Has the "Duck and Cover" World Returned

tags: Cold War, nuclear weapons, civil defense

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture.  A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

Face it, we’re living in a world that, while anything but exceptional, is increasingly the exception to every rule.  Only the other day, 93-year-old Noam Chomsky had something to say about that. Mind you, he’s seen a bit of our world since, in 1939, he wrote his first article for his elementary school newspaper on the fall of the Spanish city of Barcelona amid a “grim cloud” of advancing fascism. His comment on our present situation: “We’re approaching the most dangerous point in human history.”

And don’t try to deny it! What a mess! (And yes, I do think this moment is worth more than a few exclamation points!) 

Admittedly, I’m not an active, thoughtful 93 year old.  I’m a mere 77 and feel like I’m floundering in this mad world of ours. Still, like my generation, like anyone alive after August 6, 1945, when the city of Hiroshima was obliterated by a single American atomic bomb, I’m an end-of-the-worlder by nature. And that’s true whether any of us like it or not, admit it or not.

In fact, I’ve lived with that reality — or perhaps I mean the surreality of it all — both consciously (on occasion) and unconsciously (the rest of the time) since my childhood. No one my age is likely to forget the duck-and-cover drills we all performed, diving under our school desks, hands over heads, to prepare for, in my case, the Soviet Union’s attempted atomic destruction of New York City. We followed the advice, then, of the cartoon character Bert the Turtle — in a brief film I remember seeing in our school cafeteria — who “never got hurt because he knew just what we all must do: he ducked and covered.”

As the sonorous male narrator of that film then put it:

“The atomic bomb flash could burn you worse than a terrible sunburn, especially where you’re not covered. Now, you and I don’t have shells to crawl into like Bert the Turtle, so we have to cover up in our own way… Duck and cover underneath a table or a desk or anything else close by… Always remember, the flash of an atomic bomb can come at any time, wherever you may be.”

That was life in 1950s New York City.  On my way to school, I would pass the S-signs for “safe places to go” (as that cartoon put it) or later the bright orange-yellow and black fallout-shelter signs (millions of which were produced and used nationally). And like so many other young people of that era, I let The Twilight Zone nuke me on TV, went to world-ending films in my high-school years, and read similar sci-fi. 

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