Growing up near Andrews Air Force Base, I always saw these cinderblock sheds and these towers with the evil looking horns on them. I once asked my Dad, a Research Physicist for the Naval Research Laboratory, what the towers were for and I think he didn't want to scare me so he just said, "Those are Radio and TV signal towers." In all actuality, he wasn't lying. He just didn't say what kind of Radio and TV signals or what situation those signals were meant for. Those evil looking horns were microwave antennae that were meant to survive and operate during and after a nuclear war. Those cinderblock sheds were repeater huts for the L-3/L-4 coaxial cable system and those fence segments were built right over top of where the coaxial cables were laid underground and were meant to stop contractors from excavating them.
The News wasn't very promising for us either. Brezhnev was the Soviet Premier and didn't seem like a man who wanted peace. Anti-nuclear demonstrators were everywhere only they never seemed to demonstrate against the Soviets having nuclear weapons; only against the U.S. having nukes. They seemed to believe that if the U.S. and NATO simply laid down their arms then the rest of the world would get a sudden infusion of humanity and follow suit. (Actually, there was some strange Federal Law that forbade demonstrating in front of any Soviet Bloc offices or residences.) Us Young'uns in Elementary and Junior High School knew better. Our anger was directed at the Soviet Union for wanting to take over the world. After all, the U.S. wasn't invading Afghanistan and certainly didn't usurp the rightful governments of Eastern Europe. Western nations did not build walls to keep their people from leaving like Communist countries did. We were very aware of the history of the world, of the reports on the 5 O'Clock News every night and the reports from the old CBS Saturday Morning Kid's News Segments, "In The News." What our teachers told us during the school day was often different from what the News reported at night and on the weekends.
Back in the 7th grade, a girl in our Social Studies class made the comment, "If the Soviet Union would just go away, we'd be living in a much more peaceful world!" In part she was right, and in part she was wrong. But what was almost laughable was that during this class, we were learning about differences between Capitalism and Communism and our teacher very strongly stressed to us: "THEY BOTH WORK!" They do? Then why is Brezhnev so busy persecuting Soviet citizens who have opinions different from his own? Why is Russia so intent on buying grain from us? If Communism is working, they can grow their own. Why are so many people risking their lives to escape from Communist controlled countires? Something wasn't right in the "THEY BOTH WORK" teaching and even though we were only twelve and thirteen years old, we knew it. Jimmy Carter's influence on public education and "Detente" really shined through on that one!
Now flash forward to the 1980s. Ronald Reagan is President and made it clear during his 1980 Campaign that one of his goals was the elimination of the Soviet threat. Us Young'uns were psyched about that! The 80's was the most patriotic decade since World War II. Under Reagan's leadership, the U.S. military began a massive build-up with amazing speed. It turns out that had the Soviet Union started a conventional war in 1981 or so, we would not have possessed the forces to stop them. So, to supplement this build up, we began (with West Germany's permission) to deploy tactical nuclear warheads to Western Europe to counter any conventional move that the Soviets might make. Now, if the Soviets launched a ground war, our nukes would obliterate their armies. Tensions rose.Click here to read President Reagan's Speech on Deterrence!
Of course, we all knew that the United States would never start a Nuclear War. That honor was left for the "Evil Empire." If they stayed on their side of the line, there would be no war. However, the paranoia was accentuated by certain movies like "The Day After," "Wargames" and "Threads."
About this time is when I enlisted in the Marines. People ask me why and there are several reasons. I wanted adventure. I wanted to prove I was the best. I wanted the challenge. But I think the main reason was that in 1984, everyone was pretty much convinced that the United States and the Soviet Union were certain to get into a knock-down, drag-out, last-man-standing-wins war and the world would come to an end by 1990. Thus, I had three options: (a) prepare to hide in one of the many fallout shelters available, (b) let the bombs fall and detonate leaving only my nuclear shadow on the sidewalk or (c) I could join the military and be up on the front lines ready to go out in a blaze of glory (or just a blaze depending on what weapons were used). Frankly, I was convinced that I would not live long enough to see my 30th birthday.
Pop Culture in the 80's was very much affected by the Cold War. There are numerous examples of musical acts recording songs about how insane the world had become. Of course, us teenagers ate it all up. Ozzy Osbourne released an album entitled "The Ultimate Sin" which was entirely about Nuclear War. (I still think "Shot In The Dark" is one of the most rocking songs of all time!) In "The War Song" Culture Club sang the words: "War War is stupid and people are stupid!" Tommy Shaw of Styx fame even reflected on the EBS in his song "This Is Not A Test." Men At Work recorded "It's A Mistake" for which they made a video showing a General 'accidentally' launching a Nuclear Missile. In 1980, Jethro Tull recorded a song entitled "Protect And Survive" which was about the futility of following the advice of the ridiculous British Civil Defense pamphlet "Protect And Survive."
Comic books and video games echoed our Cold War mentality. The following is a frame from an Axa comic book which shows Axa exploring a world shattered by Nuclear War and a video game, "Desastre Nuclear," she has just found and is contemplating.
(Axa image from Professor Paul Brians' Nuke Pop Webpage.)
Well, while in the Marines, my views changed. I found out that the Soviets were not as formidable as they were five to ten years before and when Gorbechev got into office, it became clear that Reagan was achieving his goal of eliminating the "Evil Empire." The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the world hasn't been the same since. In some ways it is safer, but in many ways it is even more dangerous. The Soviet Union broke apart in 1991/92 but much to the chagrin of my 7th Grade classmate, the world is nowhere near any more peaceful.
Thus, it's looking like the Cold War will be starting again only this time with more players. China, India, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea and a few others will want in the game with the U.S. and Russia. Great Britain and France have shown smaller and smaller interest in Nuclear issues and won't show any more until shocked into doing so by the Iranian or the North Korean governments. Then maybe we will have to put all of those "Fallout Shelter" signs back up.