“Avenge Me!”: American Catharsis in 1980s Soviet Invasion Fantasies

Features / March 1, 2018

GRASSO: Those of us who grew up in the 1980s probably gave a lot of thought (and worry) to the depictions of the aftermath of nuclear war. Films like The Day After and Testament in the US (1983), and Threads (1984) and When the Wind Blows (book, 1982; animated film, 1986) in the UK graphically portrayed the results of a global thermonuclear war. But what about the stories where the Soviets actually physically invade the West using conventional forces? Films like Red Dawn (1984) and Invasion U.S.A. (1985), and the television miniseries Amerika (1987), showed what would happen to our free Western institutions under the heel of the Eastern bloc. I’d like to look at how these kinds of stories diverged from the standard mutually-assured destruction narrative we internalized in the West in the waning years of the Cold War. Were they an attempt to exorcise the psychic impact of the Vietnam War? A fantasia derived from guilt over our own invasions and coups of sovereign nations? A funhouse reflection of the various “invasion” narratives that dominated speculative and science fiction in that last great era of jingoistic American pop culture, the 1950s? (Not for nothing was Chuck Norris’s Invasion U.S.A. a remake of the odd little B-movie of the same name from 1952). Why have these competing sets of images of World War III? Was a conventional forces invasion by the Soviets a way of rescuing us from the inevitability of total nuclear holocaust?

ROBERTS: Anxieties over communist invasion and infiltration go back to the First Red Scare that followed the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and ultimately root in America’s uniquely replete narcissism and paranoid penchant for conspiracy theories and witch hunts. Depictions of Soviet armed forces trampling US soil make an appearance early on: Floyd Gibbons’s 1929 novel The Red Napoleon details the Soviet invasion of Europe and attempted invasion of America, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel The Moon Maid (1926) originally concerned a Soviet takeover of America: its original title was Under the Red Flag. Things heat up, of course, during McCarthyism, when a slew of posters, comics, films, pamphlets, and novels warn in often hysterical tones against a tomorrow beset by totalitarian repression and menace. In the 1950s, alien invasion films like 1951’s The Thing from Another World (“Keep watching the skies!“) and 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (“No more love, no more beauty, no more pain…“) were thinly veiled warnings against surreptitiously encroaching ideologies and armies, the irony being that the alien invasion novel that started it all, H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1897), was a wry criticism of Britain’s rampant imperialism (Wells was a socialist). As for postwar Russian invasion novels, there are more than you can shake a sickle and hammer at. In the ’80s, these books verged on lunacy, and survivalist-heroes named Ted Rockson fight to liberate post-nuke America, now “a brutalized Russian colony.”

But I digress. Your point about Vietnam is right on. If the Russians invade, the war is winnable and justifiable in a way that Vietnam wasn’t, in the way that a nuclear war absolutely isn’t. We beat King George with an outnumbered, ragtag group of rebels, most of them carrying shoddy equipment while battling disease and the worst winter in American history. There were almost 200 million guns in America by 1985. What was a potential Russkie ground assault but another feverishly absurd justification for even more guns?

MCKENNA: It’s probably a mistake to use myself as a psychic barometer, but as a child so terrified by the horrors of the day he actually started saving up to buy a DIY Geiger counter kit, I’m (unfortunately) probably fairly reliable, and yet I can’t remember there being any real feeling of the threat of the Russians invading us back then. Their blasting us back to the Neolithic or drawing us into a war on the continent certainly seemed like possibilities, but actually bothering to fly over and parachute into Essex felt pretty unlikely.

Obviously, we have a different history and geography than you lot, so the Russians play a different role in our psychology: perhaps, too, invasion is to some extent a slightly different issue for the British (though one still seethes under the surface, as recent events show, unfortunately) because it’s been successive colonizing and integrating waves of it—the Romans, the Saxons, the French, the Vikings—that formed the country, and also because we’ve been genuinely pretty near to it happening in the relatively recent past. The Germans were still British Enemy Number 1 in 1980s UK, because 1980s UK was still living in the shadow of the Second World War, and even in the late ’80s, you could still find boys (it was generally boys) reading WWII-themed comics like Commando, Battle Picture Weekly, Victor, and Warlord. The Germans had been done to death, so I wonder if that might have slightly blunted the appetite for invasion narratives.

There was also the fact that many people living in ’80s UK had grown up in what was in some ways a nominally socialist state, many of the realities of which persisted even after Thatcher appeared. As a country, many of us were perhaps a bit less worried than you lot by the very idea of communism as a supernatural, existential threat to our fundamental vision of life (as evidenced by sitcom Citizen Smith‘s affectionate mocking of feckless young Marxist “urban guerrilla” Wolfie Smith). And anyway, we’d been internalizing the trope since 1948—we’d had Orwell and 1984, after all. Add to that the fact that private citizens don’t really have access to guns in the UK, thank God, so any hypothetical resistance would have had to take far less thrillingly individualist forms than could be dreamed up in the US.

A tagline like “When a Russian Scragg missile hit Bristol, Britain knew it was all over” is inevitably going to lose out in terms of romantic Commie-strafing allure to anything happening somewhere warm—something like Miamigrad for instance. The line is from the back of Clive Egleton’s 1970 A Piece of Resistance (part of a trilogy including 1971’s Last Post for a Partisan and 1972’s The Judas Mandate), which I remember seeing on friends’ parents’ bookshelves. Probably more pervasive was Invasion!, which ran in 2000 AD from 1977 to 1978 and had Britain being invaded by the Volgans (who were Russians, but not communists—there’d been a fascist coup in the USSR), and the BBC’s political drama 1990, which, while not actually about an invasion per se, showed the UK under what was clearly meant to be a communist regime. Then there was the 1982 Judge Dredd story “The Apocalypse War” in 2000 AD, but even there it was the Big Meg and not the UK that was being invaded. And, as far as I can remember, that was pretty much it on the domestic front. It’s hard to believe that there weren’t any commie invasion games for the Spectrum, but, as far as I can remember, there weren’t. By the time we got to the mid-’80s, any worries about being invaded had been entirely supplanted by worries about being incinerated—as evidence, I offer Sting quoting KhrushchevPresumably, the invasion trope was to some extent a way of displacing fear over atomic Armageddon by shifting the conflict into a more human theater? We looked to you lot to deliver the hammer and sickle-punching—and never let it be said that you didn’t deliver.

GRASSO: So the granddaddy of all these ’80s communist invasion films is, of course, Red Dawn. It was definitely a confluence of a whole bunch of right place, right time factors. The cast was full of favorites from the nascent “Brat Pack,” it was written and directed by Hollywood action titan (and unashamedly avowed reactionary) John Milius of Apocalypse Now (1979) and Conan the Barbarian (1982) fame. Red Dawn‘s first ten minutes aim to make any red-blooded Reagan-era American rage: a black schoolteacher gunned down by communist invaders, the commies using gun records to round up all the Second Amendment adherents in town, and so on. Red Dawn didn’t thrill me as a kid, though. The premise seemed threadbare, almost silly (the idea of high school kids taking their responsibilities as American freedom fighters seriously did not jibe with my experience with kids a few years older than me). Amerika, the later entry in a very similar vein, was actually far more intriguing to me, maybe because I was a few years older, maybe because it focused more on what the culture and politics of an invaded America might look like.

The one Soviet invasion fantasia that really got its hooks into me, though, was a little teleplay made in 1982 of the James Clavell short story “The Children’s Story.” Clavell, the author of 1975’s Shōgun (which itself became a television miniseries in 1980), wrote “The Children’s Story” for archconservative magazine Reader’s Digest back in 1964, thus bridging these two periods of Soviet invasion paranoia. In the teleplay, a kindly old schoolteacher at an average American primary school is replaced by a severe, but pretty, young teacher in vaguely militaristic clothing. She proceeds to try to win her new students over with candy and games, including one where she cuts up the schoolroom’s American flag in an effort to give every student a little piece of it. She proceeds to indoctrinate the students in a kind of cod-Marxism (as seen by a midcentury reactionary, anyway). When one of the students, obviously traumatized by the disappearance of his father in the wake of the invasion, questions the new order, the teacher very sweetly offers the explanation, “Some grownups have to go to school, too.” This fear of “re-education camps,” a common thread in Red Dawn, Amerika, and “The Children’s Story,” is a really interesting giveaway to me. It does seem to confirm Cold War America’s fear that with enough “brainwashing,” anyone could become a loyal communist. Obviously, these fears are inspired by tales of relocation to the countryside in China, the relocation and genocide in Cambodia, Russian gulags, and the literal “re-education camps” meant for South Vietnamese loyalists to the West in the wake of the Vietnam War. Again, Americans seem to fear the same treatment they saw occur in the wake of their loss to the communists in Vietnam.

Probably my next favorite piece of ’80s communist invasion paranoia was the board game Fortress America (1986), very obviously inspired by Red Dawn. In this game, pan-Asian, Latin American, and Russian/European communists invade America from the west, south, and east respectively, and the doughty American partisans must fight them off. I always played the communists; the American forces were boring and had inferior supplies and equipment. (I’ll also briefly mention here The Price of Freedom, also 1986, a tabletop RPG that I never played but whose bonkers cover art I remember vividly from dozens of ads in magazines and comic books in my junior high years.) It is kind of amazing to consider that, amidst this flurry of media, games, and stories about Soviet invasion, in a mere half-a-decade, the entire industry of fear and loathing around the Russians would amount to nothing more than a bad dream.

ROBERTS: The most convincing scene in Cannon’s Invasion U.S.A. (1985), a film in which Chuck Norris single-handedly rebuffs a communist invasion, shows the terrorists slowly, calculatedly blowing up a suburban neighborhood using rocket launchers. It’s so effective because the neighborhood was a real one, singled out for demolition to make room for a new runway at Atlanta International Airport, its booming business the result of wholesale deregulation. If there’s a better summation of Reagan’s America, I don’t know what it is.

The communist invasion scenario seems to me the negative image of another popular ’80s genre: the Vietnam POW rescue narrative. In Missing in Action (1984) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)—Cannon Films “borrowed” the circulating James Cameron script for the latter and rushed the former into theaters—American vets carry their ghosts back into Southeast Asia to rescue their comrades, who, for sheer spite, the VC are still holding and torturing. Rambo and co. naturally blow the Vietnamese devils off the map, thus purging the ignominious defeat of the war—in a sense winning the war retroactively. Red Dawn is essentially the same thing: a revenge fantasy for a war that could not be fought, the kind of war in which patriot-heroes like John Rambo would be replaced by faceless and indefensible weapons of mass destruction.

MCKENNA From outside, the whole idea of a Soviet invasion of the US seemed simultaneously hugely entertaining and—even to a total idiot like me circa 1985—absolutely fucking ridiculous: I literally couldn’t have pointed you out London on a map of the UK or told you who Stalin was, and yet even I sensed that the logistics of Russia invading another continent were so blatantly improbable that War of the Worlds was plausible in comparison. I suppose, as you both point out, plausibility wasn’t the point.

We Brits would would have been on the front line for getting incinerated by the sentiments this stuff was prodding at anyway, but we were only party to it by proxy through the gaudy boxes on the shelves of the local video shop (and we were also in a much more of a position to actually get invaded than you lot, given that the Red Army could basically have got to the UK by Interrail). And yet the closest we got to a domestic ’80s Commie invasion scenario was probably Comrade Dad, a short-lived 1986 sitcom set in Londongrad, future capital of a USSR-occupied Britain, which concentrated a lot of its energies on jokes about the perceived failings of Communism as filtered through the mundanities of everyday life, such as there only being beetroot for breakfast. In the drab wasteland that was ’80s UK—for a lot of us, anyway—these clashing superhuman archetypes clad in primary colors and concepts seemed vastly exciting, or at least they did to idiots like me. They also seemed hilarious, like so much that came from the US (we still found it funny back then that you lot actually cared about having healthy white teeth). I think the idea that something like Invasion U.S.A. could actually reflect a real mindset would have been impossible for most of us to digest. I made sure I saw Red Dawn and Invasion U.S.A. as soon as the opportunity presented itself, and they were absolutely congruous with my ideas about the US as being amazing and completely round the bend: the oddly dream-like Red Dawn made an impression on me, but it was the vast moronic pleasures of Invasion U.S.A.-–with, let us not forget, Richard Lynch—that were most compelling.

GRASSO: When I think about the psychological impact of 9/11 on the American psyche, I wonder how much of a role these kinds of late-Cold War pop culture images have had on our collective nervous breakdown over the past two decades. Americans’ territorial sovereignty had really never been violated in the modern era before the morning of September 11. Even the bombing of Pearl Harbor didn’t really carry the kind of connotation of violation that, say, an attack on the mainland would have had back in 1941. Really, we’re talking about something that hadn’t happened to America (outside of the Civil War) since the War of 1812! But, as we can see in these invasion fantasies, we as a nation dreamed about that violation, over and over again. What would the Soviets do to us? How would they throw our patriots in gulags, re-educate our children, militarize our street corners? Of course, this is all of a piece with the UN black helicopter/FEMA conspiracy theorizing on the right starting in the ’90s. But the Soviets carried with them a certain existential power and ideological menace that all those nebulous UN theories never could.

As I mentioned above, what I find fascinating is how our fears of what the Soviets would do to us are basically what we did in the Cold War to Iran, Central America, Southeast Asia, Cuba, and so forth. Coups. Troops on the ground. Summary imprisonment and assassinations. Propaganda and re-education. Election tampering. I think our national subconscious—our faltering moral compass—somehow knew full well what we did in the Cold War was wrong and thus revisited it on ourselves in these cultural, nominally fictional, expressions. But in the decades since the end of the Cold War, we forgot that these narratives were essentially an exorcism of the injustice that we all somehow sensed about our prosecution of the Vietnam War. And so 9/11 begat coups, troops on the ground, summary imprisonment and assassinations, propaganda and re-education. When the US forces in Iraq undertook their operation to capture Saddam Hussein, they called it… Operation Red Dawn. The irony of using this name for an operation in which we were the invaders was apparently lost on the Pentagon. Americans, it seems, will always take extreme measures to make sure that they psychologically remain the underdogs, that they can still shout “Wolverines!” with that sense of righteous fury, even as American forces more closely resemble Milius’s brutal Soviet soldiers. It turns out that we were the foreign invaders all along.

5 thoughts on ““Avenge Me!”: American Catharsis in 1980s Soviet Invasion Fantasies

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