Cold War Wake-Up
It might be better to not know everything—to not be afraid
—to not be very afraid.
Demanding attention, distinctive, and daunting, the frightening blare echoed toward my room. This Baby Boomer’s dormant, yet ingrained, training made me leap into action. Air-raid sirens do that. I jumped out of bed, alert, but questioning, and ran into the living room. “What was that?”
I spied my son, who had slept on the sofa, waking and pressing a button on his phone. “Sorry. That was my alarm,” he said. Alarm, indeed. Shaken, but relieved, I walked away, practicing yet another skill from those Cold War years: trying to calm myself after the all-clear. In gratitude, I noted that I did not have to move away from the windows, crouch beneath furniture, huddle in the hallway, arms protecting my head. I did not have to “Duck and cover!”
Evacuating my family was not necessary. Eating food set aside for emergencies (hurricanes in my current life) would not be necessary. An air-raid shelter would not be our next destination.
Fears calming, I nonetheless continued thinking about those Cold War years of fear and instructions on how to avoid death and destruction. I also thought about the gullibility of adults to believe anything other than death and destruction would be certain should a nuclear attack occur. Concrete bunkers and fallout shelters in basements would have done little to nothing to keep anyone safe. Duck and cover, shield your eyes from the nuclear flash, food stored in cardboard boxes—nothing more than bunk!
Prevailing pundits of the day fed bunk to children and adults. Now-declassified photos, films, and information about the aftermath of the blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (as well as other nuclear tests) have informed us that our civil defense preparations are as laughable as the final scene in Dr. Strangelove.
Not long ago, I watched Trinity and Beyond, a chilling documentary of the history of the atomic bomb, and was reminded of those years of fear—just as the early-morning air raid siren reminded me. As I discussed that era with a friend, I told him about the preparations we thought would help us survive an apocalypse. We considered the word bunker and its root: bunk. Bunk means nonsense. The bunkers we were advised to build and shelter within were bunk in the face of the total destruction of an atom bomb. Russian missiles poised in Cuba and aimed at military facilities in Jacksonville, Florida (where I lived), would have annihilated us.
These decades later, I know it’s all bunk, the shelters, the duck and cover drills, and shielding our eyes from flashes. Canned goods stored in car trunks would have fed no one: Those vehicles likely would have melted and become part of the asphalt roads on which they were parked.
As a child who was fearful about so many things, the threat of nuclear war was the worst fear tacked onto so many others. Already insecure, I felt some protection by participating in the drills and preparations for nuclear war. My family had a plan; our schools had a plan; we thought the government had a plan. That plan, like many others in society, allayed mass hysteria. Mass hysteria would have made any attack scenario unmanageable.
Perhaps It Was Better That We Did Not
Know the Depth of the Threat
On reflection, perhaps it was better that we did not know the depth of the threat and its aftermath. When I view that knowledge with today’s perspective and with the certainty that we would have suffered complete destruction, I feel a sense of relief. It is probably best that I knew so little, that my parents and other adults knew so little. In some cases, it’s best to not know everything, to not be afraid—to not be very afraid. We were afraid enough.
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Trinity and Beyond is a documentary containing declassified military documents and footage regarding the development and use of the atomic bomb. Warning: The footage and commentary are graphic and frightening at times. However, the educational value of the film is outstanding.