Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Cold War Memories

While there are a lot of things I love about growing up in the 60's and 70's, one of things I didn't like was the Cold War.    

For those of you younglings who only read about it in your history books, one of the things we had to live with during that period was two nuclear armed superpowers aiming thousands of nuclear warheads at each other on hair trigger alert.

There were days I'd wake up and wonder at times whether this would be the day that somebody did something stupid, a political miscalculation or a misinterpreted malfunction would happen that kicked off World War III and altered our world forever.

If you've heard the songs '99 Luftballons' and Men At Work's 'It's A Mistake', it spoke to that fear of nuclear annihilation many of us humans around the planet had.   Our literature of the period spoke to those fears with books such as 'Alas, Babylon', 'Warday' and 'On The Beach' which was later turned into a movie.  

There were movies such as Fail SafeDr. Strangelove,  Red Dawn and War Games, and television miniseries such as 1983's The Day After as the US and USSR both built up their nuclear stockpiles to obscene levels.   

Every time there was some international incident like the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, drama between the Warsaw Pact and NATO nations or conflicts like the Korean, Vietnam, Arab-Israeli or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, we worried that it would spiral out of control into a confrontational war between the superpowers  that would escalate into a nuclear exchange and the MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) scenario we had nightmares about that would end life as we know it.

Hearing about the Soviets nearly launching on nuclear armed China during a 1969 border clash along the disputed Ussuri River border between the two nations,  Fidel Castro incessantly calling for nuclear first strikes on the US, the 1983 NATO Able Archer exercise that nearly jumped off a Soviet first strike and about other too close to call instances of malfunctions in command and control on both sides that nearly jumped off everyone's worst nightmare only heightened that planetary anxiety.

It also didn't help matters that the Soviet Union's citizens and leadership believed we'd launch a first strike on them and we grew up in the States immersed in the belief that the 'godless commies' would do the same to us and order that devastating nuclear first strike that would destroy our American way of life. 

From the time I entered kindergarten until third grade we used to do regular duck and cover drills and fallout shelter signs were everywhere.  One little known factoid about the Astrodome was it was designed to be a large fallout shelter when it opened in 1965.  After a while with more powerful nukes being added to the US and Soviet arsenals, we stopped doing duck and cover drills, the feds stopped spending large sums of money on civil defense and it became a 'what's the point' exercise.

We entered a period of detente in the 70's, but the military buildups continued  The Soviet Navy became a global force that posed a challenge to US naval dominance, the NATO and Warsaw Pact forces trained on their sides of a split Germany in endless maneuvers and wargames waiting for the other side to invade.  

The space race, the Olympics, and international sports became ways to prove our competing economic and political systems were better than theirs without shooting at each other and recruit support from the non aligned or Third World nations to either the Western or Communist blocs.     

Glasnost, the demise of the Soviet Union and the unification of Germany at the tail end of the 80's thankfully spelled the end of the Cold War and a much needed respite from the international stress that period caused..

I'm also thankful that my nieces won't have to grow up in a world that was a hair trigger away from self inflicted nuclear annihilation.

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