When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, there was no country more feared by Americans than the Soviet Union.
We were all terrified back then at the thought that the Reds would drop atomic bombs on the United States and blast us all to oblivion. That became a very real threat, in fact, with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
For Republicans especially, the No. 1 job of America’s political and military leaders was to be on constant guard against the Communist menace coming out of Russia. Their stern warning was, “Better dead than red.” A favorite line of attack on Democrats was to accuse them of being “soft on communism.”
This anti-Communist vigilance continued to be a priority into the administration of Ronald Reagan, when the president described the Soviet Union as the “evil empire” and called for the deployment of a Strategic Defense Initiative that would enable us to shoot down incoming nuclear missiles.
Nothing better illustrated the feelings toward the Soviet Union than that time in August 1984 when Reagan was scheduled to deliver his weekly radio address. When the president was asked to do a voice check prior to the broadcast, Reagan said, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”
Reagan’s joke brought him no end of ridicule, but the humor was indicative of how deep the anti-Soviet feelings ran among American conservatives.
During that same month as Reagan’s quip that “we begin bombing in five minutes,” the movie “Red Dawn” was released in American theaters. “Red Dawn” recounts the invasion of the U.S. by Soviet Union and Cuban forces. A group of high school students, who call themselves Wolverines, heroically fight back against the Red invaders. For many Republicans who came of age in the 1980s, this anti-Soviet film was their favorite movie.
Given that background in American culture, it is astonishing to see how things have turned around today. There is no longer a Soviet Union, of course, but there is still Russia, and it seems that the country is no longer our deadliest enemy. These days, we love Russia.
President Donald Trump is particularly enamored of Russia and its autocratic leader, Vladimir Putin. Although U.S. intelligence agencies all agree Russian operatives interfered in the 2016 presidential election, Trump insists that can’t be the case.
After his most recent meeting with Putin on a trip to Asia, Trump said he asked again about those pesky election allegations.
“He said he didn’t meddle,” Trump said. “I asked him again. You can only ask so many times. Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it.”
Shortly after that meeting with Putin, it was reported that the Trump administration had awarded a no-bid contract to a private Russian company to provide security guards at the American Embassy in Moscow and at consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok. The private company was co-founded by Viktor Budanov, who was formerly a top spymaster with the KGB, the Russian intelligence agency.
So it is that in the space of just a few years, we have seen a major political party do a complete turnabout on what was considered one of the defining political issues of our time. Russians apparently are no longer the bad guys.
That kind of dramatic realignment has happened before. In the 1860s, it was Southern Democrats who upheld the practice of slavery and fought a Civil War to try to keep the system in place. The Republican Party under Abraham Lincoln won that Civil War and passed the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing black citizens the right to vote.
Over the years, the two parties traded places on that issue. Democrats now support the cause of voting rights and enjoy the support of 90 percent or more of black voters in most elections. Republican election officials try to suppress the votes of blacks and Latinos.
Times change and our parties change with them. But that still doesn’t make it easy to get used to it.