Track One: "99 Luftballoons" by Nena
What does it say about the state of geopolitics when the Germans are the ones pleading for military restraint?
Such was the peculiar case in 1983. President Ronald Reagan had just proposed his “Star Wars” defense plan and declared the Soviet Union “the evil empire,” leading one to suspect that he had become gravely concerned with the security of Endor (whose own precarious situation was to be made abundantly clear that very summer). The Soviet Union had just shot down Korean Air Flight 007 (after mistaking it to be a military craft) and put its entire nuclear forces on full alert (after mistaking a NATO war game exercise to be preparations for a genuine first strike), leading one to believe that few nations govern effectively when the median age of its rulers is “unofficially deceased.” And the very first non-American Disney theme park had just opened in Tokyo, Japan, leading one to conclude that no one, nowhere, was ever to be safe from malevolence again.
And then, just when all hope seemed lost and all reason abandoned (1983, after all, had just been declared “The Year of the Bible” by the United States), a lone voice spoke up to give words to Americans’ deepest fears about inadvertent nuclear annihilation—words that few Americans, alas, could understand because they were sung in German. But thanks to constant airplay—and an English version that translated the original lyrics “If you have some time for me” and “Perhaps you think of me a bit” into “You and I in a little toy shop” and “Back at base, bugs in the software”—two things became abundantly clear. One, the other nations of the world (of which there were some during the Cold War) sincerely believed that both the United States and the Soviet Union were far too belligerent and blundering to be trusted with weapons of mass destruction. And two, William Shatner was destined to never, ever fall off the cultural radar.
True, today the song’s narrative—about 99 red balloons being mistaken for an attack and triggering the end of life as we know it—may seem naïve at best. But you have to remember, this was a far different era. The U.S. President was constantly dividing the world into “Us versus Them.” He was repeatedly calling on American citizens and soldiers to fight an ill-defined sense of “evil.” And he was routinely playing to the beliefs and bigotry of Fundamentalist Christians to further his party’s own self-serving and indefensible agenda.
My, how times have changed.