Monday, June 25, 2007

The Psychological Effects of the Cold War on America’s Youth, or, How Did Knowing You Might be Incinerated at Any Moment Affect Your Childhood?

I was born towards the end of the baby boom, and I cannot remember a day of my childhood that did not have a Sword of Damocles hanging over it. That sword was nuclear war, and the accepted certainty of an eventual nuclear war between the US and the USSR among the civil authorities, academics, and the society in general infused many of us with a stark, ruthless belief: we shouldn't expect to live for very long.
I believe any truly comprehensive understanding of the latter 20th Century requires an understanding of this attitude. It was arguably a contributing factor to many of the social trends appearing in the US in the post WW2-era, particularly those trends toward the self-indulgent and especially self-destructive behaviors that grew out of a simple, "I had better get/buy/do/take it now, or I may never." Things like "The Me Generation". From rampant drug use to peoples' interest in conspicuous consumption versus savings, a myriad of issues has been affected by this overriding fatalism- and I'd like to hear about them.
Therefore, for the first time, I am actively soliciting comments. If you grew up during the Cold War, or remember the time, tell me your story! How did the Cold War affect you childhood? Post a brief account of your thoughts and experiences in the Comments, and let's see where this leads!
Also, welcome, and thank you for visiting the site. My regards to the Firedoglake community, from whose comments grew this post.


Kewalo said...

When I was growing up we had drills all the time to see how fast we could get under our desks. It never did dawn on me that it wouldn't protect me. I do think this added to the way I've lived my life. Even as a little girl I tried to make sure that I didn't live my life being fearful. It's been a matter of honor that I was brave and it helped me to have a wonderful, interesting life.

I think this is why I have such contempt for the "shivering fear junkies" that were crapping themselves that we might get another hit by terrorists. In my mind this didn't come close to having those nukes pointed at us by the Soviets. We were brave and proud during those years and now people are whining? Give me a freaken break. Who are those whiners anyway? In my mind they are the ones that were kicked off the wagon train.

I'm not sure this is what you are looking for. But this is what went through my mind when I read your post.

(h/t to Chicken is not Pillage for shivering fear junkie)

Loo Hoo. said...


I was born in 1952 and lived in small towns in Minnesota. I remember the drills at about the same time as polio shots and shortly before Kennedy's death. I remember, even then, that getting under a desk wouldn't help. We just felt a need to do something, I think. I remember the atomic symbol for underground "safe spots", but I don't think I ever went down into one. Bottom line, it didn't make me feel safe.

Ron said...

Kewalo, personal experience and thoughts on it is exactly what I want to hear. Thanks!

Ron said...

Loo Hoo, as always, thank you.

Kewalo said...

Be careful what you say Ron, I can be extremely verbose.

But I want to thank you for an interesting thought exercise. I actually mulled this over for quite a while.

I really think that by facing down the very real communist threat by changing hearts and minds that, if we can stop the dolt in the WH from doing anything more drastic, we have a chance to do the same thing in the ME.

Maxine Fabian said...

I grew up mostly in Canada-born in 1955 - and had a constant fear of when World War III would start. Not if. I had many dreams of seeing the mushroom cloud in the distance, the white light and knowing I only had seconds to live. (I actually still have these dreams on occasion)

Phrases like "if someone drops the bomb" and "if someone pushes the button" were common among kids my age and always inspired dread. Discussions about how you would just be "vapourized instantly" and it probably wouldn't hurt because it would be "instant". Talk about the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, about the skin peeling off their bodies, pictures of the burned children were terrifying. So while I didn't want to be "vapourized", it was presumably the better outcome.

Even watching Saturday morning cartoons, you couldn't get away from it. In Canada we saw the broadcasts from the States. The tests of the Emergency Broadcast System, which was a long loud beep, and ominous instructions, sandwiched in between Magilla Gorilla and The Beatles cartoon show.

Then there were the public service announcements about children proceeding to the fallout shelter in an emergency, showing the designated sign. I always worried because we didn't have them in Canada.

The only time we had a real "hide under your desks drill" in Canada was during the Cuban missile crisis. And that scared the bejabbers out of me. I was living in the Northwest Territories at the time, we were all herded into the gym and all the teachers looked really worried. No one really told us anything but we knew something was wrong.

Fun times.

Edwin Walls said...

I was born in 1970 and became aware of the situation atv a very young age, certainly by the time I was seven or eight. The probability of nuclear war became an obsession with me and I honestly didn't think I would live to see age 30. I didn't detect this fear in many others though; it was almost as if they were in denial. The Cold War is probably the defining factor in my life. By the 70s and 80s they didn't even do the civil defense drills anymore. Perhaps it was assumed they were pointless. Watching the movie The Day After solidified my obsession, and I basically thought the routines of life were a pointless farce until the demise of the USSR. I split my life into the time before and the time after.

Esoterica said...

I know that this thread is old, but I couldn't resist. I, too was raised under the "sword" of the threat of Nuclear war; I have not believed that the threat has dissapeared, although the psychological effect of "imminent attack" has subsided a bit.
I agree that those who run around claiming that the "terrorist attacks" are signs of the coming apocalypse are loons. One thing I got out of growing up around so much fear of attack was the ability to smell the bullshit from miles away.

Conversely,I think my generation has been so "tempered" by the fear of War with the Soviets, that we tend to take terrorism a bit too lightly. The key feature of terrorism, is to incite fear into the hearts of the enemy. The Cold war accomplished this with unbiased certainty, and plunged both of our cultures (Soviet and American) into a "do or die" paradigm. Terrorism was "ok" if it meant that the action was perpetrated by an established government, as opposed to a "fringe" movement. After all, "terrorists" were fictional characters to us. Remember "Back to the Future"? We weren't aware that the real terrorists were the two governments of Russia and the USA.Through a logical deduction of human nature, I was able to see the Russians as human biengs instead of the "enemy".

I could not find anywhere in history that shows they had attacked our mainland, or threatened us by dropping a bomb on some other country, so it was difficult for me to engage in our society as a "team player". Although, later in life I found that these situations present themselves as "teachers" to our own sense of of connection to the universe, and I feel stronger for having survived the doubt and the fear. The threat changed my life forever. I don't want to go into details;I may become so emotional over it, that I cannot continue, so I usually avoid details of exactly how it scared me.


Esoterica said...

I was convinced that at any moment it WAS going to happen.
I was raised in a military family that focused primarily on Cold War manuevering; I have many terrible memories of seeing people running to thier cars, and abrupt sirens and drills throughout my childhood.

The nightmares were HORENDOUS.I will never be the same.
Escape plans, survival plans, and Spiritual contingencies were all I could think about for most of my youth. It certainly forced me to contemplate the whole of existence, in ways that are usually reserved for the condemned, so in that sense - it was a teacher that made me see myself.

My nightmares would occur even during times that I fell asleep in class, and I wold wake up screaming right in the middle of everyone.
I was once escorted out of a school assembly for screaming that everyone was "Kidding Themselves" by believing that one could survive the new "layer cake" bombs that were then a popular thing for our counries to have in thier Arsenals.I was frustrated that people had the images of "Hiroshima" in thier minds as a reference to what it would have looked like.

I lost faith in the general population's ability to know the difference between "sorta" destroyed", and "Annhialated". The ones pointed at us, were capable of taking out the entire state I lived in; as in, "nothing but a big fucking hole where the state used to be"
"Duck and Cover" - My ASS.

Eventually, I had to move away from my family to get away from the constant reminders that thier professional brought about in mine.
I have great disdain for anyone who would be willing to push that button, and, needless to say - I have nothing but contempt for them, no matter what the situation may be.

The Cold War threatened every living being on this planet, and the threat of this terror continues to loom over us all on a "hair trigger".Ironic as it may sound,I found comfort in the formation of a "new world order!" The fact that these countries are now in bed together makes me feel as if there is more to lose by this kind of psycholgical hell.

Ron said...

Hi Esoterica. I'm glad you came to the thread-it is an old thread, but is the second-most viewed post on the site. Thank you for sharing your experience was not much different. I can remember coming down the steps of my schoolbus, scanning the horizon, looking for mushroom clouds.
Thanks again, and please come again!

Joe in Durango said...

Born 1950, grew up in Connecticut about 45 miles outside NYC. As a young kid, I knew (not sure how I picked this info up at such a young age) that Russian missiles were huge and inaccurate. I figured if they hit NYC, A) my dad would be killed at work, B) a few errant missiles would probably hit us in Connecticut. The big unresolved dilemma for me, the oldest of four, was if the sirens started going off while we were at school and we had about 45 minutes before the mushroom clouds started blooming, should I try find my three siblings in their various school buildings and look for shelter, or should I try and hitchike home to cower in the basement with my mother. I never did come to any kind of resolution.

One pleasant discussion that was making the rounds at the time where a few families were bullding underground bomb shelters was this: if the missiles started flying and your unprepared neighbors came running to you for shelter. should you A) let them in and allow them to use up your precious resources (food, water), B) lock them out, or C) shoot them so they don't try and break in.

Heavy stuff for a kid not even 10 years old. It definitely affected me for life, and not in a good way.