The Prescience of Art

I watched a few 1960s Cold War movies recently, most recently 7 Days in May which is interesting because it has the cast of the 2021 Insurrection in the costumes of Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster and a bunch of other actors who were kind of before my time. Lynn Cheney is played by Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster plays Donald Trump. Frederick March plays Joe Biden, though there’s a little shifting around in the movie to fit it into 1 1/2 hour. The obligatory babe is played by Ava Gardner. She is a kind of 1960s Stormy Daniels.

The short jist of this film is that Kirk Douglas alerts the president to the fact that all but one of the Joint Chiefs is involved in a conspiracy to overthrow the duly elected government, that they have even developed a secret base in the desert (it’s always the desert) from which to launch their coup. The film makes the point that the Constitution is very clear that in this country the leader of the the government is chosen by a mandate of the people. Kirk Douglas (a Marine Colonel) personally agrees with the evil generals (led by Burt Lancaster), but he’s taken an oath to protect the Constitution, and that’s what he does.

The tech of the time was fascinating. Among that tech, in the office of the admiral (John Housman who plays the sole dissenter to the insurrection planned by the Joint Chiefs) was a Zenith Trans-Oceanic Radio exactly like my dad’s (fuzzy feature photo). When they wanted to get video of some of the conspirators they had to haul a full-on Hollywood movie camera into the woods. Everything was analog. The computers, of course, were immense and essentially mechanical. Tubes, not printed circuits, not even transistors. ❤

Since I grew up during the Cold War, and the Cold War supported my family, it’s intrinsically interesting NOW but not so much then. Back then it was the ambient reality. We lived 2 miles from the second major target the Soviets would go for so though we had a kind of bomb shelter in the basement, we’d have been vaporized. I learned this directly from my dad one night when I couldn’t sleep after watching On the Beach on TV. My dad was a war gamer for SAC and an adviser to the Joint Chiefs. Yep. Well, this knowledgable man comforted me by saying, “Don’t worry, MAK. We won’t have to worry about fallout. We live on a target. We’ll be vaporized. We’ll just go stand out in the yard and watch the whole thing then we’ll be gone.”

“OK, dad.”

“Now roll over and go to sleep.” And I did.

A little while ago, I watched another Cold War film from the 50s — 1955? — when the government was trying to SELL the American public on the Cold War and the development of a fantastically armed air force to keep the peace. I didn’t even KNOW such a sales pitch had ever been necessary but there is a film, Stategic Air Command, starring Jimmy Stewart and June Allison that is pure Cold War propaganda. It’s very pretty with romantic cinematic shots of the B-36 (Giant airplane) in orange sherbet clouds with uprising music in the background and, with Jimmy Stewart as the hero? Who’s NOT going to love the Strategic Air Command?

BUT…by 1964 it seems that some Americans had caught on that developing bigger and “better” bombs was a dangerous con, and 7 Days in May opens with a demonstration between “hawks” and “doves” in front of the White House. The demonstration that turns into a fist fight. My adult life has brought me into contact with a lot of hawks and a lot of doves, the birds, and hawks don’t act that way and doves are not all sweetness and light.

Featured photo: My dad and his Zenith Trans-Oceanic Radio on which we used to try to listen to Russia but usually only got Mexico

14 thoughts on “The Prescience of Art

  1. Your dad certainly didn’t candy coat the reality. We lived in an area without any military targets, never had to do any drills, no bomb shelters, not even storm shelters… Atomic threat didn’t enter my consciousness until HS and even then it was just the backdrop to SciFi dystopian worlds….

    • My dad had MS and knew he was headed for a pretty complicated and miserable death. I understood that, too. I saw the advantage to being vaporized over dying from the complications of MS. Sad, maybe, but oddly optimistic. We had bomb drills but they were absurd since from the entrance to our school we could see hundreds of B-52s 😀

  2. I have seen the Jimmy Stewart film but didn’t realise it was about the cold War as I was too young to know about it in the 1960’s I only realised what was going on in the late 1970’s when women gathered at greenham common to protest cruise missiles on British soil. I was too young to go there but it was chilling to realise how dangerous those times were.

  3. Jimmy Stewart was a USAF pilot and retired a brigadier general, IIRC. Perfect casting. I enjoyed the movie. Yeah it was a PR piece for SAC but it was nicely done PR.

    Some level of nuclear deterrence was needed. Stalin was not a nice guy and most of his successors were not nice guys either. Probably not nearly as much as we actually built, though.

    There was a lot of unrealistic paranoia on both sides right up to the fall of the USSR.

    • It wasn’t called “the arms race” for nothing. Building a peace time economy on the production of war implements is kind of bizarre as even Eisenhower pointed out. There are a lot of things about that historical moment — or any historical moment — the present isn’t qualified to judge which is why I’m glad all those movies are available to watch. I am not the only woman in this country who gets nostalgic at the sight of hundred or so B-52 tails glinting in the sun. It was my world; it was my childhood. I couldn’t judge it then, either. And no, Stalin and Kruschev were not “good guys” by any stretch of the imagination. A LOT more could be said about that — have you seen the film, “The Death of Stalin” It’s good.

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