Remember the Seventies? Do you want to? Check out Miracle, if you haven’t already: The film opens with a media-clip montage that transports the audience back 30 years. One relives all the shame of that humiliating period, from Watergate to “Whip Inflation Now,” from the evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Saigon to the advent of disco. Iran, Afghanistan, gas lines, the malaise speech, Elvis’s death–the full laundry list of tragedy.
At the culmination of the decade, a hockey game–an Olympic semi-final–took over the front pages and nightly newscasts. It was a dramatic story on many levels, and the movie hits them all: The coach, Herb Brooks, the man with a vision who did things his way, critics be damned. His players, a collection of scrappy young “collegians and castoffs,” facing the seasoned, indomitable Soviet squad. The humiliating exhibition-game defeat; the string of hard-won victories leading to the medal round; the drama of the game itself; the seventh seed upsetting the favorite; David besting Goliath.
And lest we forget, the Soviets really were Goliath back then. Not just in hockey, or Olympic sports: In general, the Evil Empire was on a roll. Communist influence had spread in Southeast Asia, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Angola, Nicaragua, and elsewhere. The Soviet Union was at the height of its nuclear might, and their arsenal was the greatest on Earth. It was generally believed that the Soviet economy was prospering–and that it would one day surpass our own. Paul Samuelson’s best-selling economics textbook, the one most folks read (or at least were assigned) in college, had a graph illustrating how, in a few decades, the Soviet economy would overtake ours. Of course each edition of the book had to push the horizon back a bit, but as late as a year before the Wall came down, Samuelson wrote that “the Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, the socialist command economy can function and even thrive.”
The United States meanwhile had hit a rough patch, as the film’s opening unrelentingly recounts. This period has been subjected to some revisionism in the past few years; Thomas Friedman wrote in 1998 about “the nostalgia of the conservative right for the Soviet Union and the clarity of the Cold War.” But exactly whose clarity is he talking about? Conservatives’ certainly, but few others’. “I always agreed,” Sam Donaldson recently said, “that communism would eventually be on the ash heap of history.” It is hard to find a liberal who would not say the same. However, it is an unconvincing boast for anyone who was not an anti-Communist back in the day to claim now to have shared this perspective.
It was not self-evident in 1980 that America would overawe the Soviet Union. To really get into the spirit of the times, you have to look to those who thought the United States had passed its prime and was itself on the glide path to the ash heap. It was a widespread belief, particularly among liberal intellectuals. Here, for example, is Ronald Steel, writing in the Washington Post on October 21, 1979, in an opinion piece on the SALT II nuclear-arms treaty: The SALT process “ratifies Soviet military equality with the United States and acknowledges that in this realm we are no longer the undisputed Number One. … By acknowledging the undesirable it seems to sanction the intolerable; that Americans live in a world they cannot control and are confronted by adversaries they cannot intimidate by force of arms. Pax Americana was a nice ride while it lasted, but it is now over.” As for SALT II itself, which Senate opponents charged would consecrate Soviet nuclear superiority, Steel believed “its ratification may not achieve much, but its defeat would be a stunning victory for those, seething with an unfocused frustration and resentment, who seek to rekindle the Cold War.”
Among those unfocused, frustrated, resentful folks who could not seem to adjust to our second-class status in the world was Ronald Reagan. (Reagan does not figure in the movie, but it’s worth noting that the big game took place a day before the Nashua, N.H. primary debate in which the Gipper said, “I’m paying for this microphone!”) In his recent birthday tributes, many stated rightly that Reagan brought about our victory in the Cold War. But in 1980, Reagan’s critics brandished the tag “Cold Warrior” as a term of opprobrium. They cast him as a right-wing throwback, inexperienced in foreign policy, driven by ideology, and out of step with the times. To his detractors he was a dangerous dogmatist. To his supporters, he was a man of principle. They loved him for the same qualities his enemies disdained him for. There was nothing wrong with being out of step with the times when times were bad; and Reagan refused to let the Pax Americana ride end.
As for his soon-to-be opponent, the “Miracle on the Ice” occurred when President Carter needed some divine intervention of his own. The same front pages that reported the hockey victory ran stories about the worst inflation news since 1973. The prime rate hit 16.5 percent. The Iranian hostage crisis was in full bloom. The New Hampshire primary was only days away, and pretenders Ted Kennedy and Jerry Brown were coming on strong. So the president did what any sinking politician might do. When the U.S. hockey team beat Finland two days later to win the gold medal, Carter took his reelection campaign into the locker room. He made a telephone call to the team, in which he conjured the image of a similarly hard-working crew of public servants at the White House, torn from their important tasks by the compelling game. “We were trying to do business and nobody could do it,” he said. “We were watching the TV with one eye and Iran and the economy with the other.” The president was so busy attending to the affairs of government he had to have Vice President Mondale hold up the phone.
And the free media bonanza didn’t end there. Carter flew the hockey team and the rest of the Olympians down the next day for a Rose Garden photo-op. His politicos were very proud of themselves. “When the goalie wrapped himself in the American flag, you know where he learned the trick,” a Carter aide bragged. The event was marred slightly when speed-skating champ Eric Heiden mentioned a petition the Olympians had presented to the president asking him not to boycott the summer games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Press Secretary Jody Powell quickly made it known that no such petition could be found among the gifts the Olympians brought, and anyway Coach Brooks and star goalie Jim Craig supported the boycott. Carter won New Hampshire by 11 points, not an impressive margin for a sitting President, but a solid win under the circumstances. Senator Kennedy vowed to go “on to Massachusetts, on to New York and Pennsylvania, and on to the Democratic convention!” (Alas, he poured forth no memorable shriek at the end.) A few days later, with a defeat in the Florida primary looming, a Kennedy aide said, “How do you campaign against a president with the United States Olympic hockey team huddled around him?”
Younger people might lack the perspective to fully understand the events the movie portrays. Wow, our guys won the game! Cool. But the “Miracle on the Ice” was miraculous because it defied the inevitable. Looking back at what was being written about the United States 24 years ago, with its pervasive sense of pessimism and expectation of decline, it is hard to believe that we live in the same country. Seeing a group of Americans waving flags and chanting “USA!” is commonplace these days; it was noteworthy in 1980 because it was practically unknown. As the Wall Street Journal observed, “The U.S. was thrilled by nothing more miraculous, and nothing less, than young men from the mining ranges and mill towns setting out to win and winning.” It was an invigorating victory for a country that had become uncomfortably habituated to losing.
These days the U.S. is accustomed to winning; maybe too much so. Things are going so well that some have lost perspective. Operations in Iraq–being compared to the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam? An economy growing at over 4 percent with a recent spurt up to 8 percent–called faltering? One wonders how they get away with it. Before the historic game against the Soviets, Herb Brooks said that if his team won they would “have to do it with the intangibles.” Reagan knew that too, and it is something that every great leader understands. The United States was not destined for preeminence; nor will we maintain our position without the same determination, enthusiasm, and confidence that got us here. Miracle is a portrait of the days when our country needed something to feel good about, but optimism is important even in the good times. It is difficult to recognize miracles if they are taken for granted.