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Leaving Cheyenne Mountain | The Nation

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Leaving Cheyenne Mountain

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Copyright © 2008 William Astore. A version of this article also appears on Tomdispatch.com.

How We Never Left Cheyenne Mountain

About the Author

William J. Astore
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), has taught at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate...

Also by the Author

An Air Force veteran explains how we all got drafted into the American national security state.

When the Soviet Union began its collapse in 1989, few people were more surprised than our intelligence agencies and our military (myself included). After putting decades of thought and planning into mutually assured destruction, after planning not just to fight but to win nuclear wars, we now faced a brighter, potentially less nuclear, or even nonnuclear, future. And all this had come about--under the shadow of true global terror--without a Department of Homeland Security or an Orwellian "Patriot Act" or so many of the other accouterments of our present homeland security moment (without, in fact, even the emotive, vaguely un-American word "homeland" being in use).

Indeed, when it was over, we claimed victory on the very basis that our freedoms, and our political system, were stronger than our rival's. We had, those declaring victory claimed, trusted and empowered the people, not an ossified state bureaucracy.

The optimism of 1990 was strikingly mainstream. President George H.W. Bush spoke of "a new era, freer from the threat of [nuclear] terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice and more secure in the quest for peace." We were supposedly lining up as a society to cash in our "peace dividend" chips, with our winnings designated for pressing domestic concerns. Like President Warren Harding, who campaigned for a return to "normalcy" after World War I, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan's tough-talking ambassador to the United Nations, wrote that after so many decades of vigilance and sacrifice, we could once again become "a normal country in a normal time."

But it never happened. Instead of normalcy, we remained hunkered down in Cheyenne Mountain. We continued to look fearfully out at the world while arming ourselves to the teeth. We became wedded to the idea of bunkers and barriers, whether fortified fences along the Mexican border, imperial military bases along the peripheries of a swollen empire or, on a micro scale, security gates patrolled by small armies of private guards to keep the have-nots out of have communities. (To these, the ultrarich have now added "panic rooms" in their mansions--tiny domestic Cheyenne Mountains secured by mini steel blast doors, monitored by cameras and stocked with provisions.) After the attacks of September 11, 2001, it was as if we had "buttoned up" and slammed shut the blast doors to Fortress America.

How did the planet's self-proclaimed "sole superpower" in its moment of triumph become such a fearful country? In our endless face-off with the Soviet Union, did we come to resemble it far more than we ever imagined? After all, instead of the USSR, it's now we who are fighting a difficult war in Afghanistan; it's now we who are deflating our currency with massive deficits for weapons of marginal utility; it's now we who put forward unilateral proposals for earth-penetrating, bunker-busting nukes; it's now we who are often seen as aggressors on the world stage.

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the agreement creating the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in May, isn't it high time we closed those twenty-five-ton blast doors one last time and, without glancing back, walked toward those starry skies and the twinkling lights of that city in the distance? Isn't it high time we fulfilled the Reykjavik dream?

As Americans, shouldn't we again learn to start worrying and loathe the bomb--so much that we roll up our collective sleeves and work to eliminate it from our planet? It's never too late to cash in whatever peace-dividend chips remain. And as we walk away with the last of our cold war winnings, no matter how meager, let's leave behind as well the bunker and barrier mentality that went with them.

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