The news of the latest Tanzanian deepwater oil discovery broke on an otherwise sleepy Saturday in March. Thirty years before, a find of the same size might have gotten two column inches somewhere in the back pages of a few newspapers of record, but this was not thirty years ago. In a world starved for oil, what might once have been considered a modest find earned banner headlines.
It certainly loomed large in the East Wing of the White House, where the president and his advisers held a hastily called meeting that evening. “The Chinese already have it wrapped up,” said the Secretary of Energy. “Tanzania’s in their pocket, and there are CNOOC people—” CNOOC was the Chinese National Overseas Oil Corporation, the state-owned firm that spearheaded China’s quest for foreign oil. “—all over the place on site and in Dar es Salaam.”
“Is it close enough to Kenyan waters—”
“Not a chance, Mr. President. It’s 200 nautical miles away from the disputed zone, and that last clash with the Tanzanians isn’t something Nairobi wants to repeat.”
“Dammit, we need that oil.” The president turned and walked over to the window.
He was right, of course, and “we” didn’t just refer to the United States. Jameson Weed won the White House the previous November with a campaign focused with laser intensity on getting the US out of its long and worsening economic slump. Winning the country a bigger share of imported oil was the key to making good on that promise, but that was easier said than done; behind what was left of the polite fiction of a free market in petroleum, most oil that crossed national borders did so according to political deals between producer countries and those consuming countries strong and wealthy enough to compete. These days, more often than not, the US lost out—and the impact of that reality on Weed’s upcoming reelection campaign was very much on the minds of everyone in the room.
“There’s one option,” said the president’s national security adviser. “Regime change.”
President Weed turned back from the window to face the others. The Secretary of Defense cleared his throat. “Sooner or later,” he said, “the Chinese are going to stand and fight.”
The national security adviser gave him a contemptuous look. “They don’t dare,” she said. “They know who’s boss, and it’s too far from their borders for their force projection capacity, anyway. They’ll back down the way they did in Gabon.”
The president glanced from one to the other. “It’s an option,” he said. “I want a detailed plan on my desk in two weeks.”
Regime change wasn’t as simple as it used to be. That was the sum of scores of conversations in meeting rooms in the Pentagon and the CIA headquarters in Langley as the plan came together. Gone were the easy days of the “color revolutions,” when a few billion dollars funneled through Company-owned NGOs could buy a mass uprising and panic an unprepared government into collapse. The second generation strategies that worked so well in Libya and half a dozen other places—backing the manufactured uprising with mercenaries, special forces, and a no-fly zone—stopped working in turn once target governments figured out how to fight it effectively. Now it usually took ground troops backed up by air power to finish the job of replacing an unfriendly government with a compliant one.
Still, it was a familiar job by this point, and the officials in charge got the plan put together in well under the two weeks the president had given them. A few days later, when it came back signed and approved, the wheels started turning. Money flowed to CIA front organizations all over East Africa; Company assets in Tanzania began recruiting the ambitious, the dissatisfied, and the idealistic to staff the cadres that would organize and lead the uprising; elsewhere, mercenaries were hired and the usual propaganda mills went into action. The government of Kenya, the nearest American client state, was browbeaten into accepting American troops on its border with Tanzania, and a third carrier strike group was mobilized and sent on its way to join the two already within range.
It took only a few weeks for the government of Tanzania to figure out that its recent good luck had put it in the crosshairs of American power. One afternoon in early May, after a detailed briefing from his intelligence chief, the president of Tanzania summoned the Chinese ambassador to a secret meeting, and told him bluntly, “If you abandon us now we are lost.” The ambassador promised only to relay the message to Beijing, but he did so within minutes of returning to the Chinese embassy, and included a detailed and urgent commentary of his own.
Three days later, a dozen men sat down around a table in a conference room in Beijing. A staff member poured tea and disappeared. After an hour’s discussion, one of the men at the meeting said, “What is it that the Americans say? ‘Draw a line in the sand?’ I propose that this is the time and place to do that.”
A quiet murmur of agreement went around the table. In the days that followed, a different set of officials drew up a very different set of plans.
The port at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s capital and biggest city, was a busy place, thronged with oil tankers carrying black gold to China and its allies, and container ships bringing goods of every description, mostly from China, for the booming Tanzanian economy. In the bustle, no one paid much attention to the arrival of a series of plain shipping containers from Chinese ports, which were offloaded from an assortment of ordinary container ships and trucked to half a dozen inconspicuous warehouse districts along the coast between Dar es Salaam and the northern port city of Tanga. CIA agents watching for signs of a Chinese response missed them completely.
More generally, the number of container shipments to Tanzania and half a dozen other Chinese client states in Africa ticked up slightly—not enough to rouse suspicions, but then nobody in the US learned how many African companies found themselves facing unexpected delays in getting the Chinese merchandise they had ordered, so that other cargoes took the space that would have been theirs. Nor did anyone in the US worry much about the increased number of young Chinese men who flew to Africa during the four months before the war began. US intelligence did notice them, and their arrival sparked a brief debate at Langley—military observers, one faction among US intelligence advisors insisted, there to snoop on American military technology; military advisors, another faction claimed, there to assist the Tanzanian army against the American forces that were already gathering in Kenya.
Both factions were wrong. Most of the tight-lipped young men went to ground near those same warehouse districts between Dar es Salaam and Tanga, where the contents of those shipping containers were assembled, tested, and readied. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) shifted six fighter wings, equipped with some of China’s most advanced aircraft, to Central Asian bases. The Chinese government had announced that it would be holding joint military exercises that August with Russia, and so the satellite photos of Chengdu J-20 fighters parked in the deserts of Turkestan got an incurious glance or two in Langley, and went into filing cabinets.
After years of budget battles on Capitol Hill, the US military was not quite so powerful or so swift to deploy as it had been in the last years of the twentieth century. Only two of the remaining eight carrier strike groups—CSGs, in naval jargon—were on station at any time, one in the western Pacific and one shuttling back and forth between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean; transport was a growing challenge by sea or air, and borrowing airliners from the civilian air fleet, a mainstay of late twentieth century Pentagon planning, was less simple to arrange now that air travel was only for the rich again. Still, the units assigned to the first phase of the Tanzanian operation—the 101st Airborne, the 6th Air Cavalry, and the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions—were used to rounding up transport in a hurry and heading off on no notice to the far corners of the globe.
The first units of the 101st Airborne landed at Nairobi in the middle of May, when the heavy rains were over and the first riots were breaking out in Dar es Salaam. By the time President Weed gave his famous speech in Kansas City on June 20, denouncing atrocities he claimed had been committed by the Tanzanian government and proclaiming in ringing terms America’s unstinting readiness to support the quest for freedom around the world, all four divisions were settling into newly constructed bases in the upland country south of Kajiado, not far from the Tanzanian border. Alongside them, logistics staff and civilian contractors swarmed, getting ready for the two armored divisions, on their way from Germany by ship, who would fill out the land assault force, and the bulk of the supplies for the assault, which were on their way by sea from Diego Garcia.
Meanwhile three CSGs, headed by the nuclear carriers USS Ronald Reagan, USS John F. Kennedy, and USS George Washington, headed at cruising speed toward a rendezvous point in the western Indian Ocean, where they would meet the ships carrying the armored divisions from Germany and a dozen big supply ships from the Maritime Prepositioning Squadron based on Diego Garcia. Two Air Force fighter wings had already been assigned to the operation, and would arrive just before the carriers reached operational range; they and carrier-based planes would then take out the Tanzanian air force and flatten military targets across the country during the two weeks the armored divisions would need to land, join the rest of the force, and begin the ground assault. It was a standard plan for the quick elimination of the modest military forces of a midsized Third World country; its only weakness was that the US force was no longer facing a midsized Third World country.
In times of peace, August and September are the peak tourist season in East Africa; inland from the always humid coast, the climate is cool and dry, and the wide plains of the interior are easy to travel. Since plains in cool dry weather are among the best places on earth for an assault by tanks and attack helicopters, these were also the months the Pentagon’s planners assigned for Operation Blazing Torch, the liberation of Tanzania. Briefing papers handed to President Weed in late July sketched out the final details, and he nodded and signed off on the final orders for the invasion. The Secretary of Defense looked on from the other side of the room with a silent frown. He had tried several times to bring up the small but real chance that the Chinese might retaliate, and had his advice dismissed by Weed and mocked to his face by the president’s national security adviser and Vice President Gurney. As soon as this thing was over, he told himself for the fifteenth time, he would hand in his resignation.
Outside the White House windows, barely visible in the distance, a small band of protesters kept up a desultory vigil in the free-speech zone set aside for them. Pedestrians hurried past, ignoring the chanted slogans and the protest signs. It was another brutally hot summer day in Washington DC, part of the “new normal” that the media talked about when they couldn’t avoid mentioning the shifting climate altogether. Out beyond the Beltway, half the country was gripped by yet another savage drought; the states of Iowa and Georgia had just suspended payment on their debts, roiling the financial markets; eyes across the southeast turned nervously toward a tropical storm, poised off the Windwards, that showed every sign of turning into the season’s first big hurricane.
What many perceptive observers recalled afterward was the sullen mood that gripped the country that summer. Only the media and the most shameless of national politicians tried to pretend that the approaching war with Tanzania was about anything but oil; the president’s approval rating drifted well below 25%, which was still three times that of Congress and well above that of any credible candidate the other party had to offer; the usual clichés spewed from the usual pundits, but the only people who were listening were the pundits themselves. Across the nation and across the political spectrum, the patience of the American people was visibly running short.
Those who were dissatisfied had plenty of reasons. The intractable economic slump that had gripped the country since 2008 showed no sign of lifting, despite repeated bailouts of the financial industry that were each proclaimed as the key to returning prosperity, and repeated elections in which each candidate claimed to have fresh new ideas and then pursued the same failed policies once in office. The fracking boom of the early twenty-teens was practically ancient history; energy prices were high, and straggling higher; gasoline bumped against $7 a gallon that summer before slumping most of the way back to $6.50. None of these things were new, but they seemed to infect the national mood more powerfully than before. Shortly they would help spark an explosion—but there would be other explosions first.
At the end of July, the invasion task force assembled in the Indian Ocean almost two thousand miles east of the Kenyan coast. Fleet Admiral Julius T. Deckmann, commanding the task force, made sure everything was in order before giving the orders to sail west. A career officer with half a dozen combat assignments behind him, Deckmann had learned to trust his intuition, and his intuition told him that something was not right. From the bridge of the USS George Washington, his flagship, he considered the assembled fleet, shook his head, and ordered reconnaissance drones sent up. Real-time images from US spy satellites showed nothing out of the ordinary; data from the AWACS plane circling high overhead confirmed that, and so did the drones, once data started coming in from them. Deckmann’s unease remained as days passed uneventfully and the task force neared East Africa.
The fleet reached its assigned position off the Kenyan coast on schedule. Final news came via secure satellite link from Washington: the Air Force fighter wings had arrived and were ready for action; the Tanzanian Freedom Council, the puppet government-in-exile manufactured by the State Department, had called “the nations of the world” to liberate their country, a plea that everyone knew was directed at one nation alone; the CIA-led mercenaries who spearheaded the second, violent phase of the uprising had withdrawn from Dar es Salaam, leaving the local cadres to their fate, and were moving toward the Kenyan border to open the way for the invasion. Deckmann made sure every ship in his fleet was ready as the sun set in red haze over the distant African coast.
Very few of those involved in the war got much sleep, that last night before the shooting began. On the three carriers, and at two newly constructed airfields in southern Kenya, aircrews worked through the dark hours to get their planes ready for battle, unaware that other aircrews were doing the same thing thousands of miles away in Central Asia. Soldiers of the two armored divisions that had been brought down from Germany prepared for a landing in Mombasa most of them would not live to see. In Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, presidents met with their cabinets and then headed for heavily guarded bunkers; elsewhere in the world, heads of state read intelligence briefings and braced themselves for crisis.
Two hours before the East African dawn, the waiting ended. Two people ended it. One was Admiral Deckmann, barking out the orders that sent the first fighter-bombers roaring off the deck of the George Washington and the first Tomahawk cruise missiles blazing skywards. The other was an officer in a Chinese command center deep in central Asia, who watched the planes take off and the missiles launch, courtesy of a high-altitude observation drone—one of three that had been following the George Washington since it went through the Suez Canal, and were now stationed high above the fleet. As infrared images showed planes and missiles hurtling toward Tanzania, the officer typed rapidly on a keyboard and then hit enter twice. With the second click of the enter key, the Chinese response began.
End of the World of the Week #42
In the world of apocalyptic fantasy, an engineer’s degree is very often a passport to success. An engineer’s training focuses on figuring what can happen, not what did happen or will happen, and so engineers reign supreme in many fields of rejected knowledge; from creation science through the quest for ancient astronauts to past and present claims of imminent apocalypse, books by retired engineers are usually the most imaginative and least inhibited works on their eccentric subjects.
Retired electrical engineer Hugh Auchincloss Brown was a classic of the type, and had an even more vivid imagination than most of his peers. In his book Cataclysms of the Earth (1967), he argued that the amount of ice at the south pole was steadily increasing, and the excess weight would eventually cause the planet to unbalance and flip over in space, devastating the entire surface of the globe and leaving few survivors. Moreover, he insisted, this had happened before: the present Antarctic ice cap was “the successor to a long lineage of glistening assassins of former civilizations on this planet.”
Brown died in 1976, convinced to the end that the cataclysm was already overdue and might occur at any moment. His theory found eager listeners among late 20th century fans of apocalypse, but lost market share as better measurements made it clear that the ice cap on Antarctica is contracting, not expanding.
The missiles and fighter-bombers launched from the fleet were the second wave of the American assault, not the first. Attack helicopters from Kenyan bases took off a few minutes later, but went in ahead to target Tanzania’s air defenses. Their timing was precise; by the time the first US jets crossed into Tanzanian airspace, the four military radar stations that anchored the northern end of Tanzania’s air defense system were smoking rubble. Real-time satellite images brought news of the successful strike to Admiral Deckmann and his staff aboard the USS George Washington, and to President Weed and his advisers in the situation room in the White House.
Those images were on the screens when the whole US military satellite system suddenly went dark.
In US bases around the world, baffled technicians tried to reconnect with the satellite network, only to find that there was no network with which to reconnect. NORAD reported that all the satellites were still in their orbits and showed every sign of still being operational, but none would respond to signals from ground stations or send data back down. Analysis quickly ruled out a technical failure, which left only one option; the president’s national security adviser glanced up from a hurriedly compiled briefing paper outlining that one option, to find the Secretary of Defense regarding her with a level gaze. She turned away sharply and snapped an order to one of her aides.
Analysts long before the war had noted China’s intense interest in antisatellite technology. After the war was over, however, it turned out that what took out the US satellite system was not advanced technology but old-fashioned espionage. Chinese agents more than a decade earlier had managed to infiltrate the National Reconnaissance Office, the branch of the US intelligence community that managed the nation’s spy satellites, and data obtained by those agents enabled Chinese computer scientists to hack into the electronic system that controlled US military satellites in orbit and shut the whole network down, robbing US units around the world of their communications and reconnaissance capabilities. Within minutes, cyberwarfare teams were at work, but it took them most of a day to get a first trickle of data coming in, and more than a week to get all the satellites fully operational again—and that was time the US invasion force no longer had.
The Chinese technicians who had slipped into Tanzania in the months before the war had strict orders that no action was to be taken under any circumstances until the US began active hostilities. The terse radio message announcing the destruction of the northern radar stations removed that factor. The crews knew that they might only have minutes before American bombs began falling on them. Their mission was precisely defined by the logic of “use it or lose it,” and so everything that had arrived in the shipping containers went into the air in well under ten minutes.
Survivors’ accounts of what happened aboard the naval task force over the next hour are confused and in places contradictory, but apparently shipboard radars detected nearly a thousand targets suddenly airborne on the southwestern horizon. At least half of those were false echoes, electronic decoys produced by Chinese “spoofing” technology, and many of the remainder were physical decoys meant to draw fire away from the supersonic cruise missiles that constituted the real attack. Even by the most conservative estimates, though, there were at least 200 of the latter. The task force had some of the best antimissile defenses in the world, but naval strategists had determined decades beforehand that a sufficiently massive attack could be sure of getting through.
Those cold mathematics worked themselves out in a chaos of explosions, burning fuel, floating debris, and dead and dying sailors and soldiers. Of forty-one ships in the task force, three made it safely to harbor in Mombasa, and eight more—including one of the troopships—were able, despite damage, to fight their way to the Kenyan coast and get surviving crews and passengers ashore. The others were left shattered and burning, or went to the bottom. The fate of the three carriers was typical: the John F. Kennedy took three cruise missiles in close succession and sank with nearly all hands; the Ronald Reagan was hit by two, caught fire, and was abandoned by its crew; the George Washington was hit astern by one, staggered in toward the coast despite crippling damage to its steering systems, and ran onto a sandbar near the Kenyan shore. A Japanese news photographer on assignment snapped a picture of the abandoned ship—broken, ghostlike, the deck tilted nearly into the surf on one side—and that photograph, splashed over the media worldwide in the following days, became for many people the definitive image of the East African War.
Long before the George Washington reached its final resting place in the sands off Kilindini, US forces on the scene were doing their best to respond. The loss of satellite intelligence did not prevent the launching points for the cruise missile attack from being spotted from the air by drones, and US fighters hurtled south to hammer them; only the orders that scattered each of the Chinese crews the moment their last cruise missile went up kept them from suffering horrific casualties, and as it was, more than a thousand Tanzanian civilians were killed. More than half the planes on the three carriers had taken off before the carriers were put out of action, furthermore, and those that made it safely to Kenyan territory were refueled and put to use immediately, carrying out punishing strikes against Tanzanian military and political targets.
Back in Washington DC, President Weed ordered a media blackout on the disaster. His press secretary announced merely that the task force had been attacked by missiles, and that details would be coming later. That night, meeting with his advisers and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he reviewed what was known about the fate of the task force, frowned, and muttered an expletive. “They bloodied our nose, no question,” he said. “If we cave in, though, we’re screwed. We’ve got to reinforce the troops in Kenya and proceed with the operation. I want a plan on my desk first thing tomorrow.”
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs that year was Admiral Roland Waite, a patrician New Englander with Navy ties going back to an ancestor who sailed with John Paul Jones. “You’ll have it, sir,” he said. “If I may suggest, though—”
The president motioned for him to continue.
“A plan for extracting our forces, sir. Just in case.”
“We can’t.” The president all at once looked older than his sixty years. “If we cave in, we’re screwed. The whole country is screwed.”
The plan was on the president’s desk at 6 am: a sketchy but viable draft of an airlift operation, using most of the Pentagon’s available air transport capacity to get troops and supplies from Europe and the Persian Gulf to Kenya in a hurry. By the time it reached the Oval Office, though, the unfolding situation had already rendered it hopelessly obsolete.
The planes took off from airbases in Central Asia as soon as word came that the enemy satellite network was disabled. A flurry of secret diplomacy in the months before the war had cleared flight paths through Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran, and positioned tankers for in-flight refueling in the latter country; Iranian civilians waved and cheered as the planes roared by, guessing their destination. As ships burned and sank off the Kenyan coast, six Chinese fighter wings were on their way to Tanzania, with more to follow.
Their route was not quite direct, since Tanzania was under heavy air attack by the Americans and thus could provide no safe airfields. Instead, an airbase in the Chinese client state of South Sudan served as a final staging area. More shipping containers had ended up there, and some of the tight-lipped young men as well. Fresh pilots climbed aboard the fighters, fuel tanks were topped up, aircrews loaded and armed weapons, and the first wave of the air counterattack hurtled southeast into Kenyan airspace. American radar crews on the ground misidentified them at first as friendly craft, delaying an effective response for a few minutes. The moment the newcomers began attack runs on one of the American airbases, though, that mistake was cleared up, and US fighters already in the air pounced on the Chinese fighters while those on the ground roared up to join the fight.
An hour into the air battle, the American commanders on the scene and in the Persian Gulf were clear on three things. The first was that the planes and their pilots were Chinese, even though every plane had had the red star of the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force carefully painted over with the green roundel and white torch of the Tanzanian Air Force. The second was that, at least at the moment, the Chinese had the advantage of numbers. That was less of a problem than it might have been, since the US had plenty of fighter wings available to join the conflict, and four more were already being shifted to Persian Gulf airfields within striking distance of the combat zone.
The third realization, though, was the troubling one: the Chinese pilots were at least as good as their American counterparts, and their planes were better. Both US fighter wings in Kenya flew the F-35 Lightning II, the much ballyhooed Joint Strike Fighter, which had been designed to fill every possible fighter role in the NATO air services. That overambitious goal meant that too many compromises had been packed into one airframe, and the result was a plane that was not well suited to any of its assigned missions. The Chinese J-20s had no such drawbacks; faster and more heavily armed than the F-35s, they had a single role as a long-range air superiority fighter and they carried it out with aplomb. By the end of the first day, though both sides had been bloodied, US losses were nearly half again those of the Chinese force.
News of the arrival of the Chinese fighters forced the plans for resupplying the four US divisions in Kenya by air into indefinite hold. “Until we have air superiority back,” the Secretary of Defense explained to Weed and the other members of the team, “there are hard limits to what we can do. Even if we send them with fighter cover, the big transports are sitting ducks for their air-to-air missiles.”
The president nodded. “How soon can we expect to retake control of the air?”
“Within a week, if everything goes well. I’ve got four fighter wings on the way in tomorrow, and four more following them in two days.”
“What about the airbases in South Sudan?” the president’s national security adviser asked. “Those should get hit, hard.”
“That would mean,” the Secretary said, picking his words carefully, “widening the war to include another Chinese ally. Maybe more than one, if the other African countries in their camp get involved.”
“They’re already in,” President Weed growled. “Diego Garcia’s in range; I want a B-52 strike on the South Sudan bases as soon as possible.”
Two days later, a mob sacked the US Embassy in South Sudan. The staff barely escaped by helicopter from the roof. The B-52 raids the night before had cratered one of the two Chinese airbases, but also flattened two nearby villages and killed several hundred people. Across Africa, Chinese allies took turns denouncing America’s actions in East Africa and threatening war against Kenya, while the few remaining American allies lay low.
The denunciations were for show. The real decision had been made more than three months earlier, as Tanzanian and Chinese diplomats made secret visits to half a dozen Chinese-allied nations in Africa, explaining what America was about to do and why it mattered. The prospect of a Chinese military response made a difference this time; so did China’s offer to cover the costs of the plan being proposed; so did the cold awareness, inescapable as one head of state after another stared at maps and briefing papers, that if the Americans overwhelmed Tanzania, any of China’s other African allies might be next. One after another, they signed onto the plan, and began an indirect process of troop movements.
As news media flashed word of the South Sudan riots around the world, accordingly, the ambassador from Tanzania presented himself at the Kenyan presidential palace to deliver a note. Despite the studied courtesies with which it was delivered, the note was blunt. Since Kenya had allowed a hostile power to use its territory and airspace to attack Tanzania, it stated, the Tanzanian government was declaring war on Kenya—and over the next few hours, six other African nations did the same.
Three hours before dawn the next morning, an artillery bombardment silenced the animal and bird sounds of the coastal forest on the Tanzania-Kenya border, some fifty miles south of Mombasa. Tanzanian troops surged over the border at first light, backed by the first contingents from the other members of the Chinese-supported coalition and by a wave of Chinese ground-attack aircraft. By day’s end, forward scouts riding the armed light trucks that African armies call “technicals” were halfway to Mombasa, Kenya’s second city and largest port.
That night, Kenyan and American military officials held a hastily called meeting in Nairobi, chaired by the Kenyan president. The original American plan of action was fit only for the shredders, everyone recognized that, and the issue at stake now was not the liberation of Tanzania but the survival of the US-friendly Kenyan government. The next morning, after hurried consultations with Washington via the secure diplomatic line from the US embassy, the four American divisions left their bases and headed toward Mombasa, running up against Coalition forces two days later.
Under normal circumstances, the US forces would likely have seized the advantage and the victory, but these were not normal circumstances. The air war continued, but the Chinese edge was widening; the US air bases in Kenya had been bombed repeatedly, and efforts to resupply them by air even at a minimal level were running into increasingly fierce Chinese fighter attacks. Furthemore, the four US divisions had only part of their normal equipment—the rest was at the bottom of the Indian Ocean—and the troops they were facing included seasoned veterans of some of Africa’s most bitter wars.
The major issue, however, was air superiority. The US military had made air superiority so central to its military doctrine, and had achieved it so consistently in past campaigns, that nobody had any clear idea how to fight and win a battle without it. Generals who were used to aerial reconnaissance and lieutenants who were used to being able to call in air strikes were both left floundering when these and many other mainstays of the American way of combat were no longer available. As the Chinese pressed their control of the air further and ferried in more ground-attack aircraft, US forces had to face the unfamiliar threat of air strikes, and US generals had to cope with the fact that it was their movements that were being spotted from the air. Finally, there was the impact on morale: troops who had been taught nearly from their first days in boot camp that air superiority guaranteed victory were unprepared to fight against an enemy that had taken air superiority away from them.
Which of the many factors decided the Battle of Mombasa remains an issue for military historians. Still, the results were not in doubt. After a week of hard fighting, Coalition forces took Mombasa and began to advance up the main highway toward Nairobi, while the battered US divisions and their Kenyan allies retreated before them. The Kenyan president fled to Kisumu, in the far west of the country, with his mistress and his cabinet. Jets still screamed south from US bases in the Persian Gulf to tangle with Chinese fighters based in half a dozen African countries, and land-based cruise missiles and B-52s from Diego Garcia pounded anything that looked vaguely like a military target, but it was hard for anyone to miss the fact that the US was losing the war.
End of the World of the Week #43
Speaking of cod theories involving lots of ice—the theme of last week’s failed apocalypse—any collection of predicted cataclysms that never quite managed to happen would be incomplete without a reference to the inimitable Hans Hörbiger and his Welteislehre or World Ice Theory. Hörbiger was a brilliant Austrian engineer whose mechanical inventions made him a well-earned fortune, but like many another engineer, his ability to figure out ingenious mechanical devices did not translate into a capacity for critical analysis of his own scientific theories.
The World Ice Theory is among the more complex of alternative cosmologies, and no attempt will be made here to summarize it in any detail. The important thing to have in mind, for our purposes, is that space is full of ice. The Milky Way isn’t a galaxy full of stars, it’s a vast cloud of chunks of ice, and they’re all spiralling slowly inwards…toward us.
The Moon is one of the blocks of ice. It’s not the first Moon the Earth has had, either. Every so often the Earth’s gravity captures a big chunk of ice, which then proceeds to spiral inwards until it finally disintegrates and bombards the Earth with ice-meteors, causing vast destruction followed by equally vast floods. That’s what killed the dinosaurs, and the most recent moon of ice broke up recently enough that myths and legends are full of garbled references to the cataclysm. What’s more, the current Moon is very close, and someday soon it will break up in its turn, obliterating our civilization.
Hörbiger’s theory first saw print in his book Glazial-Cosmogonie in 1913, and between the two world wars it was extremely popular. It still retains a following today, even though astronauts have been on the Moon and found that it was a ball of rock, not ice.
Back in the United States, few people had any clear sense of how bad the situation had become. The major news media, as they had done for decades, accepted whatever came from the White House and the Pentagon at face value. Internet news sites contradicted the official story in every detail, but the internet’s low signal to noise ratio made an accurate picture hard to assemble. Still, cracks were spreading in the wall of denial. The photo of the USS George Washington wrecked and abandoned on a Kenyan sandbar was an internet sensation; two members of the House of Representatives had called for hearings on the war, though their request was stonewalled by the House leadership; through the sullen air of late summer, a sense was beginning to spread that something had gone very wrong.
In the White House, President Weed did not need to guess. Reports from the US forces in Kenya came in daily via the diplomatic line; when Nairobi fell, after a bitter three-day battle near Konza, a new line was jerry-rigged from Kisumu in the far west of the country. Most of the news was bad. The Chinese had brought in more planes, as well as air-defense systems that were making B-52 raids from Diego Garcia risky—two of the bombers had been shot down by surface-to-air missiles already. Meanwhile, there was no way to get supplies in to the American forces and their Kenyan allies; another fleet could not be sent as long as Chinese cruise missiles might be waiting for them, and the loss of air superiority made airlifts equally problematic.
“We tried to get Predator drones in to hit their air defense radar, but they were spotted and taken out,” the DCI—Director of Central Intelligence, the head of the CIA—was saying. “Chinese technology is, well, as good as ours these days.” What he was not saying, Weed knew, was that Chinese technology was better than its US equivalents these days, and half a dozen other countries had the same advantage. The reason wasn’t a mystery, either; most of the officials in the room, starting with Weed himself, had taken donations now and then in exchange for promoting or approving programs that were far more profitable to their manufacturers than they were useful to the US military.
“The Chinese this, the Chinese that,” said the president’s national security adviser. “We’ve talked about them every single day since this started. We need to do something about them.” The vice president, sitting next to her, nodded, and President Weed tilted his head toward her, listening.
All at once, the Secretary of Defense decided that he’d had enough. He slammed his folder of briefings down on the table, pushed his chair back, and stood up. “You’re crazy. I mean that in all seriousness. Since day one you’ve acted as though nothing could go wrong, and when it does, all you can think of is doubling down.” He turned to the president. “Jim, you’ll have my written resignation tomorrow.”
“Bill,” said Weed, “for God’s sake, not now!”
“Personal reasons,” said the Secretary. “Health concerns. I’ll give you all the plausible deniability you want, but I’m through.” The door slammed behind him a moment afterward.
Marines on perimeter guard spotted the messengers first, walking up the main road from Kitale under a white flag. Word came by radio a few minutes later to GHQ in the town of Endebess further west, under the slopes of soaring Mount Elgon. The reply came back at once: get a technical and bring them in. The Marines had a few of the pickups left, though fuel was scarce, like ammo, food, everything else; they managed to scrounge enough gasoline for the trip, and sent the messengers on their way.
The technical skidded to a stop in front of a commandeered primary school not long thereafter. Lieutenant General Jay Seversky, the American commander, greeted the messengers glumly.
After introductions, the Tanzanian colonel who led the group said, “I think you know why I am here, General. You and your men have fought very well, but—” He shrugged. “There is only so much a man can do. The Coalition command has ordered a final assault on your positions. I will not say when, but soon. Maybe you will survive that. Maybe you will survive the next one, too. But—” Another shrug. “The matter is settled; it is merely a question of how many more lives are lost.”
Seversky nodded, once. “I assume you’ve got terms to suggest.”
“Of course.” The colonel pulled an envelope from inside his jacket and handed it to him. Seversky opened it, glanced over the sheet of paper, and nodded again. “I’ll need time to consult with my staff.”
“Of course,” the colonel said again. “Twenty-four hours? I think we can allow that much.”
When the men had gone, Seversky took the sheet of paper back inside. The remaining officers of his staff and the commanders of the four divisions were waiting. He handed the paper to the nearest, waited until it had circled the table.
“Anything from Washington?” This from Tom Blumenthal, the commander of the 101st Airborne.
Seversky snorted. “They’re, quote, evaluating options for a relief force. Unquote.”
“Meaning the bastards can’t do a thing,” said Blumenthal. Nobody argued with him.
For a long moment nobody in the room said anything. They were looking at Blumenthal, and after another moment, Seversky figured out why. The 101st Airborne. The Battle of the Bulge. “Nuts.”
Blumenthal cleared his throat. “If I thought it would gain anything,” he said, “I’d say fight to the last man. But—” His gaze dropped. “This isn’t Bastogne and Patton’s not on the way. I think we have to face the fact that we’ve had our clock cleaned.”
Word of the American force’s surrender reached the White House half an hour before the story broke in the international media. It was a Tuesday morning in September, with the first hint of autumn in the air. Weed stared out the windows of the Oval Office, wishing he could take that September fishing trip he’d planned months ago. No chance of that, not now. Grimly, he turned to his press secretary and told him to have the news media ready for an important press conference at 6 that evening.
Before then, he would have even worse news to face.
At 2 in the morning local time, Chinese special forces personnel left a submarine in the middle of the Indian Ocean and climbed aboard radar-evading inflatable boats. An hour later, they crawled up a poorly guarded beach near the southern tip of Diego Garcia and found hiding places in the thick jungle just inland. Silenced weapons and explosive charges were passed from hand to hand as the four strike teams prepared for their missions. The first explosions hit without warning; by the time the garrison realized what was happening, the heavily guarded island’s radar stations and air defenses were already disabled. Ten minutes later a dark winged shape—the first of a dozen stealth-equipped troop transports packed with Peoples Liberation Army soldiers—came hurtling out of the night to touch down on the captured main runway. By dawn, the entire island was in Chinese hands.
As details trickled into the White House situation room, what kept circling through Weed’s mind was sheer disbelief. Diego Garcia was the beating heart of the entire US Indian Ocean presence, a key logistics and intelligence center and a base from which B-52s could pound trouble spots from Africa to Southeast Asia. Losing Tanzania was a problem; losing Kenya was a crisis; losing Diego Garcia… He shook his head, tried to think.
“Sir?” An aide had come in. “The press conference.”
“Yes. Yes, of course.” He drew in a deep breath and went to the door.
It was by all accounts one of the best speeches of Jameson Weed’s political career. Extempore—he had drawn up a draft before the news came about Diego Garcia, but it was sitting on a desk in the Oval Office as he walked up to the podium—he sketched out the situation, explained what had happened in Kenya, denounced China’s behavior in thundering terms, and broke the news of the fall of Diego Garcia. “Let the Peoples Republic of China make no mistake,” he said. “The United States will not let this unprovoked aggression stand. We will respond with all the forces at our disposal. Nothing is off the table.” He leaned forward, haggard and minatory. “Nothing.”
Half an hour later, the American embassy in Beijing filled in the details for the Chinese government’s benefit: unless China withdrew its forces from East Africa and Diego Garcia, the United States would respond with tactical nuclear strikes. The Chinese response was swift and public. Speaking to a crowd of reporters, the Chinese premier informed the world tartly that China would never bow to threats, and that any attack on Chinese territory or military forces would receive a corresponding response. As he spoke, Chinese diplomats were making it clear to their American opposite numbers that “corresponding response” in this case meant Chinese ICBMs heading for American cities.
Later that evening, the president of Russia appeared on television screens around the world. With Slavic bluntness, he brushed aside the evasions the other leaders had used in public. “The Russian Federation has been informed,” he told the world, “that the United States has threatened China with nuclear attack. Such threats are impermissible in today’s world. It is therefore my duty to state that treaties between the Russian Federation and the Peoples Republic of China require us, if China is attacked with nuclear weapons, to respond with our own nuclear arsenal.”
No one who lived through the three days that followed would ever forget them. Seven billion people who had come to think of mushroom clouds as a bad memory of the Cold War suddenly had to face the imminent prospect of nuclear war. Defiant words from Washington, proud rebuttals from Beijing, and frantic diplomacy by the United Nations punctuated the panic that gripped the globe. The words of the Emperor of Japan, broadcast live to a worldwide audience—“Japan alone among nations has suffered attack by nuclear weapons, and it is Our deepest wish that no other nation should share that same bitter fate. We ask—no, We plead—that the leaders of the contending powers step back from so terrible an abyss”—spoke for billions. Meanwhile, in missile silos, bomber bases, and submarines, young men and women waited for orders that, for all practical purposes, would mean the end of the world.
In the United States, civil defense plans dating back to the Eisenhower administration were dusted off and activated. One of them mandated that the National Defense Highway System—better known as the nation’s freeways—be closed to civilian traffic. There were good practical reasons for that step, but nobody had thought about what would happen when millions of Americans tried to flee urban targets and found the freeways barricaded. On the first day of the crisis, most people were too stunned to do anything but follow the instructions that filled the media—stay put, seek cover, you are safer at home than out in the countryside—but the following night brought second thoughts.
The next morning, people in large cities all over America tried to get out. Surface streets quickly filled up, turning into bumper-to-bumper jams that in one case stretched for forty miles. Inevitably, those who found that route closed turned again to the freeways, where police, National Guard units and Homeland Security troops in black riot armor manned the barricades. The flashpoint arrived toward sunset in Trenton, New Jersey, where a terrified mob, convinced that the missiles were already on the way, tried to rush the barricades on the John Fitch Parkway. Someone in the crowd had a handgun; shots rang out; an inexperienced Homeland Security officer panicked, and ordered his troops to open fire. By the time the shooting stopped, thirty-seven civilians were dead and more than a hundred wounded.
The government scrambled to keep word of the Trenton Massacre, as it came to be called, from getting out. News media had already been put under wartime censorship, and social media online were pressured into deleting references to the shootings as they appeared, but email and telephones were harder to stop. Worse, the lack of accurate information fed terrifying rumors. As Americans huddled in makeshift bomb shelters across the country, it was all too easy to believe that a government willing to plunge the world into nuclear war might be capable of anything. In the process, for a very large number of Americans, the United States stopped being “us” and turned into “them.”
That would have immense results in the near future, but there were also more immediate consequences. In Austin that night, after a flurry of calls from worried constituents, the governor of Texas pulled rank on the phone company, got a line through to a business friend of his in Trenton, and obtained a good account of what had happened. The governor could all too easily imagine what would happen if such an incident happened in proud, gun-loving Texas, and his next call was to Homeland Security.
The official cut him off halfway through a sentence with a brisk we-have-our-orders brushoff, and the conversation went downhill from there. Finally the governor slammed down the phone with a roar of polymorphous profanity that left his assistants awed. He flung himself up from the desk and paced around the room—a danger sign everyone in the state government knew and feared—and then returned to the phone, calling the old Army buddy of his who was the commander of the Texas National Guard, and the close political ally of his who was the head of the Texas Rangers. Both had been put under Homeland Security authority by executive order for the duration of the crisis, but a clash between Washington orders and Texas loyalties could have only one result.
Then the governor called Homeland Security back. “You listen to me, sumbitch,” he said, stabbing the air with a finger the size of a sausage. “You’re out of a job in this state. The Texas National Guard and the Texas Rangers will be handling public safety in this state, under my command.”
“You can’t do that,” the official spluttered.
“Try me.” Another jab with the finger. “Get your thugs out of my state in twenty-four hours. You hear me? Twenty-four hours.” He slammed down the phone, hard. Minutes later, on a new phone, he was calling drinking buddies of his who happened also to be the governors of half a dozen Southern states.
Across the nation, as the third day of the nuclear crisis began and the news of the Trenton Massacre spread, the same pattern played out on many different scales, and the federal government began to lose control of its security forces. Police officers in some places refused to man the barricades or pulled them open and waved people through. National Guardsmen in some cities stayed in their barracks or simply joined the crowds, taking their guns with them. Texas was openly defying the national government—the Homeland Security director there, after frantic calls to Washington, fled to Denver—and four other states were on the brink of joining in.
It may have been this hard reality, added to the other pressures he faced, that convinced Jameson Weed to take the only way out of the crisis. That night, just before midnight, he met with the secretary general of the United Nations and agreed to a ceasefire.
End of the World of the Week #44
While we’re on the subject of ice, could we please talk honestly about the great global cooling scare of the late 1970s? Yes, it happened; books such as Nigel Calder’s The Weather Machine, which publicized the threat of an imminent ice age, can still be found in used book stores and those libraries—increasingly rare these days—that hang onto books old enough to contradict today’s conventional wisdom; those of my readers who have the chance to visit the Smithsonian Natural History Museum may yet have the chance to see a display announcing that a new ice age is on the way, with an embarrassed note taped next to it stating that this no longer reflects current science.
What happened was this: a number of climate scientists noted that global temperatures had declined somewhat between the 1940s and the 1970s, that it had been about 11,000 years since the end of the last ice age, and that the intervals between ice ages average around 11,000 years. They hypothesized, on this basis, that the world might be about to begin the descent into the next round of glaciation. That hypothesis—quite a reasonable one, given the data available at the time—got picked up by the media and assorted science writers, and turned into something much more definite than a hypothesis. Before long, Time and Newsweek were announcing that catastrophic global cooling could begin within a decade, and science fiction novelists started setting stories on future Earths mantled in snow—Poul Anderson’s The Winter of the World was a favorite of mine, and indeed still is.
All that was needed to turn this into a good solid apocalyptic scare was a theoretical mechanism to allow an ice age to begin in less than a thousand years or so, and Nigel Calder provided it with his “snowblitz” theory—a proposal that heavy snowfall across the northern temperate zone could produce a feedback loop by reflecting too much solar heat back into space, cooling the planet drastically. Before long, large areas of Canada and Russia would be under permanent snow, with plunging temperatures worldwide adding to the fun. The math didn’t really work that well, but it made for great prophecy.
For a few years in the early 1980s, some people waited breathlessly for each year’s report on the planet’s annual temperature, expecting steep declines. Instead, the modest declines that had been ongoing since the 1940s turned around, and the planet began warming up instead.
The church bells rang all night; perfect strangers embraced and kissed each other or fell on their knees and prayed together, depending on inclination; a baby boomlet nine months later revealed how many Americans celebrated the sudden discovery that life would go on. Around the world, crews in missile silos, bomber bases and submarines sagged with relief as they got the order to stand down. In the US, the few police and National Guard units still barricading freeways and guarding government assets melted into the cheering crowds. The threat of nuclear war was past.
As a cold gray morning spread over Washington, though, Jameson Weed surveyed what was left of his presidency, and dropped his head into his hands. A negotiation team would soon be its way to Geneva to meet its Chinese and Tanzanian opposite numbers and settle on a peace treaty. No matter how hard the spin doctors worked it, he knew, that treaty would mean a bitter defeat for America, and his solid grasp of the realities of American politics told him exactly who would be blamed for it.
The treaty, as it turned out, was surprisingly generous. No one had to admit fault or pay reparations; the United States simply had to accept the status quo in East Africa and assign its rights over Diego Garcia—which was owned by Great Britain anyway—to the Peoples Republic of China. Since the United States had no effective way to contest either demand, there was clearly no point in quibbling. The treaty was signed at the beginning of October, and ratified by a glum Congress three days later.
Before that happened, though, two things pushed the country deeper into crisis. The first was that one of the television networks broke the story of the naval disaster. That was partly political—the network had close ties to the most likely presidential candidate from the other party—and partly the ordinary business of the news media, but it dealt a body blow to the nation’s morale. The network found surviving crew members who had been evacuated to Europe before Mombasa fell, and brought in testimony from analysts who spent decades trying to warn the Navy of the obsolescence of carriers in an age of cruise missiles. The rest of the news media quickly joined the feeding frenzy.
The second was more serious still. As the world began to grapple with the fact that the United States was no longer the world’s strongest nation, investors began selling dollar-denominated investments. The selling began in the most risky kinds of speculative paper, but spread rapidly from there, sending the dollar down hard. Frantic attempts by central banks to stop the collapse crumpled in the face of a self-feeding panic, as investors all over the world and in America scrambled to get out of the dollar at any cost. As the dollar plunged against foreign currencies, the price of gasoline shot upwards to $12 a gallon and kept climbing, and many other imported goods became unavailable at any price.
Then, a week before the signing of the treaty, one of the nation’s biggest investment banks went broke. Its traders had used inside knowledge of US policy to take huge positions in derivative markets that would pay off once regime change took place in Tanzania. The possibility that the US might lose had never occurred to them, and the unhedged risk left them hopelessly in the red. Bankers hurried to Washington, only to find that printing trillions of dollars for a bailout when the dollar was already in freefall was not an option. The following Friday, after markets closed, a grim-faced executive from Goldman Sachs announced that her firm was bankrupt and would go out of business. Over the next six weeks, US stock market averages lost a third of their value, erasing tens of trillions of dollars in paper wealth, and eight other major financial firms that had been considered too big to fail failed anyway.
Well before that process was over, though, the country had a new president. Two days after the peace treaty was ratified, as planeloads of American POWs were leaving Nairobi Airport to begin their trip home, Jameson Weed stood behind the presidential podium one last time and resigned his office. His final speech was simple and dignified; he took full responsibility for the mistakes made during his presidency, expressed his total confidence in his vice president and successor, and asked God’s blessing for the nation. When he was finished with the speech, he went to his private quarters, took a revolver from a desk drawer, and shot himself through the head.
The new president, Leonard Gurney, was arguably not the best man for the difficult job into which he was so suddenly thrown. A gifted communicator, skilled at finding and shaping the pulse of the public, might have done much, but Gurney had no such talents. The scion of a wealthy family, brought onto the ticket to conciliate a powerful faction of his party, he had little grasp of practical politics and no sense of the plight into which the East African war and its aftermath had flung most Americans. To him, the crucial issues were reestablishing the authority of the executive branch and funding a military buildup that would enable the United States to retake the lead from the Chinese and regain its former role of global dominance.
It was an agenda hopelessly out of touch with the times. The wildly cheering crowds in Beijing were welcoming a new international order in which America was no longer the sole superpower, and might not be a superpower at all for much longer. In the wake of the East African war, a growing number of erstwhile US allies told the US military units based on their territory to leave, and made overtures to the Chinese. For that matter, between plunging tax revenues, the collapse in the dollar’s value, and the ongoing bear market in treasury bills, the US could no longer afford the bases it maintained around the world, and the carrier groups that had been the keystone of American power were as obsolete as Old Ironsides. Gurney and his advisers could not grasp this, and demanded money from a nearly bankrupt nation to fund the grandiose military projects they thought could rebuild America’s power. Meanwhile China scrapped its one carrier and fielded a new navy of small, fast, expendable ships, a move copied promptly by such rising powers as India and Brazil.
Worse still, Gurney’s efforts came at a time when economic issues had taken center stage in the minds of most Americans. The collapse in the dollar and the drying up of imports gutted the economies of both coasts; while the farm belt enjoyed a modest boom and manufacturing firms that produced goods for the domestic market found themselves profitable again, these upticks did not begin to balance the impoverishment of tens of millions of Americans whose wealth depended in one way or another on the imploding financial sphere. From retirees on fixed incomes to upper-crust families with hereditary wealth, those whose fortunes depended on paper assets found themselves plunged into poverty.
There had been tent cities surrounding most American cities before the war, but their number and the number of people living in them soared as autumn turned to winter. Stories about deaths from cold and malnutrition began to appear in the media. Added to the failed war, the Trenton Massacre, and the utter disconnect between the new adminstration’s policies and the new realities of the postwar world, the ongoing implosion of the American economy pushed the nation into a crisis of legitimacy—a crisis that Gurney and his advisers apparently did not notice at all. Speech after presidential speech insisting that the solution to the economic crisis would come from defense jobs and a restoration of American power in the world bred resentment and, worse, contempt.
Lacking meaningful leadership from the White House, the pressure on Congress to do something, or at least to appear to do something, about the rapid increase in poverty became too great to ignore. The gridlock between parties rewarded by their constituents for refusing compromise remained frozen in place, and though the speeches grew more shrill as the crisis deepened, few substantive steps could be acceptable to both sides. One party insisted on increased spending, the other party insisted on lower taxes, and the bear market in treasury bills made it increasingly clear that the old days of borrow-and-spend could not be revived without turning the dollar’s ongoing slump into a death spiral.
It was out of desperation at that gridlock that the New American Prosperity Act was drafted by a bipartisan committee. It was thicker than the Los Angeles phone book and packed with giveaways to a galaxy of pet causes and special interests, but the core of the proposed act was an expansive new social welfare program, the costs of which would be borne almost entirely by the states.
Unfunded mandates—programs imposed on the states by the federal government, which provided no money to pay for them—had been a bone of contention for decades. NAPA was arguably no more onerous for the states than earlier unfunded mandates, but it came when many states had suspended payment on their debts, and some were struggling even to pay salaries. State governments lobbied hard to keep NAPA off the books, to no avail; the act passed the House in January and the Senate in early March, and was signed into law by President Gurney a few days later. The following week, the state legislature of Arkansas passed, with no dissenting votes, a resolution calling for a constitutional convention to pass an amendment that would outlaw all unfunded mandates.
The initial reaction of the Washington establishment and the national media to the Arkansas bill was hilarity. The US constitution gave state legislatures the power to call a convention if two-thirds supported the proposal, and pass the resulting amendment if three-quarters of the states approved it, but that provision had never been used; it had been more than a century since it had even been tried. Jokes about rewriting the constitution in Arkansas dialect made the rounds of the late night talk shows.
The next week, Montana and New Hampshire passed identical resolutions, and the laughing stopped. Pundits churned out essays explaining why tinkering with the constitution should be left to Congress if it had to be done at all. Canned polls insisted that most Americans opposed a convention. The state legislatures ignored them. They had their own ways of gauging the temper of the public, and what they heard was that people were eager to see the constitution amended. It wasn’t just unfunded mandates, either: somewhere in the course of the past year, most Americans had become convinced that the system under which they lived was broken, and needed much more than cosmetic change.
Four state legislatures called for a convention the following week, and five the week following. After that, the floodgates opened, as state governments realized that the chance to force major change really was in their hands. Two weeks later, the magic number of 34 states was only a few more votes away.
At that point Congress panicked, repealed NAPA, and began to draft an amendment of its own that would limit, though not ban, unfunded mandates. It was much too little and far too late. The idea of a thorough revision of the constitution was everywhere; state politicians were advocating this or that reform; a few members of the House of Representatives, sensing which way the political wind was blowing, joined the agitation. President Gurney denounced the proposed convention repeatedly in his weekly internet videos on the White House website, but few people were listening.
On April 24, Oregon became the 34th state to call for a constitutional convention; five more did so over the course of the next month, making any legal challenge moot. The Washington establishment fought to have the new convention in Philadelphia, but lost; the delegates would meet in St. Louis, Missouri at the beginning of September. Congress exercised its right to decree that any new amendment would have to be ratified by conventions in at least three-quarters of the states, rather than by three-quarters of state legislatures, in the hope that this might stymie a power grab by state governments. It was a disastrous miscalculation, though no one would know that for months.
Rallies, speeches, and demonstrations framed the elections that, state by state, chose the 250 delegates charged with reinventing the constitution. More than two hundred books urging one or another reform to the constitution saw print during those frantic months. People at all points of the political spectrum placed extraordinary and incompatible hopes on the convention, extending to the wildest fantasies of left and right. Years afterward, rumors claimed that the national political parties had encouraged this explosion of extreme views, and helped extremists get elected as delegates, in the hope that this would cause the convention to deadlock. If this was true, it was an even more disastrous miscalculation.
The constitutional convention opened on September 5 in the full glare of the world media. At first, all went smoothly; an amendment banning unfunded mandates and several other abuses of federal power over the states was introduced, debated, and passed. The leaders of the moderate factions then moved to declare the convention over and go home.
The motion was heavily defeated. Most of the delegates who had come to St. Louis, and most of their constituents at home, wanted more—much more. The difficulty that surfaced, as the convention continued, was that what the people wanted varied so drastically that common ground was impossible to find. Red states wanted the right to own guns strengthened; blue states wanted it abolished. Some Americans wanted to make the right to private decisions about abortion sacrosanct; others wanted an amendment guaranteeing the rights of the unborn. Nearly every fault line through American society gaped open in the debates. New issues—hard limits on the power of presidents to wage war without consent of Congress, hard limits on the power of Congress to pass laws without consent of the states or the people, and many more—rose up to join existing divisions, and sparked fierce debates of their own.
It so happened that delegates to the convention were seated by state, in alphabetical order. As a result, one of the delegates from Utah sat next to one of the delegates from Vermont. Late in the afternoon of the 18th, after a day of bruising debates, the Utah delegate slumped back in her chair and said wearily, “I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we just dissolve the Union and let everyone have what they want.”
“I could live with that,” snapped the delegate from Vermont.
She considered him for a long moment. “I’m starting to think a lot of people could.”
They worked out the details in the empty meeting room after a dinner of takeout Thai. Both were state representatives with law degrees, and every delegate had been issued a copy of the constitution with all its amendments, so it took only a short time to work out what would become the 28th Amendment:
Article I: The Union of the States is hereby dissolved, and the several States shall be free to make other arrangements for their welfare.
Article II: All property of the former federal government in each State, at the time this amendment is ratified, shall become the property of that State.
Article III: All property of the former federal government outside the territory of the States shall be divided by agreement among the several States.
The proposed amendment was presented by both delegates to the relevant committee the next morning. The response was stunned silence. The amendment was found to be in proper form, and a hearing was scheduled for the next day. Long before that happened, everyone at the convention from the delegates to the kitchen staff at the convention center sensed that something immense had happened. A line had been crossed, and there might be no going back.
End of the World of the Week #45
Sudden ice ages, the theme of last week’s End of the World of the Week, got picked up and used for local color in a number of other apocalyptic prophecies of the 1970s and 1980s. One of the most colorful was the prediction of cataclysmic earth changes retailed by psychic archeologist Jeffrey Goodman in his 1977 bestseller We Are The Earthquake Generation. Basing his prophecy on the future visions of seven popular psychics, Goodman painted a terrifying picture of cataclysmic earthquakes that would plunge the western half of North America beneath the sea, turn Kansas into a seacoast state, and tear huge rifts in the earth’s crust. Meanwhile Europe would be plunged into an ice age as land rising from the Atlantic deeps cut off the Gulf Stream.
The New Age press fastened on Goodman’s prophecies with enthusiasm, and when Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1982, there was no shortage of predictions that the rest of the Earthquake Generation scenario would follow shortly. The twenty-year “season of catastrophes” Goodman predicted, though, somehow failed to show up. Western Kansas was supposed to be beachfront property by 1992, and the whole world transformed by 2000; instead, the earth kept on producing distressingly ordinary earthquakes instead of the gargantuan (and physically impossible) ones Goodman expected.