My Grandfather was in the engine room when the kamikaze began. Zero plane shrapnel sheered through the destroyer. South Pacific waters gushed inside. Naval protocol was to close the engine room hatch immediately to keep the ship from sinking more quickly, leaving other men trapped in the engine room. Fred should have been one of the other men. He was unconscious after an engine safety valve exploded into his neck.
World War II was the coming out party for the United States of America upon the world stage. America was a mere upstart (albeit a very productive one) in the eyes of Europe on the eve of the continent’s Civil War. Some European historians sniff that America was simply fresh legs at the tail end of a marathon war. That nearly 70% of Nazi fatalities came at the hands of the Soviets and Russian Winter. They are forgetful. Before D-Day, America kept the Allies afloat with its unprecedented manufacturing in the European theater, while withstanding the Pearl Harbor ambush and the Japanese Empire in the Pacific. Sixty million deaths, and two atomic bombs later, the world was split between America and the Soviet Union.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki irrevocably changed the world. Humanity now had the weapon to destroy itself within hours. It paved the way for an arsenal you wish mankind could un-invent. But let history bear witness. During the four-year stretch before the Soviet Union joined America in the Nuclear Club, the U.S. rained down not missiles and mortar, but Hershey chocolate bars and dollars to rebuild Europe.
Winston Churchill memorialized our WWII veterans most aptly when he said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Today, World War II is best remembered by the director of “Jaws”. Steven Spielberg immortalized U.S. soldiers in all their gritty realism for the screen. First in “Empire Of The Sun” before teaming up Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan”, and two HBO ten-part miniseries: “Band of Brothers”, and “The Pacific” (a.k.a. Band of Brothers On Water).
NBC’s grandfather Tom Brokaw throatily hails our grandparents, our parents’ parents, as the “Greatest Generation”. Us Millenials tend to admire our grandparents the most. It’s not hard to see why. Our grandparents were born into the Roaring 1920s. They languished through the Great Depression before years of war overseas battling Jew-hating madmen. Sound vaguely familiar?
The Cold War
Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev was probably staring at a box of Corn Flakes when he realized the Cold War was lost. Then a box of Cheerios. Then Wheaties. If the U.S. could produce fifty different cereals and still manufacture hundreds of nukes, Khrushchev mused his Soviets didn’t stand a chance. Khrushchev didn’t say this at the time, of course. He smiled for the cameras with President Eisenhower. He wolfed down his first American hot dog and quipped, “We have beaten you to the moon, but you have beaten us in sausage making.” But deep down Khrushchev knew.
The 1959 grocery store visit came nine years after the Soviets detonated an atomic bomb of their own. Since then major wars between the two Superpowers had truly become MAD (mutually assured destruction). As much as the White House loathed the Kremlin, and vice versa, the twin Superpowers enjoyed human existence more. Both sides remembered Albert Einstein’s line all too well, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
But this didn’t make the specter of nuclear apocalypse any less terrifying. Some of our parents had nuclear bomb drills in elementary school. In the “Duck and Cover” drill, Bert the Turtle and teachers instructed my mom she could take shelter from a Manhattan atomic blast under her wooden desk. (Today, NYPD police officers sometimes check my backpack before I take the Subway.)
The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States became a war fought by a) proxy and b) consumer standard of living. T’was the rapid rise and fall of oil prices—not Rocky or Ronald Reagan’s bravado—that truly felled the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the United States was cursed with thousands of gratuitous nuclear missiles and the shadow of Vietnam.
The one reassuring real-politik since the Soviet blast was mass world war became too destructive and expensive. The bottom line… was the bottom line. Pulitzer Prize winning Thomas Friedman served up the Golden Arches Theory: no two countries with a McDonald’s have ever been at war with each other.
The Cold War was the first and longest (1945-1989) economic war. But it wasn’t the last. There have actually been numerous wars fought on the economic battlefield since 1945. Bankers and lawyers are these wars’ foot-soldiers. Gordon Gecko’s “Greed is good”, not “Be all you can be” is the creed. Japan and the United States waged war during the 1980s and 1990s. The prized jewels this time were not Pacific islands or commonwealths but billion dollar corporations (Toyota, Coca Cola). A real estate bubble left-hook and crony capitalism haymaker KO’d Japan into a Lost Decade. And a larger foe entered the ring: China.
It is a battle of the titans. East versus West. A resurgent ancient power pitted against a fading prodigy. Dueling ideologies of Communism-Capitalism versus Capitalism-Capitalism. Timothy Geithner and Fred Bernanke are our generals, by day. Chinese hackers break into Google accounts and both sides scan for national electric grid weak-points, by night. The monthly China-USA trade deficit demarcates our ever-changing tide of war. We bombarded China in recent years by manufacturing—not bullets—but trillions of dollars out of thin air. Meanwhile, the floating yuan tick-tocks as China’s time bomb.
The irony is we can’t afford any outcome but a split-decision. On the American side, the WMDs did go off — in New York City. But they were the ones Warren Buffett warned us about, not President George W. Bush. They were the ones concocted, not in bunkers outside Baghdad, but in AIG and Citi boardrooms throughout midtown Manhattan. Built not out of yellow cake but of junky CDOs, unbridled derivatives, and money our homes weren’t worth. America is still digging out and cannot survive a Chinese economic Winter. We cannot afford for China to stop hoarding our greatly devalued dollar (See: TARP, Stimulus Package, Health Care Reform). On the other side, China has a rapidly aging population the government will not able to support if American consumers stop buying beyond their means. Economists watch with baited breathe as China tries to gently squeeze out its real estate bubble.
Internationally, China has quietly bought up vast swathes of Africa and the Middle East. Meanwhile, the U.S. commits its blood and treasure to rebuild oil-rich nations like Iraq and ponders how to extricate itself from the Gordian knot of imperial overreach in Afghanistan, a.k.a. “The Graveyard of Empires”, a.k.a. our Vietnam. And Taiwan is the 21st Century’s answer to Cuba.
“War & Pizza Hut: Volume 2”, featuring Vietnam, The War On Terror, and The End Of The American Empire, premieres Thursday.