The 1984 film “Red Dawn” projected our worst Cold War nightmare onto the big screen: Soviet paratroopers, backed by Cuban and Nicaraguan infantry, sweeping across the Great Plains and threatening to destroy the American way of life.
It did not matter that the story was ridiculous. The movie could not really explain why the Communists invaded. A brief opening sequence announced that the Soviet grain harvest had failed, and that our NATO allies, except for Britain, had abandoned us. This conceit inverted NATO’s original purpose, which was to deter a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. There was never a serious fear of Russians coming here. Also, a decade before “Red Dawn” was made, the Soviets really did have a failed grain harvest. They responded, not with an invasion, but with the far more expedient tactic of buying American wheat — lots and lots of it.
Yet the $4 million film, which starred Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen, grossed nearly $40 million and became a classic, at least for the Fox News crowd. (Before we conclude that Americans of a certain political persuasion are the only ones who cannot tell a good film from a bad one, let’s acknowledge that the folks who flock to Michael Moore’s overheated left-wing flicks suffer the same defect.) “Red Dawn” succeeded because, despite its flaws, it put its finger on a deeper angst.
We did not know in 1984 that the Berlin Wall would crumble only five years later. The Cold War was at one of its cyclical peaks. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 had led to an American grain embargo the next year, along with a boycott of the Moscow Olympics. The Russians responded with their own Warsaw Pact boycott of the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984. In 1983, the Soviets shot down a South Korean Boeing 747 airliner that strayed into militarily sensitive airspace, and then justified the slaughter by accusing American authorities of sending the airliner on a spy mission. Also in 1983, the television movie “The Day After” (a far better dramatic production than “Red Dawn”) brought the consequences of total nuclear war to prime-time television.
Many Americans sensed the potential for things to go terribly wrong, in ways that could change our lives beyond recognition. We wondered what risks we would take and what suffering we would endure to preserve our political heritage. Would we be willing to take to the woods and fight against overwhelming odds, as the 1984 movie’s heroes — a band of teenagers who called themselves Wolverines after their high school mascot — had done? If we did, would our story have a happy ending?
Hollywood loves to supply happy endings. It also loves to supply sequels and remakes of commercially successful films. So, as is often the case, filmmakers are hoping history will repeat itself. MGM is scheduled to release a “Red Dawn” remake this year. But this time, the invaders will come from Asia.
There is no more Soviet threat; in fact, there is no more Soviet Union. The Cold War is over. But rather than feeling that our present is safe and our future is secure, we live with the ever-present threat of the asymmetrical attack: the terrorist who flies an airplane into a building while armed with nothing more than a box cutter, the deranged scientist who looses a bioengineered plague, the rogue state that decides to employ a nuclear weapon.
And then there is our cloudy economic future. The 1980s gave us a decade of recovery from hard times. Unemployment and interest rates fell; the stock market rose. Our toughest competitors were the Japanese, but at least they relied on our military protection, so the relationship was symbiotic.
Now our perceived threat comes from China, whose economic and martial power is on the rise and which appears to have time on its side. All the Chinese may need to do is keep building their productive capacity and lending us money, enabling us to dig our debt hole so deep that eventually we will be unable to get out.
The “Red Dawn” remake was supposed to have been released last year. It would have featured a Chinese invasion. But the story line leaked and created a firestorm in China, while MGM underwent a bankruptcy restructuring. The release was pushed back to an as-yet unannounced date this year and, ultimately, the producers re-edited the film to make the invaders North Korean rather than Chinese. Nobody is worried about the North Korean market for the film, which seeks to recover a $75 million production cost. (Another thing that has changed a lot since 1984 is the cost of making movies.)
All of which demonstrates that the new story line is just as absurd as the original. The North Koreans have as much capacity for an invasion as the Nicaraguans did back in 1984 — none. The Chinese, meanwhile, have even less reason to come here than the Soviets did.
At some point in the future, American reliance on Chinese money may give the Chinese the same veto power over our foreign policy that they just demonstrated over our movie scripts. How will we defend Taiwan against a forcible Chinese reunification, when we need Chinese purchases of our Treasury bills? How will we maintain a western Pacific fleet to balance Chinese naval power, if the Chinese tell us in a bankerly sort of way that we cannot afford all those warships? How will we compete with China for natural resources on the open market, if the Chinese can send our currency down the drain by finding other places to park their cash?
There is a thread that runs from the original “Red Dawn,” through the Fox News chatter and the Tea Party rumblings, to the “Red Dawn” sequel. It is the fear that control of our destiny will be taken from us by a foreign force. We faced the Soviet threat from a position of strength, and prevailed — without firing a shot. That’s what economic power can do for you.
This year’s “Red Dawn” will depict another phantom military menace, but it poses a deeper question, without an obvious answer. In the fight for economic staying power, who will have the strength to be truly independent — us, or the Chinese?
The new version of “Red Dawn” may depict Americans overcoming a North Korean invasion, but the Chinese symbols and insignia that were digitally airbrushed out of the movie tell a different, more disturbing, story. The invasion is fictional. The struggle for liberty, security and economic freedom is not.