Last night I watched some 1960s propaganda films put out by the DOD and the Dept of Civil Defense. A couple of them were pretty surreal, but the one on the Cuban Missile Crisis was, though propaganda, pretty interesting.
I was 10 years old in 1962 when the Cuban Missile Crisis happened and I lived 2 miles from Strategic Air Command Headquarters in Nebraska. My dad worked there as a wargamer and spent most of those days in the deepest basement of the main building. The base was, of course, one of Russia’s primary targets.
I’ve known for a long time how close the two nations came to war; that wasn’t news to me, and I’ve written about my own experiences in my China book. The film didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know but it showed a world I remember fairly well. It brought it home to me how 1) long 60 years is, 2) how our lives have changed. First, of course, technology — there were no printed circuits and computers were immense. Binary code was a matter of vacuum tubes. The transistor radio was a radical new invention. The military still communicated — often — with Morse Code. But technology was advancing quickly then.
The film started by bringing it home to the audience, showing what people were doing in the days leading up to the crisis — there was the Columbus Day Parade I believe in NYC (you don’t see those now); there was the March of Dimes announcing the poster child — a little girl with braces on both legs — having endured Polio — walked up the steps to the White House for a photo opp with the President. Polio was still around, the Sabin vaccine was still pretty new in 1962. And, of course, the film was in black and white. There was footage of people outside electronic’s stores watching the President’s speech and a loudspeaker sent the sound out to them. Not everyone had a TV. The people for whom this film was made were the same people as in the film. It very much said, “This is what we were all doing, this is who we are, this is what happened, this is what we did.”
I’m sure a lot was left out for reasons of secrecy, but there was a lot of footage about the importance of building bomb shelters. At one point, language flashed on the screen saying straight up that people living on the primary targets wouldn’t have a chance of survival. It continued with footage of all the places the Civil Defense was finding for urban bomb shelters and showed trucks loaded with supplies to provision them. I remember the yellow and black signs suddenly appearing here and there, but I haven’t seen one in a while. Are they still around?
My dad was expected to provide a bomb shelter for his family, I guess with the idea that maybe they’d hit DC first, and Omaha (well, Bellevue) would never be hit. Because of my dad’s job, he wouldn’t be with us in this emergency but down in the basement of SAC. My dad did not even pretend to take this seriously and our bomb shelter was an inside corner of our basement, walled in and lined with boxes of books and provisioned with four boxes of C-Rations from the Army/Navy surplus store and a few cans of water. “We’ll be vaporized,” he reasoned and of course he was right.
We came very close to nuclear war that October and a Russian Naval Officer — Vasily Arkhivpov — did more than any other single person to prevent it. That fact wasn’t part of the DOD film. The next close call — in 1983 — was also prevented by a Russian, an Army office from Kyiv.
In observing the doings between Russia and Ukraine, I realize I suffer a kind of PTSD from growing up in the Cold War. At ten I had no real clue. That October my and my brother’s lives went on as usual. I guess I was in 5th grade like most 10 year olds. I would have been in Mrs. Gardner’s class — a half and half class of 4th and 5th graders. We fifth graders would be migrating to a new school after the first of the year. My school shared a fence with Offutt Air Force Base and most of the kids in my class lived on base. It was a 10 foot chain link fence with wire at the top. The kids came through a gate that was guarded by an MP. I don’t know what kind of ID they had or anything. My only relation to that gate was during the time I was crossing guard on the little street in front of our school.
I looked on Google to see how it is today. Some changes. You can see the base because there is no street view (blue lines). Back then, there was military housing across from my school as there is now. The runway at the bottom was often filled with B-52s and the planes were visible from our walk to school. They were on 24 hour patrols so there was always the sound of jets taking off, landing, flying. We had air raid drills every week, not usually crawling under our desks as you see in old movies, but we went into the hallway and ducked and covered against the wall under our coats that hung on hooks.
Looking at the news now, Ukraine/Russia is no longer the top story. We’re back to the state of undress of various anonymous (to me) actresses. But, for me, that war is still there. Lots of people heard Biden say “Putin can’t remain in power” as Biden saying the US was going to take Putin out. I heard something else completely. I heard, “This cannot stay like this,” meaning it’s impossible for this primitive, Cold War behavior to continue in our time. We are not the world we were in 1962, however much the ultra-right reactionary fucks would like to imagine we could go back to that, and that it was a time of American greatness. Whether it was or not, that ship has sailed and the world is connected in ways it wasn’t 60 years ago, in ways it couldn’t have been. The current situation is impossible, untenable for many reasons, not the least of which is that kids today don’t know how to duck and cover 😉 Still, there’s still plenty of government propagated scary stuff out there, such as this.
As a kid I decided that it would be a lot more interesting to watch the thing unfold than to hide in the dark and wait for death. I just wonder if any of my fellow “boomers” (ha ha) are experiencing the same PTSD right now?