Born in New York City, balanced uncomfortably on the cusp between the end of WWII and the post-war economic boom, I nonetheless had a unique vantage point to observe the developing international Cold War. It began almost immediately following World War II and lasted through most of the 20th century, basically all of my life. It certainly dominated my childhood. My home town quickly became an intensive immersion course in Cold War politics with the arrival of the United Nations. A fait accompli by the 1950’s, we all went to see its massive new headquarters on the East River, talk about it, and study it every week in school.
The Cold War’s vocabulary consisted of phrases like ‘The Warsaw Pact’ and the ‘North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) . The News of the Week in Review and Time Magazine (cover to cover), filled with reports of political realism, were assigned for weekly homework. I’m getting an ice-cream headache right now just remembering those discussions in class. That was where I first encountered the most important transitive verb and concept of the Cold War: the ‘Balance of Power’. Distributing equal military force among nations so that no one of them could dominate the others, alliances offered through NATO, we were told, would ensure that the balance would be maintained. Something about that promise always sent an icy shiver down my spine (like an ice-cream headache?). I was skeptical about all this power being balanced.
Air raid drills in school had us cover our heads with our coats, cowering on the floor outside our metal lockers. We questioned the efficacy of this posture to protect us from the bombs we’d thankfully never experienced ourselves. Aluminum dog tags we wore on chains over our undershirts suggested our bodies might need identification if we were injured beyond recognition or…killed; though no one said so. Even though I liked the dog tag, the ultimate purpose for the paraphernalia robbed me of my appreciation for it; as well as for the ‘Balance of Power’. We children were aware of a lot of pushing and pulling in the world of adults and politics, but very little balance; or none at all. Finding myself in a panic one day over some report of Stalin’s latest antics, I approached my father for consolation. My fear had escalated to the point where simply announcing I was afraid was the best I could do.
“Don’t worry about the Russians, Baby Dear,” he said. Both his surety and my nickname helped immediately, so of course I had to ask, ‘why not?’ in my new-found confidence. “Because they’re a mess—no food, a collapsing economy, no trade with other nations—economic power is going to have a lot more sway than military might pretty soon.” I was thrilled to hear his expert economic analysis put the ‘balance of power’ back into a state of equilibrium; until he added, “The country to watch will be China. They’ll be the ones to rule the world in your lifetime.” So much for the ‘Balance of Power’.