Before You Start Freaking Out
Big disclaimer: this post WILL be a tad bit off-topic. I had a hard time picking something I really resonated with among the possible topics in the Seventeen Moments, BUT this article about the “detente” period in the late 60s and 70s got the ball rolling for me.
The Detente Period was a time, mainly in the 70s, of little tension than normal between the Soviets and the U.S. due to some strategic negotiations by Nixon with Brezhnev and vice versa. The most notable topic of this era was the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (later nicknamed ‘START’ by President Ronald Reagan) which was largely an informal promise between the two nations to start arms reduction. Here’s a helpful Britannica article on the subject.
The atmosphere of this time was primarily described as a “relaxation” of competition with the U.S. and Soviets, but it got me wondering: was this really such a “relaxing” time? Hence why this is going to be slightly out of line with the current time period we’re learning about, which is early Brezhnev. My research revolves mainly around the late Brezhnev into the Gorbachev, but since this is my last blog post I thought I’d try and come full circle with what we’re probably going to talk about in the next couple of weeks.
It Starts With an Earthquake
It didn’t start with an earthquake, but I thought it sounded like a cool title that comes directly from the lyrics. Oh well, hit or miss.
Anyway, this article IS about the song. I’m going to attempt to analyze and showcase the Cold War influences that this song represents using various video sources and primary knowledge, so I’m terribly sorry to say I didn’t use the Current Digest (more boos from Professor Nelson, again I’m sorry).
This famous R.E.M. anthem is in fact not wholly about the Cold War with the Soviets, but more so about the Iran-Contra Affair around the time of release under the Reagan Administration. However, there are multiple references to Cold War history and namedropping of various celebrities from the era, such as the Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev himself . . . and a lot of Lenny Bruce for some reason.
I picked this song in particular as a study of Cold War attitudes of the general populace because of the enormous irony within the chorus: “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine”. Interesting. It’s the end of the world, but you feel fine? Let’s take a look at what this means through the various lyrical passages.
Polyphonic is indeed not an attempt at a cool, quirky title, but instead the name of a YouTuber that I drew great inspiration from for this topic. He is a video essayist that makes online content mainly about music and pop culture, and I’ve found his videos on Rage Against the Machine and System Of A Down to be some of my favorites. He also has a whole series taking a deep dive into the entire “Dark Side of the Moon” album by Pink Floyd that is currently in progress and is also VERY good. If you have nothing else to watch during quarantine I highly recommend his work!
The key takeaways from the breakdown can be summarized below:
Contrast between “left of west” and “book burning” Soviets and the “vitriolic, patriotic” U.S. (both quotes being actual lyrics in the song).
Compares ironic attitude of Michael Stipe in 1987 to the current COVID-19 pandemic today, that the biggest response to this “apocalyptic” event are internet memes and a similar “I feel fine” attitude.
This “I feel fine” attitude is pretty much the thesis of this post. Despite being in the midst of some of the tensest times in modern history, where two of the most powerful entities in human history have access to the most powerful weapons ever conceived and could decimate one another in a matter of days, everything among the general zeitgeist seemed to be “fine”. And even despite stating various quarrels with the Reagan government and overall concerns with society at large, Stipe himself has no real response or recommendations for change.
This is similar to our current situation as well. Although there are many fingers pointing many different directions, no one has any correct information to make a justified opinion on the subject of COVID-19, and instead, we just end up cannibalizing each other’s thoughts to try and arrive at a comforting solution. And that’s the thing, no one has a solution yet. If we did, this thing would’ve been over weeks ago. The best we can do as a society right now is to stay home and make memes, and that’s about all we’ve got. Let the scientists and essential workers handle this for now, we all can jump back in when the time is right.
*steps down from soapbox*
Alright, that’s out of the way. Sorry about that!
A Crash Course on the Cold War
I love this channel. Ever since we were “forced” to watch it in my high school World History class, I haven’t been able to shake the endless knowledge this platform provides. They have series on anything under the Sun history-wise, such as general World History, U.S. History, History of Science, Film History, History of Games, Mythology, and their newest venture into European History.
One particular video from the new series came out maybe a week ago entitled “Post-War Rebuilding and the Cold War” and gave me the historical context needed to tackle a topic such as this. The main points of the video can be broken down like this:
Cold War began with the Western fear of Soviet takeover, which was entirely in the realm of possibility since Europe was absolutely crippled due to WWII.
Further tension built during Berlin Blockade, “Operation Vittles”.
Green shares perspective of growing up during the Cold War, practicing nuclear fallout drills as soon as elementary school (same goes for my parents, and probably many of yours as well).
Stalin didn’t set a good precedent for communism due to the early Purges and the constant testing and production of atomic bombs.
One of the most interesting points of the video were the similarities between the U.S. and Soviet Union during the time. For example, the Americans set up a radio program called “Voice of America” to issue news and possible misinformation about the Soviets, whereas the Russians did almost exactly that as well. The popular James Bond wasn’t the only one of his kind, as the Russian author Yulian Simyonov developed a similar character named Max Otto von Stierlitz.
Now that we have a base-level understanding of why these times were so difficult, let’s dive into some more lyrics!
A Tournament of Lies
“A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies” – perfectly encapsulates the ending to the Cold War.
A lot, a lot, a LOT of misinformation and hollow promises between the superpowers. Neither side believed in the things the other were saying. Decades of prior missteps informed both sides of their decisions (answers one of the Topic Questions), thus creating a penultimate bottleneck in foreign policy.
These lyrics highlight specifically the short relationship between Reagan and Brezhnev, which is a huge contrast to the bond Reagan and Gorbachev would create. Gorbareagan . . . or maybe Reagachev? I don’t know, but these peculiar bedfellows ended up having possibly the best relationship among a U.S. president and Soviet premier one could ask for. Mikhail even attended Ronald’s funeral. How sweet.
Solutions, Alternatives, Decline
“Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives, and I decline” – emblematic of Reagachev’s rocky beginning.
Negotiations during the Cold War weren’t easy. As previously mentioned, the closest the two sides came to an agreement were the START talks, but even those were held over a period of two decades and even persisted past the lifetime of the Soviet Union. Neither side were willing to comply with the terms of the other, because both were terribly scared of each other. This is why we had a Cold War in the first place.
What was held in high regard among Russian foreign policy with the U.S. was Reagan’s beloved SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) program. This program, aptly named “Star Wars”, was a possible initiative proposed by President Reagan of putting air defense satellites in space to protect against missile attacks. This, of course, in the 80s was impossible. Nowadays, this is entirely within the realm of possibility, and we actually do now have something similar in the Space Force that President Trump christened towards the end of last year. Moral of the story: Reagan wasn’t willing to negotiate the SDI, which informed the Soviets on a lot of their foreign policy decisions. Gorbachev strictly named the SDI as the ground zero of agreement conflict, but Reagan deemed it too important an idea to give up. Thus, we get the above songwriting.
Birthday Parties, Cheesecake, Jelly Beans . . . *BOOM*
“Birthday party, cheesecake, jelly bean, boom!” – one of these things is not like the other . . .
What the f*** does the “boom!” part mean? We’ve got some pretty pleasant nouns in there, like “birthday party”, “cheesecake”, and “jelly bean”, followed by an equally aggressive onomatopoeia: boom.
Well, the boom refers to something that isn’t very obvious. We all know about government nuclear launch codes and the running gag that the Big Man can push the button at any second and cause Nuclear Winter. Reagan carried around the launch codes and mechanism at all times, in a briefcase which he called his “football”. He took his football everywhere, just in case Gorbachev left him on “Read” for a minute too long then boom. This never happened, as we now know, but what a power move to carry around a “football” with you at all times, am I right?
And I Feel Fine
Just hold on ladies and gentlemen, we’re almost there. Time for me to wrap this thing up. About time, to be honest. I always go on way longer than intended in these posts.
Well, I feel fine. Do you? Yeah, I guess that is pretty normal, to feel “fine”. Which may be why R.E.M. felt the same way 33 years ago now. Amidst the tensest atmosphere known to human psychological history, with the world’s greatest superpowers, etc., people found a way to remain somewhat calm and find solace in as mundane of things as we do nowadays. For example, John Krasinski, aside from he and his wife’s film “A Quiet Place”, hasn’t been relevant since The Office closed set in 2013 yet he now probably has the most popular Internet show of today, “Some Good News”. It really is quite good, and not despite the name is quite some good news. Its relevance just proves my drawn-out point, that even in times of crisis and panic we can find refuge in the most regular of things such as a good show or movie. Because guess what, we don’t really have any control over these situations. What, do you think your grandma was going to just stop the Cold War all by herself? She’d stand up one day, fed up with those “dang Reds”, then go out and demand that it all be over? Preposterous. Just like now, we can’t stop what’s going on in the world, whatever it may be. The best we can do is say that everything will be fine and listen to some good music, maybe R.E.M. if you’d like. (not my thoughts, just the ultimate theme of the song)
No seriously, if you haven’t heard of this song or R.E.M. you might be a Soviet yourself! Try it out, give it a listen, and report back to me with your critiques in the comments below.
(this post was written early in the pandemic)