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99 Red Balloons: A 2023 Remix

The Chinese balloon incident may not have been a real threat, but the Cold War echoes are.

Words: Rowan Humphries
Pictures: Blake Cheek

You and I in a little toy shop

Buy a bag of balloons with the money we’ve got

Set them free at the break of dawn

‘Til one by one, they were gone

Ever since a US F-22 Raptor shot down a Chinese balloon off the coast of South Carolina last month, I haven’t been able to get Nena out of my head. In her 1983 hit, “99 Luftballons,” the German singer told the story of a nuclear war precipitated by confusion and crisis over 99 red balloons set aloft by a few mischievous youths. While President Xi Jinping is no mischievous youth, and while the US and China did not come close to a world-ending war, there’s an eerie resonance to the simple pop song released four decades ago. In fact, a closer examination of the history of the original Cold War ballad warns us against the spiral of popular and political hysteria rapidly pushing the US and China into a Cold War redux.

Panic bells, it’s red alert

There’s something here from somewhere else

The war machine springs to life

Opens up one eager eye

Focusing it on the sky

The 99 red balloons go by

On May 1, 1960, as the seeds of an early détente between the US and Soviet Union were beginning to look viable, a Soviet missile shot down a US spy plane, capturing its pilot, Gary Powers, and initiating a diplomatic crisis. The “U-2 incident” led to the implosion of a major Parisian summit between Soviet premier Nikita Krushchev and US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, that took place only two weeks after. The spy plane scandal ended hope of an early turning point in the Cold War, leaving the US and USSR on the decades-long, dangerous course that Nena refers to in her Cold War anthem.


We may once again be on such a course. While you wouldn’t know it from the endless hours of cable news analysis dedicated to parsing out the details of the 2023 balloon incident, what actually happened in early February was remarkably unremarkable. At no point did the Chinese balloon, which already has its own excruciatingly detailed Wikipedia page, pose any real national security risk. Nothing the spycraft could ascertain would be different from the intelligence China — and many others, including the US — receive from military satellites. China’s espionage activities in the cyber realm pose a much more serious risk than a balloon ever would. So why did the flight of this particular high-altitude device drift into an ongoing diplomatic crisis?

99 Decision Street

99 ministers meet

To worry, worry, super scurry

Call the troops out in a hurry

This is what we’ve waited for

This is it boys, this is war


The dangers of paranoia and the contagious effects of hysteria did not end with the Cold War. As Nena’s allegory tells us, small things can turn into big things when we lose our perspective. Following the balloon’s discovery loitering in the sky over Montana, political panic swelled as Republican lawmakers toted white balloons around the Capitol complex and members of both parties criticized the administration’s “slow response.” As the Chinese continued to maintain the balloon was nothing more than a weather device gone astray, despite growing evidence that the spycraft was actually intended to conduct surveillance over Guam and Hawaii, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken abruptly canceled an important trip to China, during which both sides were hoping to set bounds on their growing conflict. If that sounds familiar, back in May 1960, American officials insisted the downed U-2 spy plane was merely a civilian weather research aircraft sent by NASA, only admitting to foul play following overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In the words of Mark Twain, while history may not repeat, it does often rhyme.

We must beware of falling into the same conflict trap with China that we did with the Soviet Union. As ominously foreshadowed by the U-2 scandal, threat inflation and worst-case assumptions could set a course for a US-China collision. Immense damage has been done to diplomatic relations; the real danger of this particular debacle, however, lies in a broader darkening of American attitudes toward China. Following the lead of lawmakers and the president himself, public perceptions of the China threat have intensified, fueling a self-reinforcing cycle of suspicion that has manifested militarily and politically. Since the US downed the original balloon, the military has taken down three more “unidentified objects” discovered floating in the skies above North America, thanks to heightened radar sensitivities. In today’s heated Congressional climate, one of the only areas of true bipartisan consensus appears to be “winning” the geopolitical competition with China. Five days after the downing of the balloon, the House voted 419-0 to condemn what they characterized as “a brazen violation of United States sovereignty.” Biden was right to order downing the balloon when it crossed over the Atlantic, but Americans should have been able to put the balloon affair into proper perspective.


It’s all over, and I’m standing pretty

In this dust that was a city

If I could find a souvenir

Just to prove the world was here

And here is a red balloon

I think of you, and let it go

We’ve heard this song before, and we know how it ends. Luckily, unlike in Nena’s song, this 2023 balloon incident will not soon devolve into a cataclysmic war. Yet American policymakers would do well to look before they leap into a new Cold War that could someday end in total destruction.

Rowan Humphries

Rowan Humphries is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies focusing on security, strategy, and statecraft.

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