Ah, for the halcyon days of childhood. The cold war was in full bloom. America was taking every precaution and making preparation. Fallout Shelter signs greeted us on government and privately owned buildings and on our schools, their stark yellow and blue/black message signaling the way to a false sense of security.
In class our teachers guided us in making our preparations. When the test signal went off we dutifully got out of our seats, knelt under our desks and buried our heads in our arms so that we could survive the nuclear blast that might be only moments away – that is if this weren’t only a test.
We were unified in our resolve against a foe who threatened our safety. The phrase “Better dead than red” was one that everyone heard with regularity. We took comfort in the fact that we were building more and bigger bombs and missiles. If they messed with us we were going to mess them up right back – to the utter annihilation of the whole planet. That would show them.
Our AM radio stations broadcast these tests on a regularly scheduled basis. Their message was introduced by a high pitched tone and then the words … “This is a test of the civil defense system .. this is only a test.” Even as a child I learned when to expect to hear them. I thought, if I figured this schedule out why couldn’t the enemy? Wouldn’t that be an ideal time to launch an attack? Fortunately I was more precocious than the leaders in the Kremlin. Or perhaps they realized that if this war were ever fought there would be no victor.
Unlike the terrorists of today we could identify those who would do us harm. We knew where they lived. In some ways, despite the potential for utter destruction, that simplified things. And it was probably for that reason that in the end we took the only sane path and began to dismantle all the weapons of destruction that we once viewed as our sole protection against Armageddon.
It’s hard to imagine how any of us who grew up during this period escaped without incurring terrible mental scarring and went on to live productive lives. As tensions mounted between the parties and then waned, I remember some sleepless nights, thinking about what would happen in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.
I remember my parents coming in to my room to comfort me and ask what was wrong. I would simply say, “I had a nightmare” – never telling them the source of my malaise. What I had imagined was too horrible and indecent to put into words. It still makes me shudder as I write this.
Although I didn’t understand it at the time, there was one good thing that came out of the cold war. We were united as a people. We were all Americans – and in our resolve we stood shoulder to shoulder with one another – rich and poor, black and white, Jew and gentile.
Perhaps what we need today is the inspiration of leaders who understand the importance of solidarity and who recognize that while we have differences, our common values far outweigh them. Maybe that sanguine message would help us pull together instead of constantly hearing the drumbeats of division which are pulling us apart.
It’s a theory that is worth considering. The worst that can happen is that if it doesn’t work we can try something else.
After all, “This is a test … this is only a test.”
But it is a test that we cannot afford to fail.