I keep returning, as I did in last week’s story, “The H-Bomb,” to the Cold War. It’s hard today to remember what it was like to live with the constant fear of the nuclear arms race. Today’s worry of another terror attack, as bad as that would be, pales in comparison to the horror of all life on Earth being wiped out. Back then, it seemed as though every week there was a new, more dangerous weapon to fear. The atom bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki were puny toys compared to the destructive power of the hydrogen bomb, the neutron bomb, the cobalt bomb.
Both the United States and Russia were engaged in endless rounds of testing. They set them off above ground, underground, over and under the sea. The circle of destruction for each new, improved bomb was wider than the last, until no urban area was safe, no matter how large and spread out.
Tuning into the news meant exposing yourself to yet another story about the latest, scariest threat. The result was that the notion that Russian missiles might be headed your way any second was never far from your mind. And, of course, politicians were always trying to prove that they were tougher than the other guy when it came to dealing with the Russkies, which didn’t help calm anyone’s nerves. You just had to learn to live with the paranoia and somehow carry on.
The Russians were quite adept at propaganda. They managed to convince us that they were a relentlessly ambitious superpower, both a military and economic juggernaut, and we spent the better part of four decades contending with them in proxy wars and displays of global brinkmanship until the fragile Soviet Union finally collapsed, a victim of its own inherent weaknesses as much as any external pressure from the West.
But that inevitable demise was years away during the height of the Cold War, and the prevailing emotion of the day was fear of a horrifying nuclear death, especially for an impressionable and easily frightened young boy.