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Cold War Warriors

Postcards from the Cold War Homefront

Judy Butterfield

I am a product of the "duck and cover" generation of elementary grade students. In the 1950s, our national leaders assured us that by leaping under our desks and covering our heads we would be spared the horrors of an inevitable nuclear blast. The war-mongering Russians wanted nothing more than to subjugate us and turn us into mind-controlled Commie robots. By 1953, we took solace in President Eisenhower’s threatening foreign policy. The 1954 Doolittle Report provided an early justification for any action against communists by stating that no rules applied when faced with "an implacable enemy set upon world domination by whatever means and whatever cost." To Eisenhower, every raw material and skill that served the military did so at the expense of the domestic economy. To meet the needs of a steadily growing population, he sought to devote as few resources as possible to the military. This cost cutting led him to emphasize nuclear weapons because they offered more bang for the buck, in both literal and psychological terms. We found comfort in the braggadocios, "Our bomb is bigger than your bomb" stand-off.

In 1955, as a freshman in high school, not much had changed when it came to US/USSR relations. By now, my mother had married a handsome "fly-boy" and we became an Air Force family stationed on Long Island, New York. We were still ducking and covering, but with less sense of urgency than in the years immediately following WWII. One day my stepfather came home to announce that he was being reassigned and had been offered the choice of three assignments. "They are opening a new school in Colorado Springs to be called the Air Force Academy and I would teach Military Transportation there", he reported. I swooned at the thought of being a faculty daughter in a sea of cadets! "But I turned that down," he continued. "WHAT? You don’t care if I never find a husband!" I wailed and huffed off with much slamming of doors and drama worthy of Vivien Leigh. He turned to my mother and said, "The second choice was to Homestead AFB in Miami, Florida." My mother’s family resided in Florida and she beamed at the prospect of being near them. "But I turned that down, too." She glared at him and emulated my door slamming minus the wailing about future husbands. He called in the direction of the closed doors, "So we are going to a SAC base in Mountain Home, Idaho. I’m sure we will all be very happy there." There followed a frosty two-week snubbing of the man who endured cold suppers and additional door slamming.

Mountain Home was headquarters of a huge Strategic Air Command bomber fleet poised to rain retaliatory nuclear revenge on any real or perceived belligerent behavior from the Russians. Under the command of General Curtis LeMay, SAC had become the linchpin of President Eisenhower’s military/diplomatic philosophy of massive nuclear retaliation. Security at the base was so extreme, it was easy to imagine the Russians marching out of the desert and down Airbase Blvd. Mountain Home was not near any urban area, but the mindset was that we must be prepared for an attack and evacuating the base held high priority. My mother had to keep a bag, containing clothing and provisions for the entire family, packed and stored near the front door. Teens attended the local civilian high school, and periodically we would have a drill to test the evacuation plan. Military kids would be taken to an assigned corner where we would wait for the caravan of cars from the base. Searching for your family was not allowed, but you had to jump in whatever car stopped and said they had room. We would journey out into the desert until it was determined that we had the plan down pat, then we would circle back and return to town to face the jealousy of our fellow students, envious that we got to miss math class.

In 1960, our opinion of the dangerous and unstable nature of the Russian psyche was confirmed by an erratic performance by Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev at the 902nd Plenary Meeting of the UN General Assembly. The leader of the Soviet Union, infuriated by a statement from the Philippine delegation concerning colonialism, pounded his shoe on his delegate-desk. Mr. Khrushchev came to the rostrum, being recognized on a Point of Order. There he demonstratively, in a theatrical manner, brushed the Philippine speaker aside, with an upward motion of his right arm — without physically touching him — and proceeded to demand that the Assembly President call "this toady of American Imperialism to order." Khrushchev pounded his fists on the table during the continued speeches and even picked up his shoe and banged the desk with it. The Philippine Delegate was interrupted time and again. The chaotic scene finally ended when the Assembly President pounded the gavel (which shattered and bounced off), adjourning the meeting. Aha! (We said knowingly) A bunch of crazy commies who deserve to have our nuclear weapons aimed their way.

In 1968, Gen. LeMay was harshly criticized for his call to bomb North Vietnam "back into the Stone Age," which was made while campaigning as vice president on the ticket with segregationist governor George C. Wallace. This was typical of "nuke ‘em" Cold War rhetoric. Years later, in 1983, President Reagan called the USSR the "focus of evil in the modern world." The next day, the official Soviet news agency TASS said Reagan was full of "bellicose lunatic anti-communism." In that same year, Reagan said in a televised address that all the ills of the world are to be blamed on the Soviets, and later, was caught joking on a live mike that he’s ordered the U.S.S.R. bombed. "My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes." The public reaction to the gaff signaled that Americans were still uncomfortable with Ronald Reagan’s Soviet hard-line. That did not, however, keep Reagan from beating Mondale handily in the next election.

1962 found me newly wed to a dashing Air Force officer. We were at pilot training in Lubbock, Texas, when, in October of that year, there developed a confrontation between the Soviet Union, Cuba, and the United States. In September 1962, the Cuban and Soviet governments began to surreptitiously build bases in Cuba for a number of medium- and intermediate-range nuclear missiles with the ability to strike most of the continental United States. With patriotic fervor, we were certain that the call would come for our brave husbands to jump into their T-39 trainers, and attack those sneaky Soviets in Cuba. It never happened, and somehow President Kennedy arranged for a peaceful end to the Missile Crisis without the help of Pilot Training Class 62-D.

In 1969, my husband’s unit, the 39th Tactical Airlift Squadron, had a three-month rotation mission to Rhein-Main Air Base outside of Frankfurt, Germany. I flew over to join him and he took a few days leave for a short trip into Berlin. West Berlin was completely surrounded by the Communist-controlled country of East Germany, a closed society through which Americans were not allowed to travel. The city itself was split by a barrier built in response to the flight of about 2.5 million East Germans to West Germany in the years 1949 – 61. First erected on the night of Aug. 12 – 13, 1961, it developed into a system of concrete walls topped with barbed wire and guarded with watchtowers, gun emplacements, and mines. There were many rules involved in tourists traveling to West Berlin. My husband was required to wear his Class A uniform, and we traveled on a non-stop train through countryside blocked from view by blackened windows. West Berlin was a prosperous city of broad boulevards and expensive stores, many automobiles and bright lights. It was no wonder that so many attempts were made to breach the Wall, leave the grey poverty of the German Democratic Republic, and find freedom in the West.

We were determined to see "Check-point Charley," through which a trickle of commerce passed, and I got my wish to wave merrily to the East German guards on the other side. They did not return my greeting. When West German protesters breached the wall on 9 November 1989, it provided the Cold War's symbolic end. It also lessened my lifelong concerns about the designs on our way of life held by the Soviets. How ironic that the threats we face today are not from one easily identifiable nation, but from philosophical radicalism with no specific national roots. Kind of makes one nostalgic for the cut and dried Cold War.

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