Civil Defense Drills and Fear of Communism

Civil Defense drills at school were a common occurrence from 1959 to 1961.  I attended a public school in a suburb of Buffalo, New York, and my school periodically held civil defense drills, much the same as fire drills.  I was in first and second grades during that time period and it seemed perfectly normal and logical to carry out these drills.  Looking back from the vantage point of 2011, the entire activity seems surreal.  Loud sirens would sound and we would all file out into the corridors to sit “Indian style,” facing the walls.  In those days teachers were not concerned about being politically correct regarding Native Americans, so they always reminded us to sit “Indian style.”

Somehow, sitting cross-legged facing the wall was supposed to protect us from a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union, which could theoretically happen at any moment.  I don’t remember feeling any fear or apprehension; it was just part of going to school and being herded around from one activity to another.   A civil defense drill could take place after a social studies lesson, and be followed by reading “See Spot Run” for the umpteenth time.

The general awareness and fear of the spread of Communism was genuine and pervasive.  While I don’t remember hearing much discussion about Communism at home, concern was in the air.  It was generally regarded as obvious that the Soviet Union was plotting to attack innocent Americans, and that this attack might occur at any place and time.

There must have been extensive reporting about the lack of human rights and freedoms in the Soviet Union.  Although I don’t remember hearing any particular report or classroom instruction, I remember going home from school one day and writing a letter to Premier Khrushchev, urging him to let people leave the Soviet Union.  I was only six years old at the time, but was horrified that people could not leave the country freely.  This does not reflect an international background on my part–I had not yet travelled outside the US.  I have a clear memory of giving this letter to my mother to mail, and of being very angry that people could be virtual prisoners of the Soviet Union.

The intense disdain and anxiety people felt regarding Communism at that time cannot be overstated.   It was an era before people worried about sexual predators or kidnappings, so we were allowed to play outside freely and we roamed the neighborhood.  There were about ten of us that played together regularly, and of course there were spats.  In a heated argument the ultimate insult was to call someone a “pinko.” No one wanted to be thought of as a nasty commie!    Once that insult was hurled out there was little hope of patching things up, at least not right away.  I don’t remember any insults based on race or sexual preference at that time–our era was marked by the deep-seated dread of Communism, and the nuclear showdown between Russia and the United States that we all feared could happen at any time.

Dan G. from PA writes:I remember those drills!  We had to sit in the hall and cover our eyes with our hands.  My wife grew up in Ohio, and they used to get under their desks.  They called them “emergency drills,” as opposed to “fire drills,” where we left the building.  I guess the point of having us sit in the hallway was to protect us from flying glass, our elementary school was only a couple of years old and had huge windows in every classroom.

Ellen A. from NY writes:  Looking back, the anti-Communist propaganda in the 1950s and 1960s was pretty relentless.  I don’t remember it ever spilling over into our play as kids, but I do remember my mother making comments about various politicians and political figures being “Communists.”  She also went door-to-door with a petition against the fluoridation of water in our town.  Somehow putting fluoride in the water to prevent cavities in teeth was supposedly connected to a Communist plot.  I guess it’s no more ridiculous than the “socialism” hysteria now.

For another story on the nuclear threat and the Cold War period, please see “The Cuban Missile Crisis and Threat of Nuclear War” on this site:

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