Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Cold War Anxieties

[posted by Callimachus]

RIA's excellent reflection on being a parent -- and a child -- during wartime sent me up to the attic. Literally.

Back when I was 18 or 19, opinion surveys of my age group began to appear in print for the first time. There we were, a collective voice, a slice of a generation. It was enlightening to measure myself against my peers in some sort of objective way. And so I saved them, in a manila file, in a filing cabinet. Nowadays, you'd just copy the file to your computer, of course, but this was circa 1979.

I had lots of manila folders back then, for various subjects that interested me. They've followed me through three houses and who knows how many apartments. Last night, I went up in the attic and dug this one down and dusted it off. I read through the articles and reports in it while my wife went up in the attic to rescue the cat, which I had accidently locked up there.

Because I wanted to see if something I remembered was true.

It was. In one 1982 poll of high school seniors, 30 percent said they "worried often" about the chance of nuclear war. That figure was the same across the board -- men and women, college-bound and non-college-bound.

RIA and I have discussed this before, privately. We're roughly the same generation, though I'm a few years older. Our memory of one thing is strong and plain: We both basically grew up thinking there was a pretty good chance, maybe 50:50 or worse, that the whole world was going to go up in a nuclear fireball holocaust some day in the near future, without any warning to any of us.

The 30 percent figure appeared in the tables of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan's annual survey of 17,000 high school seniors in 130 schools nationwide. Yet it rated only a single sentence in the report's text. Probably the figure was so self-evident as to be uninteresting. Instead, the authors, like good academic children of the '60s, bemoaned my generation's lack of sit-ins. The title of the report was "Fewer Rebels, Fewer Causes."

Forty-five percent of us agreed that there would essentially be a world war in the next ten years. Newsweek's "On Campus Poll" in 1982, conducted by Gallup, showed 21 percent of college students (I was one that year) "frequently think and worry about chances of nuclear war," and 49 percent said, "While concerned about the chances of nuclear war, I try to put it out of my mind."

Only 29 percent said they thought the chance of nuclear war was remote. The same polls showed very few of us thought we could survive even an initially limited nuclear war. As recently as 1987, 62 percent of American adults "worried often" about the chance of all-out nuclear war.

In the Michigan poll, 36 percent of high schoiol seniors agreed nuclear or biological annihilation "will probably be the fate of all mankind within my lifetime."

However bad the world is now, whatever fears haunt my children's nightmares, however necessary the Cold War was -- I am grateful to have outlived a time when more than one-third of the children go to bed at night expecting their parents to blow up the whole world and them in it.

Up in the attic I also found a dream journal I kept when I was a teen-ager. More than a few of the nightmares I wrote in it involved the missiles coming down out of the cloud, the desperate sprint for some sort of shelter and the certainty that there really was nowhere to run.

Like all dreams, perhaps, they were symbolic. But what better way to know a person's realities, his times, than by the metaphors the unconscious mind reaches for in dreams?

People in every generation may have a notion of an impending end of the world. Religions with apocalyptic stories woven into their texts, Christianity or Norse god-worship, have them more prominently.

But here, with us, the fear was clear, specific, and immediate. There was no rapture. It was an open question of debate among my friends and me, whether it would be luckier to die in the first flash or to manage to survive it and linger in the wasted world.

And it would be an act not of god, but of us.

This, I am sure, had its effects on us, on me. They may be different in different people. But perhaps they are too little unappreciated now in considering the generation that grew up with fallout shelter placards on our school walls and that now rises to power in the world.

I'll tell you one time I felt it affect me as an adult: When I was young, it seemed the whole point of American military might and the billions we poured into it was to be able to survive just long enough to bring down the hammer on the people of Russia, to kill all of them as they killed all of us. Submarines parked silently on the Arctic Sea floor, missiles hidden among grain fields in the Dakotas, army radar dishes scanning north from Maine. Trigger fingers in the ultimate Mexican standoff. To save the world by being forever one phone call away from obliterating it.

During the Iraq War, and Afghanistan, and the Asian tsunami, when the U.S. military poured its might into setting people free, giving them a hand up, redeeming old wrongs, I felt it, in a small part, like a personal joy. The sense of re-waking from the Kissinger realist nightmare was exhilarating.

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