This summer marks the 70th anniversary of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the beginning of an era of nuclear fears that dominated the childhoods of people of my generation. We were raised in fear. I can remember civil defense drills when we marched single-file out of our classroom and stood against the lockers in the hallways; training for what to do when the bomb dropped. My husband Arthur, who was born six weeks after the bombs dropped on Japan, remembers marching from the school to a train depot; he never knew where they’d have been taken if war had started. Our parents were just as terrified by the nuclear brinkmanship our leaders were engaged in.
I was reminded of this when I read a column by Fareed Zakaria in today’s Washington Post, about the opposition to President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Zakaria paints Obama as an optimist resisting a sea of pessimists. As an example of a pessimist he quotes John McCain saying, last year, that the world is “in greater turmoil than at any time in my lifetime” (which includes World War II and the Cold War).
Zakaria then goes on to show how a pessimistic attitude has been a common American reaction to events for decades now:
In an essay in 1989, Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington noted that the United States was experiencing its fifth wave of that kind of pessimism since the 1950s.
First, he explained, Sputnik shocked the United States, and by the early 1960s, the country was convinced that the Soviet Union was on a path to overtake it economically, technologically and militarily. When the oil shocks of the 1970s hit, people saw the Middle East’s petro states as the world’s new power brokers. By the end of the 1970s, with the Soviet Union modernizing its nuclear arsenal and on the march — from Afghanistan to Central America — scores of commentators prophesied that Moscow was winning the Cold War. And when Huntington wrote his essay, conventional wisdom was that an invincible Japan would soon become the world’s No. 1 economic power.
None of these came to pass. The pessimists were wrong. The optimists, who saw the unique power and vitality of America as strengths that would enable us to overcome obstacles, were right.
Nowadays the pessimists are warning about a nuclear Iran being an existential threat to the United States. That’s as absurd as George W. Bush’s warnings about Iraq in 2003, and yet people still believe it. Just as absurd is the belief that ‘The Terrorists’ are an existential threat, yet our country’s policies are built around the need to overcome this ‘threat’ at all costs.
Yesterday I talked with two people, in completely separate conversations, who are both convinced that the economy is about to go into free-fall and the dollar will soon be worthless. “The only thing left of value will be gold,” they both nervously told me. Needless to say, they were both extremely pessimistic about the future of this country.
There’s power in fear. Fear makes people passive. They are less likely to challenge their leaders. Fear causes people to shrink their expectations of life so that all that matters is survival. When a citizenry is afraid, they will only ask their government for protection. They won’t ask for a decent life, educational opportunities, good roads, decent health care, etc. When there is an existential threat, these priorities pale in comparison to the importance of survival. Spending half of the federal budget on defense looks like a bargain, not a theft.
When you’re in a state of fear another consequence is you contract your creative energies. As a result you are much less flexible in your thinking about solutions.
Zakaria points out some of the mistakes the U.S. has made acting out of fear:
In the 1950s, it helped depose democratic leaders in the Third World, fearful that they would become socialists. Later, it intervened in Vietnam. It supported the apartheid regime in South Africa. It invaded Iraq.
I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I don’t think there’s some cabal meeting somewhere planning out the next fear campaign. I think it’s more insidious than that. What became apparent in the years after World War II, to certain people in government and business, was that instilling fear was a great tool to gain power and riches. And there have been great fortunes amassed in the last seventy years from the fear-manipulated public. As long as the American people allow themselves to be controlled like a puppet, we will be tossed from crisis to crisis.
If we ever learn how to live without fear we will find that our problems become much easier to solve.