There can be few readers of ‘‘The Golden Kite, the Silver Wind,’’ especially those who note the date of the story’s first publication, who have not viewed it an allegory of the cold war, with the deadly rivalry between the cities regarding the shape of their walls being a metaphorical presentation of the nuclear arms race. However, in an interview with Steven L. Aggelis in 2002, in which Aggelis asked whether ‘‘The Golden Kite, the Silver Wind’’ and ‘‘The Meadow,’’ another story that appears in the same short-story collection, were intended as ‘‘pro United Nations pieces,’’ Bradbury denied that he had any political theme in mind.
Be that as it may, ‘‘The Meadow,’’ first published just two years after the end of World War II, the founding of the United Nations, and the birth of the atomic age, undoubtedly has some thematic links to ‘‘The Golden Kite, the Silver Wind.’’‘‘The Meadow’’ opens with a description of many of the great cities of the world destroyed and lying in ruins. The reader immediately thinks of the aftermath of nuclear war, but it is quickly revealed that the destruction is not of real cities but of Hollywood movie sets. Smith, an old night watchman, is then shown trying to nail the sets back up again. For him, the sets are more real than the actual world he reads about, in which there are always wars. In the world of the sets, which depict many cities and nations, there is peace. Everything is so crowded together, and so intertwined, there is no room for conflict, ‘‘because you got Boston joined to Trinidad … part of Trinidad poking out of Lisbon, part of Lisbon leaning on Alexandria, Alexandria tacked onto Shanghai,’’ and so on. In his eyes, pulling the sets down is an act of war. He thinks of himself as the last builder, while everyone else is part of the wrecking crew, and he manages to convince a movie producer to let the sets stand. The producer realizes he has the ‘‘World Federation’’ in his own backyard and he never realized it: ‘‘all the cities and countries here, leaning on and holding each other up.’’ The movie sets are thus metaphors for the nations of the world that are so interdependent that they are compelled to live at peace with one another. To bring one down, say by fire, would mean that they would all collapse.
Bradbury traced this story to his early teenage years when he would go to the movie studios and watch as they built and then destroyed the sets. He acknowledged in the interview with Aggelis that in ‘‘The Meadow’’ the sets were ‘‘metaphorically representative of the world,’’ but the story ‘‘wasn’t about politics at all.’’ This comment surely suggests a general truth about any creative artist: the writer may not always be fully aware, at the conscious level, of what he or she is producing but is able nonetheless to tap into the collective consciousness of the society, articulate its concerns and—in this case—give it a vision of what direction it might take to serve the general good. There would be no denying, for example, the thematic similarities between ‘‘The Meadow’’ and ‘‘The Golden Kite, the Silver Wind’’ that are political in nature. They both end with a vision of societal cooperation rather than conflict, of peace rather than war. In ‘‘The Meadow,’’ Smith, the night watchman—his name, because it is such a common one, makes him a kind of Everyman figure—shows the man in authority an alternative to destruction. Similarly, the Mandarin’s daughter in ‘‘The Golden Kite, the Silver Wind’’ also shows those in authority a better way than perpetual conflict. In terms of the cold war allegory, Smith and the daughter show the way beyond mutual assured destruction, the phrase that expressed the inevitable consequences of nuclear war between the superpowers during the cold war.
Bradbury may not have thought of ‘‘The Golden Kite, the Silver Wind’’ in political terms, but most readers likely will. It is a prescient story in so many ways. Not only does it comment on the global politics of the 1950s, it looks well beyond that and anticipates some of the developments that took place in the decades from the 1950s to the 1980s, when the cold war finally ended. In its highly poetic, metaphorical way, the story expresses a utopian, idealistic vision of what human society might become.
That utopian vision is the opposite of the reality that the two cities create for themselves at the beginning of the story. They manage to get locked into a self-perpetuating destructive standoff that is the equivalent of what is sometimes referred to as a zero-sum game. This term is derived from game theory and has been also used in the analysis of economics and politics. Basically, a zero-sum game is one in which, if one entity wins, the other must lose. Two people fighting to a finish, for example, are involved in a zero-sum game: one person is going to knock the other one out, and there can be only one winner. More precisely, in economics, zero-sum means that if one country makes economic gains, those gains will be exactly balanced by another nation’s losses. The same analysis could be applied to global politics. If, for example, the United States should gain some political advantage as a result of some crisis somewhere, that means, according to zero-sum game, that another country must sustain an equivalent disadvantage. So it is with those two fictional Chinese cities: If one is up, the other must be down, and that is the model on which the leaders base their decisions. Of course, this means that their happiness and security depend entirely on whether they are ‘‘up’’ or ‘‘down’’ at any particular moment, and they do whatever they have to do to secure their own advantage.
In war, whether cold war or ‘‘hot’’ war, it often proves useful to demonize the enemy, and this is exactly what the first mandarin does regarding Kwan-Si. He calls it a ‘‘vile city’’ and rejoices at the thought of the misery its inhabitants will experience when his city’s big stick drives Kwan-Si’s devouring pig away: ‘‘I would like to see the Mandarin of Kwan-Si when the news is learned. Such pandemonium and hysteria; he will likely throw himself from a mountain!’’ Demonizing the enemy has other advantages for rulers; if a leader can do it effectively, the people will obey because they are scared, which is exactly what happens in the story. The people slavishly do what their leaders tell them they must, even though, metaphorically speaking, those same revered rulers are leading them over a cliff.
It is not difficult to find an equivalent to this in the cold war allegory. In the 1950s and beyond, Americans were taught to despise the communist Soviet Union as a godless society; communism, after all, is an atheistic ideology. Since many people in America, then as now, tended to identify very strongly with their religious faith and their belief that the United States was a Christian nation, it was easy for them to view the Soviet Union not only as a military threat to their existence but a mortal threat also to their most cherished beliefs and values: a godless, anti-Christian foe that should be vigorously opposed by all right-thinking people. Indeed, several decades later in 1983, U.S. President Ronald Reagan took a leaf out of the mandarin’s playbook when he famously referred to the Soviet Union as an ‘‘evil empire,’’ which meant that it was easy to justify pointing thousands of nuclear weapons in its direction, with a lot more promised for the future. After all, if the enemy is ‘‘evil,’’ why would a leader not act in this way? It would surely be the leader’s duty to do so.
Duty is something the two mandarins in the story no doubt think they know a lot about. It is their duty, they must surely believe, to defend their cities against the evil enemy. In their determination to do so, they keep upping the ante, increasing the risk and the scale of their battle to the death. Eventually, they begin in effect to hurl the cosmos at each other. When Kwan-Si’s wall resembles a sun, the other city builds a moon to eclipse it. The battle has gone, metaphorically speaking, beyond terrestrial borders into outer space. In terms of the cold war allegory, a parallel can be drawn to developments in the 1980s. In a scenario that might almost have been taken directly from the story, the Reagan administration planned its Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly known as Star Wars, which was to act as a space-based missile shield that would be able to destroy incoming Soviet nuclear missiles before they reached their target. (Because of the technical difficulties it presented, SDI was never fully developed or implemented.)
Finally, in ‘‘The Golden Kite, the SilverWind,’’ the two mandarins get together for a summit meeting. In 1953, when the story was first published, there had been no cold war summit meeting between the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union. The first one, which included the leaders of Great Britain and France, took place in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1955. Another summit meeting was held in Paris, France, five years later, but unfortunately, unlike in the story, there was no voice of wisdom floating out from behind a silken screen to guide the superpowers to a better understanding. In an atmosphere soured by the shooting down two weeks earlier of a U.S. spy plane over the Soviet Union, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev walked out of the meeting after U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower refused to apologize for the incident.
Although the Paris summit of 1960 failed, summit meetings between the leaders of the two superpowers continued to be a feature of global politics from the 1960s to the 1980s. Such meetings were considered to be useful tools for managing the cold war, which alternated between periods of mutual accommodation known as de´tente (from 1963 to 1975) followed by renewed periods of confrontation (1975–1985). In 1986, when there were hints that the cold war might be thawing just a little following the coming to power in 1985 of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, there was a dramatic summit meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, between Gorbachev and Reagan. It was almost, but not quite, the equivalent of the moment in the story when the voice behind the screen whispers, ‘‘Let us put an end to this.’’ This is the moment when the two mandarins, inspired by the voice of the daughter, realize two things: first, that the conflict they believed to be a zero-sum game (either ‘‘we win, you lose,’’ or ‘‘we lose, you win’’) is in fact a version of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD, a conflict in which both sides end up as losers. MAD was the doctrine that characterized the cold war and might be thought of as a ‘‘we lose, you lose’’ situation. Such a situation, the mandarins realize, has to be changed. Much the same mentality entered into the negotiations at Reykjavik, which James E. Goodby, in ‘‘Looking Back: The 1986 Reykjavik Summit,’’ describes as ‘‘the most remarkable summit ever held between U.S. and Soviet leaders,’’ in which the two leaders ‘‘seriously discussed the elimination of all ballistic missiles held by their two countries and aired the possibility of eliminating all nuclear weapons.’’ The Reykjavik summit ended in failure because Gorbachev insisted that the United States terminate the StarWars program, and Reagan refused. However, much of what was discussed and agreed upon at Reykjavik entered into a historic arms agreement that was signed at the next Reagan-Gorbachev summit, held in Washington, DC, in 1987. This agreement was the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which was the first arms control agreement to reduce nuclear arms. Under the INF, the Soviet Union destroyed 1,846 missile systems, and the United States destroyed 846.
By 1989, the cold war had ended, and the relationship between the superpowers was showing signs of moving beyond the zero-sum game into something more remarkable and mutually productive. This shift was captured in a remark made in 1988 by Georgi Arbatov, senior policy adviser to the Soviet leadership, and quoted by Strobe Talbott in his article, ‘‘East-West NoMore Mr. Tough Guy’’: ‘‘We are going to do something terrible to you—we are going to deprive you of an enemy.’’ This statement, so astonishing and so welcome to those who had lived through the insecurity and the fear generated by the forty-year cold war, might have come from the mouths of one of the mandarins at the end of ‘‘The Golden Kite, the Silver Wind.’’ In depriving their respective cities of an enemy, they move beyond zero sum to what is sometimes called nonzero sum but is perhaps more clearly described as a win-win situation. Bradbury’s remarkable story, written over fifty years ago, not only provides an allegory for the dangerous and futile arms race and cold war of the 1950s but also suggests a way beyond them. In 1989, when Gorbachev declared that the Soviet Union wished to join with the United States to construct a world free from the ‘‘psychological and ideological struggles’’ of the past, the new administration of George H. W. Bush took him at his word. In those heady days after the cold war was formally declared to be over and a new era in global politics was about to dawn, almost anything seemed within the realm of the possible. You could almost hear ‘‘the good clear wind’’ of the Town of the Silver Wind and ‘‘the kite singing, whispering, rising’’ from the Town of the Golden Kite.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Ray Bradbury – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.
Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on ‘‘The Golden Kite, the Silver Wind,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.