in agitating for freedom of emigration. He also smuggled out a book of poetry which was published in France. At this, he was arrested and sentenced to three years in a labor camp for “slandering the Soviet system.” He was also accused of “parasitism” by the KGB — for being out of work.

Irina never became an international celebrity.

Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of the new book Useful Idiots: How Liberals Got It Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First. This piece is excerpted from Useful Idiots, with permission.