Duct (Tape) and Cover
Duct (Tape) and Cover
Well, at least we now know who's behind the current terrorism crisis: Polyken Technologies of Westwood,
Talk about dÃ©jÃ vu all over again! Suddenly, it's 1955, or 1961, or perhaps 1982. Our current obsession with bottled water, spare blankets, fresh batteries, duct tape, and plastic sheeting triggers weird memories of "civil defense" hysterias past, when our leaders warned us in apocalyptic tones to prepare for the worst. In the Eisenhower era, they advised us to keep at least a half tank of gas in our car at all times, so we could head off for God knows where when the missiles began to fall. At other times, they advised us to hole up in the basement, reciting nursery rhymes or the multiplication tables to keep calm. Men were told to wear wide-brimmed hats, and women long-sleeved blouses, to protect against the "heat flash" of an atomic blast or ward off radiation. As John F. Kennedy sparred with Nikita Khrushchev over
School kids cowered under their desks and watched civil-defense films in which Bert the Turtle taught them to "duck and cover." The narrator in Tim O'Brien's novel The Nuclear Age recalls, as a small boy in the 1950s, building his own card-table shelter and covering it with "lead" pencils, thinking they would absorb the radiation. What will today's kids remember -- their parents frantically taping up plastic sheeting around the house, as in a kind of bizarre improv theater routine?
In the early 1980s, when President Reagan was denouncing
As our current crop of protectors -- Ridge, Tenet, Mueller, Ashcroft, and the rest -- warn of horrors ahead from chemical and biological weapons, the old-fashioned nuclear threat from
In the 1950s, Life magazine published cheery photographs of well-dressed suburban families sitting in their fallout shelters. In one issue, the magazine gleefully featured a newlywed couple who spent their honeymoon in a fallout shelter. Life is long gone, but it's only a matter of time before some enterprising TV reality-show producer imprisons twelve strangers in a safe room, to see who cracks first and bursts through the sealed door to freedom.
As I look at the photos of those well-equipped fallout shelters from the 1950s, I realize that our advisors have missed some important details in their pell-mell efforts to protect us. Portable toilets, for example, and industrial-strength air freshener. Those tightly sealed rooms are going to become pretty insufferable pretty fast without them. And games. No respectable fallout shelter of the 1950s lacked Scrabble or some other neat game to help people while away the long hours of waiting.
And how long till CONELRAD, that fabled government radio system designed to reassure us in times of emergency, is revived? Well-loved radio personalities like Arthur Godfrey and Walter Cronkite pre-recorded messages to calm the public after atomic attack. Who will
In the 1950s, President Eisenhower and other top officials periodically disappeared to a mysterious crisis center (later identified as a vast complex under a luxury resort in West Virginia) to practice for the day when the government would carry on as usual while Washington, D.C. lay in smoldering ruins. Today, only Vice President Dick Cheney seems in perpetual hiding in an "undisclosed location," periodically resurfacing to address some business group.
The basic message then, as now, was clear: you're on your own, folks. The government can warn you of dangers ahead-from Yellow to
In 1950, when President Truman responded to the Russian atomic bomb by announcing a crash program to develop the hydrogen bomb, vastly escalating the nuclear arms race, President James Conant of Harvard, a key figure in the World War II A-bomb project, wrote to his friend Vannevar Bush of MIT that he had the sinking feeling of being forced to watch the same rotten movie a second time. My sentiments exactly.
Paul S. Boyer, a professor emeritus of history at the
Copyright Paul Boyer
[This article first appeared on www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture.]