As long as the Soviet Union existed, voices were heard in the United States favoring peaceful co-existence with the socialist bloc, pushing for unilateral reduction in the country’s defense expenditures, and protesting the development of nuclear weapons. Some of those voices were well-meaning and naive, while others were serving a “higher” purpose. Seeking to replace individual liberty with collective action, all of them were blind to the gulags, murder, plunder, absence of liberty, and economic deprivations that defined the socialist landscape for most of this century.
In the early 1980’s, a television show about a nuclear holocaust, The Day After, captured the essence of this movement which believed in the good intentions of socialist leaders, legislated outcomes, and unilateral disarmament. In response to that show, we published the following short story in 1984 in Pathfinder, a bimonthly magazine published by the Center for Free Enterprise at Texas A&M University. It was republished in dozens of newspapers, student publications, bulletins, pamphlets, and newsletters. The story caught fire because it made the difference between the freedom of choice and the sanctity of law on the one hand and social engineering and totalitarian rule on the other understandable (and observable) to an American audience—especially an audience of young people.
Today, the consequences of the socialist experiment, perhaps the costliest experiment in human history, are fading from our memories. For university students in the West, the socialist rule in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe is fast becoming ancient history, something that could not possibly happen again. Young men and women are busy with their careers in competitive markets. Baby-boomers in the United States are unities.
Memories are in short supply in the East as well. In Serbia and Bosnia, people are talking about the good old days under Tito. They forget that the leaders of Bosnia and Serbia today, whatever we might think of them, have been elected by the population at large, while Tito imposed his rule by force. They forget that Tito’s “war of liberation” (1944-1945), which was very costly in terms of the number of people killed and property destroyed, freed Yugoslavia from the German occupation not a day sooner than would have happened anyhow. To seal his victory over the opponents of communism in 1945, Tito murdered over 30,000 Croats, Serbs, and Slovenes. In the early 1950’s, Tito organized concentration camps which were probably worse than Stalin’s gulags. As late as the 1970’s, Tito conducted a major purge that condemned thousands of people to unemployment and jail sentences.
But appearances are often deceptive. The ugly head of socialism is in hiding but not dead. Some people are clearly unhappy with the fact that the private property, free-market economy has proved its superiority over socialism. Consumer advocates, labor unions, pressure groups, and all sorts of public interest defenders are pushing for more public spending and more governmental controls. Apologists for socialism argue that by pursuing their own ends, the political leaders in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Cuba, and elsewhere ruined the chance for socialism to prove itself as a viable alternative to capitalism. We think they have a point. In order to explain the performance of socialist economies, analysis has to assume that the leaders did indeed pursue their own private ends; of course, they pursued their private ends within the system of incentives embedded in socialist institutions.
Collectivism and welfarism are very much alive in the world today. President Clinton almost succeeded in socializing health care in the United States, and he continues to develop and push new public programs. A huge bureaucracy is being created in Brussels, which will slowly but surely replace national sovereignty and the freedom of choice in Western Europe with continentally legislated outcomes. Even the recent trip of Pope John Paul II to Cuba gave a helping hand to one of the greatest opponents of liberty.
That is why the story we wrote in 1984 is worth reprinting at this time. It reminds us that what was indeed happening in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union before 1990, and is still happening in China, North Korea, Cuba, and other socialist states today, must be remembered so that it does not happen again. “The Day After ‘The Day After'” is based in fact. Anyone who lived in an Eastern European country during the socialist rule, as one of us did, can tell many stories about the consequences of the institutions of socialism. Here is our story.
The Day After “The Day After”
It was a strange day in Lawrence, Kansas. There was a stillness in the crisp fall air. People felt something was about to happen, but they didn’t know what. Radio stations played only music and TV stations showed old movies, and both made frequent announcements that the President of the United States would make an important speech that night at seven. All around the nation was the same. People speculated, worried, and waited.
The mayor of Lawrence was home for lunch, playing with his new baby. His wife asked him if he knew what was wrong, and he said he didn’t. So they talked about the baby during lunch.
At 7 P.M., TV sets across the entire nation were tuned in when the President came on. He was followed by the secretary of the Communist Party of the United States and the widely recognized Soviet ambassador. The President spoke grimly:
My dear fellow Americans, I am deeply sorry to have to inform you that the Soviet Union has requested a change in the government of the United States. The elected government has resigned. Your new President will be the secretary of the Communist Party of the United States. We had no choice. The alternative would have been the nuclear destruction of our beloved country. We had neither the weapons to resist nor the retaliatory capacity to offset the threat.
As two soldiers pulled him from the chair, he kept saying, “We had no choice. We had no choice. We had no choice . . . ” The party secretary sat down and spoke.
Comrades, this is the greatest day in the history of our nation. It is the day when the working people of this country have finally been able to throw off the chains of oppression forged by the capitalist class. I am proud to tell you that as of today, instead of the United States of America, we have a country that we can proudly call the People’s Republic of America. We are going to be ruthless toward those who have oppressed us for so long. The former President is now joining members of his Cabinet along with the military and business leaders of yesterday in a detention camp where their crimes will be investigated by the people’s authority. Public trials will be held to expose their crimes to the nation. This is the beginning of a new era.
Then the screen went blank. The TV stations started playing classical music the rest of the night. In Lawrence, the mayor’s wife turned to her husband. “What do you think happened?” “I don’t know,” he said. “We wanted peace. We wanted to save the world from a nuclear holocaust. Our President promised nuclear disarmament, and we elected him and his Congress. We got what we wanted . . . but I guess we may have been wrong. Now there is nothing to do but wait and hope for the best. There is nothing else we can do.”
The phone rang. When the mayor answered, the caller said: “Mayor, I represent the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Tomorrow at 9 A.M. we expect you to have everyone in the city assembled in the football stadium on the campus.” The mayor began to protest that he couldn’t possibly have everyone there on such short notice, but the caller stopped him. “That is your problem. Make sure everyone is there.” And he hung up.
The mayor and his staff began phoning people, who in turn phoned others. Speaker trucks were sent through the city all night to announce the meeting next morning. The word got around and by nine the population had assembled in the stadium.
At 9:15, a car occupied by a driver and three other men entered the stadium, followed by two trucks of Russian soldiers. The three men were Sam Cunningham, a member of the U.S. Communist Party, Vasja Stronovich, representing the Ministry of Information, and an officer of the KCB. The KCB officer had used many names.
Stronovich spoke into a hastily assembled microphone, telling the people that their exploiters were finished. He called for the mayor, who joined them and was immediately shot by a soldier. Stronovich then spoke to the people of Lawrence: “We are going to punish all capitalists and avenge you for all those years of exploitation at their hands. I want all people who own property to go to the parking lot. There will be no exceptions. All others, the working people, stay here.”
After an hour of confusion, two groups of about equal size had formed, one outside the stadium and one inside. Sam Cunningham then spoke to the people in the stadium:
We are going to have a parade tonight. Every man, woman and child will march. We will demonstrate how happy we are to see this change in government. We will show the world that this change has been requested—no, demanded—by the people, to free them from the capitalist yoke. This parade, and the others that will go on throughout the country, will show that we are merely carrying out the people’s will.
Meanwhile, the KGB officer spoke to the people in the parking lot. “You will be questioned and investigated by me and members of my staff. A temporary office has been set up in the student union next door. You line up and wait.” The capitalists lined up and waited. The investigation lasted all day. As each person or family came to a desk, an officer asked the same question: “What kind of property do you own?”
When an older couple was questioned the man answered, “I am a retired teacher. We saved some money while I was working and opened a small convenience store.” When he was asked if he ever worked for profit, the man answered, “Well, if that’s what you want to call what is left over after we paid all of our expenses, yes.” “Then you have exploited the people. You are a member of the blood-sucking capitalist class. The property you stole from the people is now returned to the people. You will be sent to a detention camp for re-education.” The wife said, “We have done nothing. Why can’t we just go home?” “You have no home. Your house was built on the profits you stole from others. It now belongs to the people. You and all other capitalists will do hard labor eight hours a day to pay back the country for all you stole. You will have political education four hours a day, and the rest of the time will be your own.” The wife cried, “But what about our grandchildren? They live with us.” She was told, “If they denounce you publicly the people’s government will take care of them. If not they go with you.” The couple was taken away.
It was the same thing as person after person came to one of the desks in the union. One man asked if he could go and get some personal property from the sporting goods store he owned. When he was told that he had no right to the property because it was purchased from money extracted from the working people, the man shouted, “This is nonsense. If I can’t get my personal property, I refuse to leave.” The questioning KCB man nodded to a soldier; the former capitalist was shot and dragged off. The KGB man shouted at the waiting people, “Stupidity! Does any one else have any objections?” No one answered. He went on:
Look, it doesn’t matter whether you own a small business or a big business. It doesn’t matter whether you are a stockholder or work in your own business. Even if you have a horse and rent it out to people, you have been living off the work of others. You have been infected by ownership, which is dangerous.
A voice came from the crowd, protesting that more than half of Americans own something —investments, real estate, stocks, a store, or something. The KGB man replied, “They did yesterday. Today it belongs to the people.”
By the end of the day, all the people who had assembled on the parking lot had been taken to freight cars, which transported them to detention camps. Eew were ever seen again.
During the afternoon, Vasja Stronovich finished speaking to the people in the stadium:
It is important that everyone joins the parade tonight. You must all laugh, smile, and show how happy you are that after more than 200 years of capitalist exploitation in America, you have your own country, your own government. You are the government. Wives and children will march also. We must show to the world we are united; we are all enjoying the happiness of the new regime.
A voice came from the crowd: “What if we don’t want to march? Will you take us to court?” Stronovich answered calmly: “If you want to be an enemy of the people that is your choice, but you will join the exploiters in detention camps. The people decide everything, and we represent the people.” A student asked, “But who elected you?” The student was quickly taken away. There were no more questions.
Beginning at seven that night half of the people of Lawrence, Kansas, marched through the streets to show how much they loved their new government. They shouted and displayed big signs that said: “Long live the People’s Republic,” “Down with the exploiters of the People.” Half of the people of Lawrence never got the chance to march. They were riding freight cars.
All over the globe people watched on TV as the people of Lawrence and other American cities marched, seeing how citizens of the United States welcomed the new government. They did not know that half of the population had been arrested, and they did not see the armed Russian soldiers standing in the side streets. So people said: “If the communists were so bad, so many people wouldn’t be happy. The Americans were smart. They stopped spending money on defense. Now they have united with the Russian people under a new government. At long last the world is safe.” Of course, socialist leaders in the Soviet Union, China, and other socialist states were joking about the stupid, naive capitalists who were so worried about the chances of nuclear destruction that they would not defend themselves.