During the 1950s and 1960s the fear of Communism, Russia, and nuclear war was pervasive. My mother was convinced that the Russians might attack the United States at any time, and that they were constantly working to undermine the United States through a variety of agents, both inside and outside the government. Anti-Communist and anti-Russian propaganda from certain newspaperswas unrelenting. There were non-fiction books and novels. Politicians did their part to whip up mass hysteria by holding hearings and investigations to root out supposed Communists and Communist agents.
I remember bringing in the evening paper one night in late October, 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and seeing a huge headline that read something like: “Get a Flashlight, Plenty of Water, and Stay Calm.” I asked my mother what this meant and she said that Russia would probably try to attack the United States, and there might be a nuclear war. The Russians might drop nuclear bombs on us. When I asked what nuclear bombs were, she told me that they were a kind of bomb that could destroy everything in the whole world all at once. I remember very clearly being horrified by the thought of everything being destroyed and the world ceasing to exist. I was nine years old at the time.
We lived in the suburbs just north of New York City. My mother was sure that New York would be a target, and made plans for us to flee the area in the event of an attack. She thought that the roads would be so choked with the cars of people trying to get out of the city that we might not be able to drive, so she planned for us to walk to the safety of a relative’s house in upstate New York. When the attack occurred, we were going to fill my Girl Scout canteen with water, put some canned goods and a can opener in a paper bag, and set out walking more or less north.
Looking back on it, the idea is completely absurd, but I guess it seemed logical to her at the time. We lived so close to New York that our area would have either been obliterated along with the city itself, or so heavily irradiated that we would have never survived our fifty mile trek. This was the level of paranoia and fear created by the propaganda of the day.
The thoughts of the rest of my childhood and adolescence were colored by the knowledge that there were weapons that could destroy the world as I knew it. A day did not pass without that fact coming into my mind, and I often wondered what my life would be like if and when the dreaded nuclear war occurred.
Janet P. from NJ Writes:
As an adolescent I remember reading books like A Canticle for Lebowitz by Walter Miller, and Star Man’s Son by Andre Norton, both of which I found in our local public library. The post-nuclear apocalypse theme of those books and others like them influenced me a lot. The idea that our world could become like the terrible worlds described by the authors if we did not change our politics and our cold-war mindset pushed many of us toward the peace movement in the 1960s.
For another story about the nuclear threat and the Communist scare of the Cold War era, please see “Civil Defense Drills and Fear of Communism” on this site: http://americansremember.com/?page_id=108
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