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Borrowed Time: The World at 65 | The Nation

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Borrowed Time: The World at 65

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Racing the Bomb into the World

About the Author

Tom Engelhardt
Tom Engelhardt created and runs the Tomdispatch.com website, a project of The Nation Institute of which he is a Fellow...

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At age 70, a writer reflects on the so-called ‘American Century’—and the world it wrought.

American military and corporate power have triumphed over all rivals—so why does the United States still struggle to impose its will on the world?

Thought of another way, however, that familiar face embedded in mine offers the chance for a little whirlwind double bio of the last century-plus. In one merged face, he and I cover a span of history, of change, carnage, and promise so unsettling that it, too, is almost impossible to take in.

The son of a poor immigrant who made good (but just for a while) in America, my father was born in 1907. I have, on my wall, a photo of him at perhaps age two, his older sister, in a white dress, a bow in her hair, sitting beside him on a little bench, her arm proudly around him. She faces the camera with the kind of intentness that went with a slower photographic process. A big white house and trees are behind them. This must be turn-of-the-century Flatbush in New York's Brooklyn, where they grew up.

Perhaps because the action snapshot had yet to arrive, everything seems remarkably still. My father's hair is blond. (I, of course, mainly knew him as a stocky, balding man with graying hair.) He wears a little Buster Brownish outfit and long socks as well as what appears to be a halter of bells (in case he wanders off?). Perched on that seat, he looks tiny, fragile, and a bit dazed, something like a porcelain doll, but nothing like my father. Nothing at all. I can find no resemblance to the angry bull of a man who raged through the golden 1950s, as likely unemployed and drinking as anything else. Nor like the prosperous salesman/businessman of the 1970s, nor the stroke-struck elderly gent (with a mustache just like mine) with whom I spent so much time in the early 1980s.

As I said, he was not someone to dwell on the past. But he did once tell me that he could still remember a man with a horse and cart pulling up to his house with blocks of ice for what was then an actual "ice" box. He was 11 when the War to End All Wars ended, and somewhere I have a picture of him from that time in a little uniform. He could remember buying charlottes russe (ladyfingers and Bavarian cream)--which, decades later out of nostalgia, he would pick up for me from a local bakery--off the back of a wagon on a street near Erasmus High in Brooklyn where he went to school and played lacrosse.

He was 22 when the stock market crashed in 1929 and he was working-- doing what? I don't know--for the Swift Meat Packing Company. He was in his mid-twenties when the Nazis rose to power in Germany, and our relatives (some of whom he would later help escape from Austria) began, as Jews, to feel the heat.

In December 1941, at the age of 34, soon after the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, he volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps to fight the Nazis and was sent to India as operations officer for the 1st Air Commando Group, a glider outfit striking behind Japanese lines in Burma. I have a photo of him in full uniform before he left, looking so young and handsome and (a word I wouldn't normally associate with him) vulnerable, with a not-quite-smile on his face. For the second time in mere decades, a world war was underway, and this time it would be so much more global and so much worse.

And here, as the American wars in Europe and the Pacific were reaching a crescendo, in July 1944, I--the other half of that merged face-- entered the picture, almost halfway through his life, only three years after Henry Luce proclaimed his century the American one. "Pops" to the men in his unit in a young man's war, he was 37 years old, and had by then been reassigned to the Pentagon. His son arrived just in time to celebrate the triumph of American science and technology, the dawning of a new age.

In the race to be born, I beat the atomic bomb into existence by almost a year. It was first tested in the desert at White Sands Proving Ground near Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945. I was born on July 20, 1944 at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, less than thirteen months before an A-bomb would leave the bomb bay of the Enola Gay with "autographs and messages," some obscene, scribbled on it by American soldiers, "greetings" to those about to die and the last human acts of the pre-atomic age.

In an instant, that new bomb would obliterate Hiroshima. And a few days later, the atomic annihilation of Nagasaki would follow, raising the curtain on the next war even before the War to End All Wars (redux) was officially over (again).

A new war, the third global one, this time fought by only two "superpowers," would be icier than the last two, restrained, ironically enough, by what was then called "the unthinkable," the worst that science could conjure up. It was, that is, restrained by the ability of either superpower, after a time, to destroy not just humanity but potentially the planet itself.

By the end of 1945, American troops already occupied one half of the Korean Peninsula, and Russian troops the other. Soon enough, the two nuclear-armed superpowers would be going at it in the only way they could, given the world-destroying weapons they possessed--with bitter fury, but by proxy and "in the shadows," inscribing their nightmare version of a global war for domination on the bodies of Koreans, Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, Afghans and others.

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