Let me start 2022 by heading back — way, way back — for a moment.
It’s easy to forget just how long this world has been a dangerous place for human beings. I thought about this recently when I stumbled upon a little memoir my Aunt Hilda scrawled, decades ago, in a small notebook. In it, she commented in passing: “I was graduated during that horrible flu epidemic of 1919 and got it.” Badly enough, it turned out, to mess up her entry into high school. She says little more about it.
Still, I was shocked. In all the years when my father and his sister were alive and, from time to time, talked about the past, never had they (or my mother, for that matter) mentioned the disastrous “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918-1920. I hadn’t the slightest idea that anyone in my family had been affected by it. In fact, until I read John Barry’s 2005 book, The Great Influenza, I hadn’t even known that a pandemic devastated America (and the rest of the world) early in the last century — in a fashion remarkably similar to, but even worse than, Covid-19 (at least so far) before essentially being tossed out of history and the memory books of most families.
That should stun anyone. After all, at that time, an estimated one-fifth of the world’s population, possibly 50 million people, reportedly died of the waves of that dreaded disease, often in horrific ways, and, even in this country, were sometimes buried in mass graves. Meanwhile, some of the controversies we’ve experienced recently over, for instance, masking went on in a similarly bitter fashion then, before that global disaster was chucked away and forgotten. Almost no one I know whose parents lived through that nightmare had heard anything about it while growing up.
My aunt’s brief comment was, however, a reminder to me that we’ve long inhabited a perilous world and that, in certain ways, it’s only grown more so as the decades have passed. It also left me thinking about how, as with that deathly flu of the World War I era, we often forget (or at least conveniently set aside) such horrors.
After all, in my childhood and youth, in the wake of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this country began building a staggering nuclear arsenal and would soon be followed on that path by the Soviet Union. We’re talking about weaponry that could have destroyed this planet many times over and, in those tense Cold War years, it sometimes felt as if such a fate might indeed be ours. I can still remember hearing President John F. Kennedy on the radio as the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 began — I was a freshman in college — and thinking that everyone I knew on the East Coast, myself included, would soon be toast (and we almost were!).
To put that potential fate in perspective, keep in mind that, only two years earlier, the U.S. military had developed a Single Integrated Operational Plan for nuclear war against the Soviet Union and China. In it, a first strike of 3,200 nuclear weapons would be “delivered” to 1,060 targets in the Communist world, including at least 130 cities. If all went “well,” those would have ceased to exist. Official estimates of casualties ran to 285 million dead and 40 million injured — and, given what wasn’t known about the effects of radiation then, not to speak of the “nuclear winter” such an attack would have created on this planet, that was undoubtedly a grotesque underestimate.
When you think about it now (if you ever do), that plan and — to steal Jonathan Schell’s famed phrase — the fate of the earth that went with it should still stun you. After all, until August 6, 1945, Armageddon had been left to the gods. In my youth, however, the possibility of a human-caused, world-ending calamity was hard to forget — and not just because of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In school, we took part in nuclear drills (“ducking and covering” under our desks), just as we did fire drills, just as today most schools conduct active-shooter drills, fearing the possibility of a mass killing on the premises. Similarly, while out walking, you would from time to time pass the symbol for a nuclear shelter, while the media regularly reported on people arguing about whether, in the case of a nuclear alert, to let their neighbors into their private backyard shelters or arm themselves to keep them out.