The Class of 1941 has an amazing resume. Our class lived through three totally different worlds, and in a sense at least touched three centuries. I will be discussing the larger global scene, but keep in mind the revolutionary changes in science and technology, high-energy physics, communications, bioengineering, medicine, warfare – changes our grandparents never even considered and our parents’ science fiction only speculated about.
How do we bridge three centuries? Well, we were born into a world full of remnants of the 19th century --including our parents. The existing international system had lasted over 1,000 years, and the culture was only beginning to change away from the Victorian past.
The 19th century featured rising and falling states, some of which were assertive in the traditional ancient model, such as Germany, Japan, and of course the United States, which pushed its way into the top tier with the Great White Fleet – the first assertion of America’s growing power and new global ambitions. War was a zero-sum game in which winners would dominate and crush losers. Germany's new assertiveness under Bismarck and eventually Hitler was in fact described by Thucydides when he wrote of the Athenians that they came into the world to take no rest and give no rest to others. All the players in the great international game had return addresses. The Class of 1941 was witness to and part of the explosive ending of an age and beginning of a new one. Many of us in uniform lived and died in the battle. We were both witnesses and eventually participants when the old geopolitics brought ruin to millions and hope to the world for a better way of doing things.
Out of that World War II wreckage came the second great storyline of our time in which our class lived – the Cold War. Communism was an ideology, but it took a giant step toward Hell with a bang. The North Korean communist government invaded South Korea with the blessing of both the Soviet Union and Communist China, and again the world changed for a half-century. For me, working in the State Department to help establish the United Nations and help manage the leftover conflicts, June 24, 1950 was a blazing red signal that we were in a dangerous new world order. Yes, the Soviet takeovers in Eastern Europe had been an earlier signal, but the weapons so far had been diplomatic. With a major war in Korea, our world overnight transformed its geometry of great powers into bi-polar, with only two that could be called superpowers.
It was a scary time. The Class of 1941 will remember when our children practiced meaningless nuclear protection by getting under the school desks, and when we followed JFK’s advice to build fallout shelters. It's not generally known that the first possible nuclear confrontation, however small-scale, involved possible hot pursuit of Soviet military aircraft across the border into Soviet airspace, with unforeseen consequences.
During the next 39 years, when the Class of 1941 was ascending the ladders of life and work, the new map would show two dominant powers and a whole bunch of bit players leaning on (or blackmailing) one or the other of the two nuclear giants for support. In return, the US government found itself backing some rather unsavory leaders because they were useful in the larger conflict. (Remember that FDR once said that he realized some of our allies were SOBs "but they're our SOBs.”) An eventually outsized nuclear arms race began between the US and the Soviet Union to the point where deliverable warheads in the thousands would be capable of pretty much ending life on earth. Fortunately, arms control began to be negotiated. Some of the stimulation came from a joint Harvard-MIT arms control seminar, co-chaired by future Nobel Prize winner Thomas Schelling and myself, that met throughout the 1960’s and into the 1970’s. Virtually everyone involved in this issue in Washington and Cambridge eventually took part. Although the theorizing about nuclear war began to sound like a lunatic version of Thomas Aquinas, some of the key ideas made their way into policy.
In the final years of the Cold War, during the 1980’s, there was still the danger of mutual misperception that could lead to catastrophe for everyone. In early 1980 I found the Soviets depressed at Reagan's victory and privately fearful about their own security. Meanwhile, some Washington hawks were warning against a Soviet nuclear attack. Then, in turn, a US buildup was assessed In Moscow to be part of possible US preparations for an attack on the USSR – precisely the scenario of mutual misperceptions that the whole arms-control effort had sought to avert. By the late 1980’s it was clear that the Soviet Union was crumbling: no food in the shops, disaffected bureaucrats, senior officials saying "the young don't trust us, we lied to them." But there were still some in Washington warning against a. Soviet attack. (Although I was there in various capacities eight times during that final 20 years, I was unaware of the secret crisis planning on both sides.)
In 1989, the Class of 1941 was beginning to enjoy, or at least contemplate, retirement. But once again, as the Berlin wall came down and the Soviet Union was dismantled, the global picture suddenly changed dramatically. Our century number three actually began in 2001 with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Or perhaps it really began a decade later in Cairo’s Tahir Square. Long suppressed forces were released, most recently in the Middle East with the so-called Arab Awakening/Arab Spring. The outcomes are still uncertain, but the Middle East will never be the same again for Americans. Once more the world is multi-polar and in flux. China has surpassed Japan as economic giant number two, and India is close behind, along with other rising powers such as Brazil. In a system dominated by globalization, the competition is intensely economic rather than military. Many of the key actors, both legitimate and terrorist, are not states and, in some cases, have no return addresses. The US is engaged in the painful process of reassessing long-held policy premises. Yes, the Class of 1941 has a long and fascinating resume.
Two relevant footnotes. First, one of the new techniques – social networking – was an unexpected game-changer in the Middle East uprisings. The newly dominant role of networks such as Facebook and Twitter turn out to be crucial mobilizers for a popular revolution. Second, the chattering classes are concerned that the US is in decline, an assertion that can be argued both ways. Like much else, the answer depends as much on attitude and belief as it does on statistical metrics, as I argued in an earlier blog post. In the meantime I recommend keeping in mind that old 19th century maxim that "God looks after drunks, little children, and the United States of America."