The spirit of '79

I haven’t mentioned my age recently, so I’ll repeat it. I’m 38. In fact, I’m about halfway to 39.

Why do I mention that? Because I first became aware of the world, and world events, in the 1970s. And I’m starting to get a lot of that old sense of deja vu.

(Author’s note: I am writing this piece strictly from memory, not bothering to fact-check particular years and sequences. This is more about impressions than accuracy, perception over reality. Because in the end we react to events as we see them, not as they really are.)

I remember a couple of gas crises in the 70’s. We always had big cars, and I recall seeing long lines at gas stations. Signs reading “odd/even” indicating whether or not you could even be allowed to buy gas. Signs saying “Sold Out.” And the cheapest gas I remember was $0.57 — and my father was outraged at that.

I remember the news that we might allow the Shah of Iran to come to the US for treatment for his cancer. The Shah, we were told, had been a long-time friend of ours. At the same time, we were told, he had been a very bad man to his own people, and they were glad to get rid of him. But his people were so mad, they might take it out on us if we helped him when he was sick. We did, and they responded by invading and seizing our embassy, taking our people hostage. They paraded them before the world, blindfolded and stumbling, and threatened them with dire fates if we did not expel the Shah from his sickbed, unfreeze their money, and confess to a laundry list of “crimes” against the Iranian people. President Carter, in response, did… well, a whole lot of nothing. He mainly seemed to spend a lot of time on TV getting older and older before our eyes. 66 Americans were initially taken, but 14 were gradually freed, leaving 52 Americans to be held hostage for over a year. We knew this because every night on the news, we were treated to a logo that read “AMERICA HELD HOSTAGE, DAY X.”

I remember a brief surge of pride when I heard about the attempted hostage rescue — our president WAS doing something besides fretting. It failed, tragically, and eight American soldiers died in the Iranian desert.

I remember the jubilation when it came out how Canada, that nation we all too often take for granted, or treat as a punchline for jokes (“Blame Canada!,” anyone?), had put its own people at great risk by issuing forged Canadian passports to six Americans so they could escape to Switzerland. And that wasn’t the action of a Raoul Wallenberg of the Great White North — the Canadian parliament met in secret and wrote law ordering it to happen. Our neighbor to the north showed it had a heart as big as its landscape, and six eagles found sanctuary in the maple.

I remember hearing news about the economy, and how bad it was. I was too young to see any effect of it directly (my parents kept that from me), but I remember everyone on TV was terribly worried about the “triple doubles.” Unemployment, interest rates, and inflation were all over 10%. People talked “recession,” and that meant nothing to me. But they said that a recession that goes on too long becomes a “depression,” and I knew that was very bad.

I remember the Cold War. To many people today, the Soviet Union is an artifact of history, something to be referred to in the past tense. But in that past, we were all tense. The Soviet empire was a real thing, a real threat. We saw time and time again how it wanted to expand — and did. Eastern Europe was still enslaved. In Africa and Central America, we saw Soviet-trained and backed forces overthrowing governments and turning nation after nation into Soviet “client states.” Communism, we were told, was on the march — and looking at the map, it was a hard argument to refute.

And looming above it all, the threat of nuclear war.

“Overkill” was the big word then. Everyone knew just how many nuclear warheads the USSR had, and how many we and our allies had. Someone added them up, and figured out there were enough of them to destroy the whole world three times over. Or five. Or eight. I don’t remember the exact number, but it was enough to scare the hell out of everyone. Some fled to the “no nukes” disarmament movement, saying that if we just got rid of ours, the Soviets would get rid of theirs, too, and we’d all join hands and sing kumbayah and all would be happy and flowery and peaceful. Others said that the “destroy the world X times over” was a stupid argument, because they weren’t aimed to do that. They also said that disarming ourselves and trusting the Soviets to do the same was stupid and suicidal.

But we all lived with the knowledge that at any moment, the nukes could fly and we could all die. Even in New Hampshire, we were not safe. Pease Air Force Base in Newington, New Hampshire was a prime target — it flew FB-111 attack aircraft, and KC-135 tankers to refuel the big bombers. We were also along the likely flight path for attacks on Boston. Other Strategic Air Command bases in the neighborhood were Loring in Maine and Plattsburgh in New York, right across Lake Champlain from Burlington, VT. I’d been to Burlington and Plattsburgh, so they were very real to me.

Maybe I’m just biased by my past, my perceptions are colored by history. But I’m getting flashbacks, almost.

Iran is threatening the United States again, our people and our interests.

After an attack on American soil, Canada stepped forward and gave sanctuary to Americans. I think every single resident of Gander, Newfoundland and everyone who helped in Operation Yellow Ribbon is owed a huge debt of gratitude by the United States, and we must never forget what they did in our time of need. Many nations made great symbolic gestures after 9/11, but Canada took the most meaningful action. That might have been a quirk of geography — no other nation could have done what Canada did — but that does not diminish that they did open their arms to countless Americans and other travelers in their (and our) time of need. Thank you again, Canada.

Iran, while threatening the US, is also working on developing nuclear weapons. Iran has repeated declared that its two greatest enemies are the United States and Israel, especially Israel. It has repeatedly declared its intention to “wipe Israel off the map,” and has been fighting a proxy war against Israel for years through its Hizbollah puppets in Lebanon. Should Iran get nuclear weapons, what will keep them from using them against Israel? Some quiet diplomacy and an outbreak of sanity (a rare occurrence in that region of the world) kept India and Pakistan from coming to blows after they both became public nuclear powers, but I can’t see any signs that the Iranian regime is susceptible to reason.

In fact, just the contrary. They almost seem to wear their madness as a source of pride, embracing the reputation as dangerous fanatics.

For decades, the theories of nuclear warfare have been debated, but never put to the test. MAD — Mutual Assured Destruction — was the motto: no nuclear power would dare attack another nuclear power, out of fear that it, too, would be destroyed. It was well named: it was a form of madness to even consider such an option, but it was the kind of madness that worked, because it depended on both sides sharing a fundamental belief.

Iran doesn’t seem to have that same belief. From their public statements, it is quite clear that they do not believe Israel has the means or will to retaliate — or they simply don’t care. Like the Aztecs who didn’t believe that the “blunt spears” the conquistadors carried were any match for real spears and bows, the Iranian regime seems to think that the basic rules of physics and politics don’t apply to them, especially when they’re doing Allah’s will and striking at the evil Zionist oppressors. Allah will protect the faithful who do his work, and only the truly sinful will suffer.

During the 70s and 80s, we were repeatedly told the horrors of what a nuclear blast — or a full nuclear exchange — could inflict. Television was especially good at it — they brought us The Day After, World War III, and Special Bulletin, just to name three. And apart from the sheer human horror of such an event, the effects could quite possibly be worse than one of the same magnitude between the US and the USSR. The Middle East sits near the equator, where far more of the world’s people live, and the economic consequences of such an exchange could easily trigger other wars and a worldwide recession — if not another Depression.

So forgive me if I sound alarmist about Iran and nuclear weapons. Perhaps that’s just a result of it managing to combine so many of my childhood nightmares. But I think that they are fears that are firmly grounded in reality.

At least I can still find a smidgen of humor in the situation, though. Any such catastrophe in the Middle East would definitely put a hurting on the world’s petroleum supply, and petroleum is a key ingredient in vinyl and synthetic fabrics. Which means that there would be no resurgence in records and polyester — which ought to keep that OTHER great scourge of the 70s, disco music, from making a comeback.

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