• The Questions Matter

    I watched the Democratic primary debate from Las Vegas last night.  I don’t know if what we saw was good for Democrats, good for Republicans, or good for the country.  I know politics is fierce.  It’s bare-knuckled.  It’s theatrical.  And last night’s debate had its fair share of drama. 

    But there are so many issues worthy of a national discussion that I’m mystified why debate moderators don’t ask better questions, bigger questions, more meaningful questions that will give us a better chance to glimpse the intellectual curiosity and readiness of those who would lead us and give us a sense of the kind of president any one of these candidates would be.

    Now, I realize that complaining about debate moderators is almost as ancient a past-time as complaining about referees in sports.  So I went and pulled the debate transcripts of a few presidential debates over the last 60 years to see if I was just particularly curmudgeonly during last night’s debate or if, in fact, we can do better. 

    Let’s just take one example: the final Nixon-Kennedy debate from October 21, 1960. 

    The very first question was to Vice President Nixon from radio newsman Frank Singiser.  He asked about U.S.-Cuba relations and, specifically, “in what important respects do you feel there are differences between you, and why do you believe your policy is better for the peace and security of the United States and the Western Hemisphere.”

    Tonight, in contrast, the moderator played gotcha with Senator Amy Klobuchar over her inability to recall the name of Mexico’s president in an interview last week.  How much more meaningful would it have been if the moderator had asked candidates about their respective plans for “the peace and security of the United States and [its neighbors in the] Western Hemisphere?”  That might have inspired a conversation about border security, international engagement, the value of diplomacy, trade, and international aid.  It might have given us insight into how each of the candidates would represent the United States on the world stage. 

    In 1960, the ABC network’s John Edwards asked the first question to Senator Kennedy.  He wanted to know who Kennedy would appoint to his cabinet.  Both Kennedy and Nixon refused, wisely, to put forward names in the midst of a campaign.  Still, a similar question asked tonight might have drawn a contrast with the current president who has said he favors so-called “acting” members of his cabinet because they give him greater independence from congressional oversight.  On a day when President Trump named his new, acting Director of National Intelligence, this question could have provided key insights about how the field of Democrats would approach building their cabinet and explore their relative respect for the Senate’s Constitutional roll in confirming cabinet secretaries.

    When NBC’s John Chancellor asked his first question of the debate in 1960, it was about how the United States would respond to a resumption of nuclear testing by the Soviet Union.  In 1960, this was an urgent issue, and both candidates responded with a serious reflection about the need for negotiation with the Soviets.  Today we face a wealth of urgent issues.  Consider China’s growing power around the world. While the United States has been fighting costly wars since 2001, China has been quietly expanding power, resources, and relationships across Asia, Europe, and Africa.  Or consider the transformational potential of technology—whether we’re talking about genetic engineering, robots, or artificial intelligence.  We should care more about the next president’s familiarity with these issues and whether they are prepared to offer thoughtful leadership on complex and potentially dangerous issues than with the number of homes any candidate owns.

    This is going to be a long, primary fight and there will be many more presidential debates in this cycle.  We need the moderators asking questions on these stages to focus on things that really matter and not lose us in the noise of personal attacks.

  • http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/online/tellingstories/

    Our Republic is on the Ballot

    The most important player in a republic—including ours—is the citizen. 

    From our consent, leaders derive the authority to govern: to raise taxes, to declare war, to enforce laws and treaties, and to do all the things we expect of government.  From the ranks of citizens, our government draws its judges, its soldiers, its officials at every level—including our representatives in the House and Senate as well as the White House.  There is no hereditary class of leaders in the American tradition.

    In the United States, it is because our government is, as Lincoln put it, “of the people,” and “by the people,” that it is also “for the people.”  The U.S. government exists to protect our rights, to pursue our commonwealth, our shared progress, and our societal growth.  In a well-functioning republic, government does not serve the interests of any individual leader or faction, but the interests of all citizens.  We can have incredibly spirited debates about what “the interests of all citizens” might be, but historically we have understood that it extended far beyond the narrow interests of current political leaders.

    Now, just a week after Senate Republicans blocked the conviction of President Trump in his impeachment trial, we see the Executive Branch not engaged in the pursuit of the public good, but in a narrow prosecution of the president’s personal interests.  We’re witnessing a purge of executive branch personnel who testified against the president.  We’re seeing nominations of qualified Americans withdrawn from consideration in the Senate because they might be questioned about the president’s actions in Ukraine.  We’re witnessing—in broad day-light—presidential interference in the criminal prosecutions of his friends and supporters. 

    This is not normal. 

    The president drives this agenda with a kind of open information warfare against the American public.  He attacks, again and again, any news source that doesn’t push a narrative favorable to him as “fake news.”  He floods the information space with distractions and misdirection.  He uses a technique known as “reflexive control,” to illicit narratives and questions that serve his own purposes.  (The Hunter Biden story was baseless, but it got reporters all over the country to report on an allegation of corruption involving the Biden family.  The truth didn’t matter, the allegation did, and Joe Biden has suffered in the polls as a result.) Finally, the president relies on the “illusory truth effect”—in short, if someone repeats a claim again and again, it will gain an audience who accept it as gospel truth.  That’s why the president so often repeats short-hand phrases like “the witch-hunt” to describe the Mueller investigation, or “socialists” to describe Democrats; and uses nicknames like “Shifty Schiff,” or “Nervous Nancy” to diminish his opponents.  He’s telling a story that might not be believable at first blush, but over time his claims gain ascendency through the simple process of repetition.

    But more than his critics in Congress, the president must respect the American electorate—the citizen, because it is we, the people, who will decide, ultimately, whether he remains in office a year from now.  We will decide if we’re okay with his intervention for personal gain in criminal prosecutions, with his interference in the prosecution of war crimes, or with his attacks on the professionals in the U.S. intelligence community, the FBI, and the Department of Defense. Collectively, citizens will be the judge and jury of this presidency.

    For me, the central question in the 2020 election is which candidate will best preserve and defend the Constitution of the United State of America.  The republic we love is on the ballot and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

  • Our North Star

    In May of 1952, John Foster Dulles, the man who would become Secretary of State to President Dwight Eisenhower, published an article in Life magazine titled “A Policy of Boldness.”  It was both a critique of the Truman administration’s conduct of foreign policy and a description of the establishment views of the Republican party as it sought to regain the White House for the first time in two decades. 

    I was drawn back to that article today as I reflected on the events of the week: the conclusion of the president’s impeachment trial—including Senator Mitt Romney’s principled vote, the State of the Union address, and the Iowa Caucasus. 

    In the article, Dulles called attention to “three truths:”

    1. In politics, “the dynamic prevails over the static.”
    2. “Nonmaterial forces are more powerful than those that are merely material.”
    3. There is a natural moral law which determine success and failure over the long-term in all endeavors.

    Dulles urged the United States to “let these truths work in and through us.  We should be dynamic; we should use ideas as weapons; and these ideas should conform to moral principles.”

    Dulles was prescribing a strategy to confront the Soviet Union in cold war, but his advice still resonates 70 years later—particularly after the events of this week and as we look to the political calendar ahead in 2020.

    One of the sharpest contrasts between candidates Trump and Clinton in 2016 was in the amount of dynamism each projected.  Merely in terms of tone and tenor, Clinton embodied competence, control, and intention.  Trump was chaos channeled into politics, a WWE-event with electoral consequences.  The free-wheeling nature of his campaign events served to communicate that change was coming in a way that well-crafted policy speeches or fact-sheets never could.  In Trump’s case, his dynamism was lashed to a simple mantra “Make America Great Again,” hearkening to a great national project of renewal.  When candidate Trump would make outlandish claims and Democrats were quick to point out his flaws, it communicated not better preparation on the part of Secretary Clinton, but stasis—that Democrats wouldn’t make big changes.  For a restless electorate, Trump’s dynamism was more appealing than the competence offered by the Democratic standard-bearer.  The crop of 2020 Democrats would be wise to heed this lesson.

    Dulles reminded us that politics doesn’t just operate on the level of policies—it cries out for something bigger beyond the material world.  In the cold war that meant our defenses required more than tanks and bombing planes, but also animating ideas, values, spirituality, and a belief that in the long-run, a moral code would prevail. 

    After the events of this week, a lot of Americans are asking whether a moral code still matters in American politics.  In short, it does—especially with those who understand and appreciate the heroic defense of the republic from Representative Adam Schiff and Senator Mitt Romney.  Both men spoke to ideals, values, and principles that are beyond reproach.  History will judge them well. 

    In the here and the now, President Trump’s reelection campaign is going to talk about the economy, the stock-market, the value of our retirement accounts, and dangle the possibility of further tax cuts.  They will buttress these materialistic arguments with scare tactics about immigrants and Godless, socialist Democrats.  The question I struggle with is whether Democrats will respond with fact-checking and wonky policy proposals, of if they will challenge Americans to summon our better angels.

    Ultimately, the seeds of a new political awakening are going to be found in the ideas and values that have sustained the republic for 230 years. Democracy, freedom, civil liberties, checks and balances, and the rule of law are not anachronisms, they are the life-blood of the American experiment in self-government. They have proven to be our most valuable asset internationally, and our north-star in our darkest moments domestically. 

    Those ideas and values—the birthright of every American and the envy of the world—will lead us home.

  • Life’s Brevity, Uncertainty, and Legacy

    On Monday, the Senate Chaplain Rear Admiral Barry Black, USN (Ret.) opened the Senate impeachment trial with a moment of remembrance for Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and the other souls lost in the helicopter crash last weekend in Los Angeles.  He said, “As millions mourn the deaths of Kobe and Gianna Bryant, and those who died with them, we think about life’s brevity, uncertainty, and legacy. Remind us that we all have a limited time on Earth to leave the world better than we found it.”

    “Life’s brevity, uncertainty, and legacy.”

    This country’s founders understood the brevity, uncertainty, and legacy of life.  That’s why they created a constitutional system predicated on the rule of law and not the success or merit of one man or one family. That’s why in the earliest days of the republic, the central theme of American foreign policy was to show the world that a republic could endure.  That’s why for 231 years, patriots of every partisan stripe have understood that the success of politicians and parties can be brief and uncertain, but our collective legacy is the preservation of the Constitution.

    Now, for the first time in my adult life, serious people are worried about the ability of the republic to endure. Extremists talk openly about civil war should the president be removed from office or lose an election. The president’s defenders even argue from the well of the Senate that a president can undertake any action that benefits him– or her-self personally, if the president believes his own fortunes are the nation’s fortunes.

    In these broadsides, I see real peril to the Constitution.

    In Federalist 68, Hamilton warned of “cabal, intrigue and corruption” as the “most deadly adversaries of republican government.” In the event of wrong-doing, the president, Hamilton assured us in Federalist 69, could be impeached and removed from office, in stark contrast to “The person of the king of Great Britain [who] is sacred and inviolable; there is no constitutional tribunal to which he is amenable; no punishment to which he can be subjected without involving the crisis of national revolution.”

    Yet, here we are in January of 2020, and the president’s defenders are making just that argument: that the president can do no wrong; that no tribunal can touch him; that to even consider the prospect of removal from office is to invite violence in our streets.

    This is a darkness that the founders would have found familiar.  Victors in political revolution, they drew revolutionary fervor from unchecked royal authority, and they designed a constitutional system to prevent its rise in the United States. Preserving that order has long been the labor of patriots. 

    It still is.

    As long as there has been a United States of America, life has been brief and uncertain.  The fortunes of the nation and its citizens have risen and fallen.  We’ve been  beset by civil war and world wars, we’ve navigated humanity’s development of technology that could eradicate all human life, and we fought to grant the blessings of liberty to all of our citizens.  The one constant, the one enduring feature of American life over all those years, the real legacy of the founders was not the success of the Federalists or the Whigs; it was the Constitution.

    In 50 or 100 years, whether Donald Trump was removed from office in 2020 will be less important than whether we preserved the Constitution and the system of government it describes.  That’s the legacy this generation will be judged on, just as surely as we have judged every generation before.

  • We’re All on Trial

    At some point in my misspent youth, I discovered the magic of films from Hollywood’s golden era. Somewhere between Academy Award winners like “Casablanca” and “The Best Years of our Lives,” I found a wartime musical with a thin story about a young soldier who met starlet Joan Leslie at the famed Hollywood Canteen.

    For people who might not know it, the Hollywood Canteen was an actual nightclub for service members during World War II.  Hollywood royalty of the era like Bette Davis and John Garfield helped organize all the guilds and unions of the film industry to create and support the club, while stars would volunteer as hosts and hostesses, and—legend has it—even dishwashers.

    The Warner Bros. musical “Hollywood Canteen” features a soundtrack stacked with giants from the era: the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, the Andrews Sisters, the Golden Gate Quartet, Roy Rogers, and more.  Some of the songs tied into the romance on the screen, others (like “You Can Always Tell a Yank“) were simple tributes to the troops, an homage paid by Hollywood to the men fighting the war. 

    Even then, as a young history student, I was fascinated by popular filmmaking during the war.  Film after film featured a scene where one of the main characters would articulate a simple reason for fighting World War II.  In “Hollywood Canteen,” it was explained in terms of a wounded soldier from Brooklyn being able to dance with Hollywood royalty.  In the film’s telling that was the essence of democracy—the great and the good were no different than the rest of us, everyone was equal, and that was something worth fighting for.

    Of course, there was myth-making in the film, a sanitized version of America that ignored women’s contribution to the war effort, systematic racism in the U.S. military and across society, and a host of other sins.  But there are times when those myths serve an important purpose: to remind us of our ideals, even when we fall short of them.

    I watched as much of the impeachment proceedings as work and family obligations would allow this week, and I’m ready for a little escapism.  I’m ready for a reminder about America’s ideals, about a return to national unity, about the celebration of something bigger than ourselves. 

    That’s not to say we don’t need to go through this.  In fact, in trying to hold a president accountable, Congress is living up to the charge handed down to us by our founders.  There is something noble and right in that.

    But I’m left with a belief that it’s not just the president who is on trial, it’s all of us.  Our system of separated powers is on trial: can a co-equal branch of government hold a president accountable?  Our media is on trial: can it faithfully convey hours and hours of detailed testimony in a way that busy Americans will be able to digest?  Our ability to think for ourselves is on trial: will we, as citizens in this great republic, take the time to move beyond sound bites and consider the evidence ourselves, or will we take sanctuary in our familiar intellectual and political bunkers?  Democracy—even reduced to that simple definition offered in “Hollywood Canteen,” that the rich and the powerful are as accountable as you and me—is on trial, too.

    It’s not just the president with a lot at stake in this impeachment trial. We as Americans have a lot at stake, too, including the myths and ideals that have served as guide-stars in the American experience and as an inspiration around the world.

  • It’s Up to Us

    The most important player in a republic like ours isn’t the president, it isn’t the speaker of the House, and it isn’t the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court.  It’s the citizen.  The citizen.  Whether she lives in a rural, farming community, or if he’s riding the subway to work in a skyscraper, each of us possesses a spark of sovereignty that collectively determines the direction of the nation.

    Unfortunately, our ability to choose our own course is under attack.  It has been for several years.  In the fall of 2017, my colleague Mark Jacobson and I delivered a report describing the threat posed by Russia’s attacks against American democracy.  We described a well-funded and sophisticated strategy that sought to capitalize on America’s own internal divisions in order to increase the Russian government’s freedom to act at home and abroad.

    The truth is, as a nation, we have not done nearly enough to respond to this threat.  That reality has meaning for 2020 and it will have meaning as we look ahead to future elections.  Let me explain.

    In 2017, we called for several specific actions—some requiring Congress to act, others focused on the administration, and others requiring contributions from across American society.  In particular, we called for:

    • bipartisan efforts to improve the public’s understanding of the threat;
    • introspection in America’s newsrooms about reporting on stolen private communications;
    • regulation of social media so that political ads and sponsored content are clearly identified;
    • organizational changes in the White House and in the intelligence community to deal with this threat;
    • action by Congress to eliminate so-called “dark money” in American politics, requiring greater transparency by companies operating in the United States, and forcing state-sponsored media, like Russia’s RT and Sputnik, to reveal the sources of their funding; and
    • investment in the American people, including the scholars and journalists who will educate the rest of the public about this threat while simultaneously contributing to improved civic and information literacy.

    In truth, the threat didn’t go away after 2016.  Just this week we learned that Russian military intelligence—in fact, the same unit responsible for the attacks on American political leaders and parties in 2016—has been trying to hack the computer network of Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company at the heart of President Trump’s impeachment.

    We have to ask ourselves, what were the Russians trying to steal?  And if they leaked what they stole, would U.S. news outlets be more discerning and exercise greater discretion than they exhibited in 2016?  I’m doubtful.

    The danger I worry about is that American politics—with unfettered free speech, dark money pouring in from unknown sources, and shell companies masking foreign participation—could become the battleground for great power competition.  We know the Russians are active.  What’s to keep the Chinese out?  Or the Iranians?  Once states internalize that they can benefit from lawlessness in American politics, the United States will cease being a super-power as our electoral politics becomes the battlefield for any state with the means to steal and spread information and disinformation. 

    That’s not hyperbole.  It is happening. 

    The most beautiful thing about American politics is the free exchange of ideas.  We want candidates to say what they think about China’s growing assertiveness without worrying that China might attack their campaign.  We want candidates to call out Russia’s aggression in Ukraine without worrying that Russian political warfare might be used against them.  We want American voices in our elections, not foreign money and not foreign influence.

    Typically, we look to government to provide the defense of the republic, to protect us as citizens, and to organize the forces of freedom to defend our political system and way of life.  Unfortunately, although the House has passed a bevy of bills to address many of these issues, the Senate has failed to act on any of them.  The administration, despite some important actions in the intelligence community, is no better.  What’s left to defend the republic exists outside of government.

    In other words, it’s up to us, the American people—citizens—to defend our republic.  But, then again, it always has been.

  • 2020: Civic New Year Resolutions

    The start of the new year always means crowded gyms and a run on exercise gear.  I do it, too.  I have my list of resolutions, things I want to do better in the year ahead.  But as I thought about my resolutions for 2020, I went beyond the gym to focus on some broader civic resolutions I want to make real in my life this year.

    Make sure I participate in our democracy and help others to do the same.

    In case you haven’t heard, it’s an election year.  There are going to be presidential-nominating contests—either primaries or caucuses—in every state and territory of the union this year. Every contested local election will likely have primaries too.  We’ll vote for every member of the House of Representatives, and one-third of the members of the Senate. We can’t sit this out. 

    The most important player in a republic such as ours is the citizen, and among the citizen’s chief responsibilities is to participate in our democracy.  But we also know that voter suppression is a real thing.  It happens in the way states choose to purge inactive voters from their voter rolls and it happens through coordinated disinformation campaigns.  So in addition to voting, we can all lend our time and our energies to local efforts to get people registered to vote; to verify or correct our voter registration statuses and help our neighbors do the same; and we can help get people to the polls on election days.  I guarantee that you’ll love it and the country will be better for it.

    Read more long-form journalism and books.

    As a society, we don’t read enough.  As fascinating as social media can be, there’s nothing quite as efficient for communicating broad ideas and specific details as long-form writing, whether in newspapers, magazines, or in books.  One of my great pet-peeves as a professor is the growing tendency of students to cite whatever sources they find in the first page of their Google search.  I tell them to go to the library and find these bound piles of paper—a remarkable invention called ‘a book’—and read it.  When we tweet and retweet, we are stripping the nutrients from the public’s intellectual soil like a farmer who plants his field without giving it a chance to lie fallow.  Books require more patience and more time than social media, but they offer us an opportunity to go deeper, to not just read and react but to read and reflect.  I want to read more this year.

    Be a responsible purveyor of information.

    There are two parts to this.  First, I’m determined to pop my own social media bubble in 2020.  That doesn’t mean that all news sources are created equal and have the same amount of credibility.  But I want to make sure that I’m challenging myself and not simply falling prey to the appeal of confirmation bias—that’s the tendency we all have to seek out news and information that confirms what we already think and discount contrary evidence.

    Second, we need to engage in some critical thinking before we share things on social media.  In the modern media environment, we are not simply consumers of information, but also purveyors of information.  As a result, we all share a responsibility to only spread information we have real confidence in—not just stories that confirm our preferred narratives.  (This is also how we, as citizens, can contribute to defeating foreign disinformation in our politics, too.)

    Don’t assume people who think differently from me are motivated by selfishness or that my side is motivated solely by virtue.

    We tend to operate these days with a winner-take-all mindset.  We engage on social media to beat down other voices.  No one ever goes on Twitter to change their mind.  With that comes a tendency to see our political opposites as flawed or less intelligent or otherwise corrupted in some way.  We also fall prey to the temptation to see our “own side” as motivated only by virtue.  The American republic needs all of us to think for ourselves, to value truth and real debate, and to keep an open mind in our approach to public policy questions. 

    Be kind.

    One of my favorite fictional characters is George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  Every year I tell myself I want to be more like George Bailey.  I want to prioritize the people in my life over my own selfish interests.  As we look ahead to the political debates of the coming election year, I hope that we will remember that if we are going to preserve this republic, we will need to see our fellow citizens not as votes to win or defeat, but as human beings with real needs and real interests beyond any specific election.  So in our engagements, in our tweets, in our conversations, we should try, above all else, to be kind, seek common ground, and remember that no matter what happens on election day 2020, we’re all in this together.

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  • The Enlightenment is at Stake, Too

    Earlier this week, a friend of mine sent me an article from Inc. magazine predicting that in 2020 liberal arts degrees would be popular among hiring managers.  The basic argument is that technology-heavy industries will need fewer and fewer coders as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning take those jobs first.  The expectation is that AI may be able to write computer programs, but it will have a hard time replacing human creativity and human insight.

    If you’ve spent any time thinking about higher education in the last 20 years, you’ve had to grapple with the tension between the humanities and STEM fields.  Since the Great Recession (2008), there has been a substantial decline in the number of students studying in liberal arts majors.  Even in primary schools, where high-stakes testing tells you which skills elected officials value most, traditional liberal arts fields like history are simply not tested.

    To be honest, however, I find articles about hiring managers finding renewed value in liberal arts degrees troublesome.  On the one hand, I’m grateful for the support, but, on the other hand, the value of a liberal arts education can’t be assessed simply by examining the hiring rates of its graduates. 

    A liberal arts education is an education for life. It’s an education for citizens in a free society predicated on the belief that the world can be understood, as John Locke argued, through human reason and experience.

    My concern in watching the third impeachment proceedings of my lifetime is that the defense of the president is predicated on a repudiation of the Enlightenment faith in knowable facts and the potential of human reason.  Ambassador Taylor, Colonel Vindman, and Ambassador Sondland all served at the pleasure of the president and all knew the president was withholding military aid to Ukraine in order to extract a political favor from the country’s leadership.  Yet the president and his defenders dismiss those voices as mere opinions.  They tell people to read a memo of a call between President Trump and President Zelensky in which the American president responds to a request for military assistance by asking for “a favor, though,” and then tells us to believe there was no quid pro quo, no bribery, no extortion. 

    In essence, the president and his defenders are demanding that we ignore what evidence and reason tell us in order blindly accept a denial not supported by the facts available to us.  In short, are we going to believe our own damn, lying eyes or the president?

    We’re nearing the end of the semester at Salve Regina University and my students are completing our survey of the history of globalization.  We trace the development of human history and the experience of trade and exchange from the dawn of man until today.  Until just about 500 years ago, economic wealth and technological achievement was centered in Asia.  Two events changed that.  The first was the European discovery of the Americas and the extraction of its mineral wealth to Europe.  (Literally, Europe took more gold and silver from the America’s in the 50 years after 1492 than had existed in Europe previously.)  With that new wealth emerged the second event: the scientific revolution that paved the way for the Enlightenment in Europe and our essential understanding that through observation and reason we can know the world around us.

    I don’t want to overstate it, but watching the GOP’s defense of the President feels like more is at stake than even just our Constitutional order. At stake is the legacy of the Enlightenment: a belief that humanity’s greatest asset is its ability to use reason to govern itself.

  • 30 Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall

    Last weekend, I found myself in my kitchen cooking dinner and humming a song from decades ago.  The German rock band “Scorpions” had a global hit in the song “Wind of Change” that may be my favorite “end of the Cold War” song.  I searched for the music video on my phone, and as I watched it, I was reminded that November 9th marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

    I was a Freshman at Providence College in 1989, basking in the autumn sun and devouring The New York Times each day as events spun out.  Long before social media, we relied on newspapers of record and broadcast news for understanding events.  And these were historic events. November 9, 1989, belongs in the same breath as July 4, 1776, and July 14, 1789: it signals an epochal shift, one moment in a long history that serves as our reference point for “before” and “after.”

    I texted a couple of friends the link to “Wind of Change” while I cooked, and we began slinging song titles back and forth—morphing from “end of the Cold War” to simply “Cold War” songs.

    In the Cold War classic “99 Red Balloons,” Nena, a West German artist, spun a haunting fantasy of the outbreak of war and its aftermath. It’s lyric, “This is what we’ve waited for/This is it, boys, this is war. . . .” stands in sharp contrast to the triumph and sense of relief of Jesus Jones just a few years later in “Right Here, Right Now,” when he boasted “I was alive and I waited, waited//I was alive and I waited for this. . . .” Jones was singing about the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of communism, and the hope we all felt that the world was going to be better, safer after the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

    Other artists bookend that period in popular music, too.  In 1985, Sting sang “Russians,” capturing the existential fears of many in Europe who felt trapped between the two superpowers.  He asked how to protect his children from nuclear war before noting the shared humanity of people on both sides of the struggle, singing “We share the same biology//Regardless of ideology//What might save us me and you//Is if the Russians love their children too.”  By 1989, Billy Joel was singing about the people on either side of the Cold War, too, not based on hope and fear, but based on first-hand knowledge.  In 1987, when he became the first major, Western rock star to tour the Soviet Union, Joel met a circus performer who, as Joel put it in “Leningrad” found “his greatest happiness. . . . in making Russian children glad.” More than Sting had hoped for just four years earlier, the song ends with Joel proclaiming that the Russians don’t just love their own children: “He made my daughter laugh, then we embraced//We never knew what friends we had//Until we came to Leningrad.”

    I remember the Cold War fears of the mid-1980s.  I remember President Reagan warning of the “Evil Empire.”  I remember watching “The Day After” in 1983 and having nightmares about nuclear weapons falling in my backyard.  No one dared believe that the Cold War would end peacefully or quickly.  It was still a “long, twilight struggle.”

    There was a nostalgia for the Cold War among my cohort of young, national security analysts in the 1990s in Washington.  As the world grew increasingly complex, the relative simplicity and familiarity of the Cold War looked comfortable in retrospect.  After 9/11, that sentiment reached its zenith.

    But the Cold War was a dark period in human history.  Nations developed the capacity to wipe humanity from existence and, in the face of that threat, artists gave voice to fears and anxieties, and—on rare occasions—hope. 

    Against incredibly long odds, those hopes were fulfilled 30 years ago this weekend.  We would do well to remember the fear that preceded it and the things that actually contributed to the West’s success: the universal desire for freedom; the appeal of democracy; the strength of free nations acting in alliance; and the belief that walls between people should be torn down.