That time a cartoon preempted the Cuban Missile Crisis
In his column looking back at past interviews, veteran journalist A. Craig Copetas remembers a time when The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends offered an alternative version of US-Soviet history.
A skirmish has broken out in the far reaches of cyberspace. Analysts fret the fracas could escalate into a conflict bigger than the ongoing 22-year war over whether Jar Jar Binks is a Sith Lord and along the way persuade a substantial number of Britney Spears’s 36 million Instagram followers to abandon the Free Britney Movement to support a new cause.
“There is a lot to enjoy here,” Oxford University Press OUPblog contributor Mark Peters forewarned in his 2008 study “Futurama’s Human-Insult-a-Palooza”.
This is no whimsy for the legions of die-hard fans of Futurama, the on-again, off-again 1999 cartoon show developed by Simpson’s creator Matt Groening. One camp of Futurama enthusiasts insists the character Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth uses the expression “dribble poop”, while the other side maintains he says “drivel poop”.
Such silliness is serious business on social media. Doubters need look no further than the digital brouhaha that erupted when The New York Times reported, “A screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways” instead of “A screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves.”
Indeed, the fallout over whether Bruce Springsteen sings “sways” or “waves” in his megahit song “Thunder Road” created an international call to arms as dangerous as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I know. I was there. So, as Springsteen says to Mary, “Show a little faith.”
If you were absent from school that day, the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred when US President John F Kennedy on October 16, 1962, discovered Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was shipping missiles to Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The Cold War crisis lasted 13 days, nearly triggered a global nuclear war and ended only when Castro and Khrushchev dismantled the launch sites and sent the missiles back to Russia.
But that is not what really happened; in fact, the Cuban Missile Crisis was a successfully executed Kremlin ruse designed to prevent Moosylvania from becoming the 51st American state and allow Russia’s ally Pottsylvania another attempt to take control of the independent territory situated on the border between Minnesota and Canada.
The US Department of Defense at the time instructed all schools to conduct daily classroom “Duck and Cover” drills that would shield us from a nuclear holocaust. The government said that cowering under a desk was more than ample protection against being vapourised by thermonuclear warheads launched from Cuba. As we were bereft of Instagram, messages outlining the real story were written by hand and, in my Pittsburgh school, passed along to Gus and Susie, who later on a rotary dial phone called their cousins in Miami and St Louis, where they spread the news.
And the word back from Florida, Missouri and elsewhere confirmed our suspicions. In the months leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US was atwitter about the animated cartoon The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends. Rocky was a squirrel, Bullwinkle was a moose and, with their creator Jay Ward, the trio had embarked on a nationwide tour to convince politicians to admit their independent territory of Moosylvania into the Union. There were banners, buttons and rallies.
And there was a clear and present danger, too. The Soviet-like satellite state of Pottsylvania (think Belarus 2021) was run by the dictator Fearless Leader (think Alexander Lukashenko), who had dispatched secret agents Boris Badenov (Dr Evil in “Austin Powers”) and Natasha Fatale (Mandy in “Totally Spies!”) to assassinate Rocky and Bullwinkle and take control of Moosylvania.
This was no Loony Toons scenario.
On October 13, Rocky, Bullwinkle and Ward were officially scheduled to huddle with President Kennedy and other White House officials to discuss Moosylvania’s application for statehood. The missile crisis abruptly cancelled the meeting, leaving Moosylvania to this day under the threat of foreign aggression.
Rocky and Bullwinkle initially told their version of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the show’s “The Guns of Abalone” episode. The explanation still makes more sense than using a desk as protection against a nuclear weapon.
I confirmed the facts years later over lunch with Squirrel and Moose.
“Hokey Smoke!” said June Foray, who voiced Rocky in all of the show’s 163 episodes. “It’s all true.”
“You’d better report that as accurate,” said Bill Scott, the voice of the Moose. “We could use the publicity.”
Not that they needed it. Robert De Niro – playing the role of Fearless Leader in the prescient 2000 film The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle – gleefully confirmed the veracity of Pottsylvania’s plan to conquer Moosylvania as its first step to overthrowing the US government.
In the movie, Fearless Leader launches the Really Bad Television network, which saturates the airwaves with programming devised to brainwash Americans into electing him as president of the United States. And the conspiracy was working, until Rocky and Bullwinkle, without any government help, foiled the dastardly scheme.
“There has never been a way to destroy a cartoon character,” Fearless Leader said.
“I’m not permitted to discuss Moose and Squirrel, but, yes, we know them well,” a senior Soviet apparatchik forebodingly confirmed in an interview during my years stationed as a correspondent in Moscow in the 1980s. And not just any Soviet official. This was Georgy Arbatov, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ powerful Institute for US and Canada Studies, intermediary between the Politburo and the KGB and personal adviser to five Kremlin leaders, including Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“Draw your own conclusions,” Arbatov said, adding, “Moose and Squirrel tell us much about your country and are a most effective way to learn American English.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.