March winds and April showers bring May flowers, or so the proverb goes. But in the spring of 1952, they may have brought something else as well: nuclear fallout. America had begun testing the hydrogen bomb.
The following year, amid a technological race with the U.S., the Soviet Union exploded a hydrogen bomb. They also created an intercontinental ballistic missile and by 1957 put Yuri Gargarin in the first orbital flight around the Earth.
As the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia intensified, fear of the bomb and anxiety over the prospects of a nuclear war began to weigh heavy on the minds of the American public.
Media advertisements and Civil Defense documentaries sanctioned by the U.S. government suggested that building bomb shelters was a visible way for Americans to protect themselves during a nuclear attack. Capitalizing on America’s paranoia about the bomb, some construction companies jumped on the bandwagon and began hawking the backyard bomb shelter.
Warning sirens blared every month, in every town across the country, announcing air-raid drills. Duck-and-cover practice was routine in every schoolhouse in America. The bomb had become a familiar, albeit unnerving, part of life.
Hollywood filmmakers, aware of the public’s fear and fascination with atomic energy, began producing films with nuclear war themes such as: Dr. Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb, The Last Man On Earth, The Day the World Ended and The Atomic Kid. Television got in on the act with programs such as The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and One Step Beyond – prime-time that touched TV viewers’ dark side and played to our worst fears. In The Twilight Zone’s premiere episode starred actor Earl Holliman as a young astronaut who returns to Earth after a nuclear holocaust to find the world devoid of life.
Home sweet home has always stood as the core of American life. Despite the Red threat, Americans were buying houses and settling into suburbia in search of the good life. Stressed-out, urbanized citizens, worried about the bomb, began constructing home fallout shelters. Keeping up with the Joneses took on a whole new meaning in the 1950 and ’60s; who could build the better bomb shelter soon became the new status symbol among the affluent. These bunkers served as silent witnesses to a nation’s ill ease.
Families who owned well-stocked shelters lived with the constant worry that during a nuclear holocaust they’d be invaded by friends and neighbors who neglected to build bunkers of their own. Who to let in? Who to lock out? These questions plagued the bomb shelter owner. Paranoia and suspicion soon generated feelings of distrust and anxiety.
In the late 1950s, America was reaching for the stars while its people were watching the skies. On Oct. 4, 1957, the U.S.S.R. had launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. America countered by sending its own satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit on Jan. 31, 1958. The Cold War race for supremacy of the skies had begun. The following decade, America set its sights on the moon.
Even though we Americans were enjoying fun fads like hula hoops, lava lamps, Nehru jackets, go-carts and go-go boots, a doomsday mentality prevailed.
It was a somber President Kennedy who addressed the nation on Oct. 22, 1962. Citizens already made nervous by the raging Cold War listened as the president told of the Soviet missile buildup in Cuba and how, in retaliation, he had surrounded the island with American military power. In response, an angry Nikita Khrushchev dispersed Soviet warships to Cuba. A military showdown with the U.S. was imminent.
I remember that fateful night especially well, since it was my 20th birthday. Instead of celebrating, my family and friends sat mesmerized as President Kennedy delivered his foreboding television address to the nation. Afterward, we all sat in numbed silence. Was our greatest fear about to be realized? Was nuclear war forthcoming? My party guests made a hasty exit for home that night to spend the next crucial hours with their families, and to pray.
Like most of America, I stayed awake all night listening to the radio news bulletins (TV signed off the air at 1 a.m. in those days). I hoped for the best but feared the worst. As I listened, I lamented all night long over the fact that Dad hadn’t built a bomb shelter for his family.
Somehow, through divine intervention or political compromise, by next morning the crisis had passed, and Khrushchev agreed to withdraw his troops and missiles from Cuba.
In 1963, a test-ban treaty was reached by world powers. By 1972 the U.S. and USSR began holding Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). The two powers agreed to limit antiballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.
We Americans began to lose our naiveté in the 1960s, a decade full of turmoil and unrest that saw our most popular and charismatic leaders assassinated.
By the time the 1980s and ’90s rolled around, we were a wise and more informed nation. Educated by worldwide media, we came to realize that building fallout shelters did little to protect us from nuclear holocaust.
I remember an antiwar poster from the 1970s that expressed the futility of atomic warfare best. Its words of warning went something like this: “In case of nuclear attack, duck and cover your face and head, then bend all the way over and kiss your assets goodbye!”