My childhood was a nuclear one and I’m not talking about the nuclear family. I’m thinking of those duck-and-cover moments when, with air raid sirens screaming outside, we went under our school desks, hands over head, to test out our readiness for a Cold War nuclear exchange and the coming of the end of the world. Even at that young age, I suspect, we understood just how pathetic those desks and our hands were as defenses against an atomic blast, but that mattered little. It was so in the spirit of the era — and not just when it came to children either.
I’ve never, for instance, forgotten an illustration from Paul Boyer’s classic book, By the Bomb’s Early Light, on the American nuclear fallout (of a cultural sort) that followed the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as World War II ended and the subsequent Cold War nuclear arms race began. Boyer found that illustration in How to Survive an Atomic Bomb, a 1950 book that caught the spirit of its moment. It showed a natty-looking man wearing one of the signature fedoras of that time, its brim partially over his eyes. The caption for it went: “If you are caught outdoors in a sudden attack, a hat will give you at least some protection from the ‘heat flash.’” Women were similarly urged to wear stockings and long-sleeved dresses just in case their day happened to be interrupted by a Russian nuclear strike.
Think of these as 1950s fashion tips for the apocalypse as American fears of a nuclear conflagration grew in those years. As a Federal Civil Defense Agency pamphlet of the time typically suggested, if a nuclear blast occurred, you could “jump in any handy ditch or gutter… drop flat on ground or floor… to lessen the chances of being struck by falling and flying objects, flatten out at the base of a wall, or at the bottom of a bank.” Or you could simply “bury your face in your arms.” Whatever you did, however, the one thing you weren’t to do, the agency suggested, was “lose your head” — and whatever bureaucrat offered that pungent advice undoubtedly didn’t mean it literally.
In those years, when it came to the apocalypse, you might say that this country did indeed lose its head. One witness to that was retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and TomDispatch regular William Astore. He spent significant parts of his military career in the late 1980s locked inside a mountain (so much better than a ditch or gutter if you were seriously thinking about making it through the end of life as we knew it). He’s never forgotten his professional experience of the nuclear mindset in this country and, in a later lockdown moment filled with rising apocalyptic fears, he naturally finds himself thinking about it again.
One small note, however, on Americans and doomsday: when it comes to the apocalypse, we turn out not to be equal-opportunity employers. Against nuclear war and the apocalyptic terror attacks of our national fantasy life, we’ve been all too ready to lock ourselves down over the years in stunning ways. Against another potential kind of apocalypse, however, we’re not even willing to take the simplest actions. Quite the opposite, when it comes to climate change — what we used to call “the weather” and now “extreme weather” — our new president and his crew are unlocking doors everywhere and welcoming doomsday to take up residence in our land, our streets, our houses.