Before the Fall

Scott McLemee considers "The Americans" and a new book on childhood during the Cold War.

December 3, 2014

It was too prolonged for there to be any specific date, or dates, to mark it. But perhaps this is as good a time as any to mark the 25th anniversary of a process that started with the fall of the Berlin Wall in early November 1989 and reached a kind of peak with the events in Romania late that December.

The scale and pace of change were hard to process then, and difficult to remember now. Ceausescu had barely recovered from the shock of being heckled before he and his wife faced a firing squad. It was not how anyone expected the Cold War to end; insofar as we ever imagined it could end, the images that came to mind involved mutually assured destruction and nuclear winter.

A few years ago, Daniel T. Rogers characterized the intellectual history of the final decades of the 20th century as an “age of fracture” – an era in which the grand narratives and overarching conceptual schemata were constantly displaced by “piecemeal, context-driven, occasional, and… instrumental” ideas and perspectives in the humanities, social sciences, and public life. Fair enough; just try finding a vintage, unshattered paradigm these days. But a system of bipolar geopolitical hostilities prevailed throughout most of that period, and the contradictory structure of conflict-and-stasis seemed very durable, if not permanent.

Until, suddenly, it wasn’t. One smart and well-executed treatment of the world that came to an end a quarter-century ago is a recent television series called "The Americans," set in the early 1980s. The first season is now available in DVD and streaming video formats, and the second will be in two weeks, just in time for binge-viewing over the holidays.

"The Americans" is a Cold War spy drama as framed by the “secret life amidst suburban normality” subgenre, the basic tropes of which were inaugurated by "The Sopranos." In it, the Jenningses, a married couple, run a travel agency in Washington, where they live with their two early-adolescent kids. But they are actually KGB agents who entered the United States some 20 years earlier. They have operated from behind cover identities for so long that they blend right in, which makes them very effective in their covert work. While gathering information on the Strategic Defense Initiative, for example, they even get access to the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network -- aka ARPANET -- which allows communication between computers, or something.

The comparison shouldn’t be pushed too hard, but the paradox of the deep-cover agent is right out of John Le Carré: A divided identity makes for divided loyalties. At very least it puts considerable strain on whatever commitment the couple started out with, back in the late Khrushchev era. We get occasional flashbacks to their life as young Soviet citizens. With the onset of “Cold War II,” the motherland is imperiled once again (not only by the American arms buildup but also by the reflexes of KGB leadership at “the Center”) and the Jenningses have decidedly mixed feelings about raising kids under rampant consumerism, even if they’ve grown accustomed to it themselves.

The moral ambiguities and mixed motives build up nicely. Life as a couple, or in a family, proves to be more than a layer of the agents’ disguise: love is another demand on their already precarious balance of loyalties. Yet the real menace of thermonuclear showdown is always there, underneath it all. Some viewers will know that things came very close to the point of no return at least once during this period, during NATO’s “Able Archer” exercise in November 1983. Whatever sympathy the audience may develop toward the Jenningses (played with real chemistry by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) is regularly tested as they perform their KGB assignments with perfect ruthlessness. They are soldiers behind enemy lines, after all, and war always has innocent casualties.

The conflict has gone on so long, and with no end in sight, that the characters on screen don’t even feel the need to justify their actions. The spycraft that the show portrays is historically accurate, and it gets the anxious ground-tone of the period right, or as I remember it anyway. But very seldom does "The Americans" hint at the impending collapse of almost every motive driving its core story -- something the viewer cannot not know. (Pardon the double negative. But it seems to fit, given the slightly askew way it keeps the audience from taking for granted either the Cold War or the fact that it ended.)

The focus on the family in "The Americans" takes on added meaning in the light of Margaret Peacock’s Innocent Weapons: The Soviet and American Politics of Childhood in the Cold War, recently published by the University of North Carolina Press. The scriptwriters really ought to spend some time with the book. At the very least, it would be a gold mine of nuances and points of character development. More generally, Innocent Weapons is a reminder of just how much ideological freight can be packed into a few messages rendered familiar through mass media, advertising, and propaganda.

Peacock, an assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, examines the hopes and fears about youngsters reflected in images from the mid-1940s through the late 1960s. The U.S. and the USSR each experienced a baby boom following World War II. But the outpouring of articles, books, movies, and magazine illustrations focusing on children was not solely a response to the concerns of new parents. It might be more accurate to say the imagery and arguments were a way to point the public’s attention in the right direction, as determined by the authorities in their respective countries.

Children are the future, as no politician can afford to tire of saying, and the images from just after the defeat of fascism were tinged with plenty of optimism. The standard of living was rising on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In 1950 President Truman promised parents a “the most peaceful times the world has ever seen.” Around the same time, the Soviet slogan of the day was “Thank You Comrade Stalin for Our Happy Childhood!”, illustrated with a painting of exuberant kids delivering an armful of roses to the General Secretary, whose eyes fairly twinkle with hearty good nature.

But vows of peace and plenty on either side were only as good as the leaders’ ability to hold their ground in the Cold War. That, in turn, required that young citizens be imbued with the values of patriotism, hard work, and strong character. Sadly enough, children on the other side were denied the benefits of growing up in the best of societies.

The Soviets media portrayed American youth as aimless, cynical jazz enthusiasts facing Dickensian work conditions after years of a school system with courses in such topics as “home economics” and “driver’s education.” The Americans, in turn, depicted Soviet youth as brainwashed, stultified, and intimidated by the state. (And that was on a good day.)

By the late 1950s, the authorities and media on each side were looking at their own young people with a more critical eye (alarmed at “juvenile deliquincy,” for example, or “hooliganism,” as the Soviets preferred to call it) -- while also grudgingly admitting that the other side was somehow bringing up a generation that possessed certain alarming virtues. Khrushchev-era educational reformers worried that their students had endured so much rote instruction that they lacked the creativity needed for scientific and technological progress, while American leaders were alarmed that so many young Soviets were successfully tackling subjects their own students could never pass -- especially in science and math. (The news that 8 million Soviet students were learning English, while just 8,000 Americans were taking Russian, was also cause for concern.)

The arc of Cold War discourse and imagery concerning childhood, as Peacock traces it, starts out with a fairly simplistic identification of youth’s well-being with the values of those in charge, then goes through a number of shifts in emphasis. By the late 1960s, the hard realities facing children on either side were increasingly understood as failures of the social system they had grown up in. In the U.S., a famous television commercial showed a little girl plucking the leaves of a daisy as a nuclear missile counted down to launch; while the ad was intended to sway voters against Barry Goldwater, it drew on imagery that the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (better known as SANE) and Women Strike for Peace first used to oppose nuclear testing a few years earlier. Nothing quite so emblematic emerged in the Soviet bloc, but the sarcastic use of a slogan from the Komsomol (Young Communist Union) became a sort of inside joke about the government’s self-delusion.

“To varying degrees,” writes Peacock, “both countries found themselves over the course of these years betraying their ideals to win the [Cold] war, maintain power, and defend the status quo…. Even images like that of the innocent child can become volatile when the people who profess to defend the young become the ones who imperil them.”



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