50s: We Learned Duck and Cover

Monday, Oct. 7, 1957. Sputnik. The Russians put a man into space before we did.  Less than a year after Russian head of state Nikita Khrushchev’s “We will bury you” speech. Parents worried, teachers worried, and we kids worried too. I was nine and in fourth grade at Loyola School. 

The cold war wasn’t just adult talk. It was kids’ talk too, and nightmares. Nuclear war. A mushroom cloud erupting over San Francisco, just 30 miles north of us. We had regular duck and cover drills at school. They told us about Hiroshima. We knew the detail of a human form burned into a surviving wall, people sizzled into dust in an instant.  The threat was always there. 

I remember being out on the back lawn in sleeping bags, two 10-year-old kids on a sleepover. We looked at the stars and talked. And we talked about whether one of those stars was a Russian missile about to destroy us all. And we scared the hell out of ourselves and couldn’t sleep for hours. That was just one night, one memory; it wasn’t unusual. 

Our neighbors just above us up the hill installed a shelter in their back yard. We could see every detail of the installation. It was like a big tank, maybe half the space of a railroad tank car. They hired contractors to dig a huge whole. We saw the fallout shelters advertised often enough. Most of them had some kind of filter for air, and a bicycle for power, and months of stowable food. Mom and Dad silently disapproved. I wasn’t sure why. 

There was a missile installation in the East Bay, just across the Dumbarton Bridge. The missiles were poised in launch position, pointing upwards. The threat was always there.

Fear of the Russians prompted a big push for education that changed the United States and blessed my generation. We had to beat the Russians. I was too young to have What started that day in 1957 means accelerated classes for me, as I benefited from dedicated and concerted tracking, from early on. 

Throughout my years at Loyola School, third to sixth grade, we had the smart class, the sort-of-smart class, the middle class, the sort-of dumb class, and the dumb class. Every kid knew that and knew where they placed; and I’m pretty sure the parents knew it too. Our hierarchy was firmly established. 

That continued for me through middle school and high school. That was the way of the world back in the fifties and sixties. 

1961: JFK Inauguration

January 20, 1961. Three days after I’d turned 13. We watched JFK’s inauguration speech on a black and white television that Miss Alexander brought into her middle school literature classroom for the special occasion. You’ve probably seen pictures of that speech. Kennedy’s dark hair, Chief Justice Earl Warren’s white hair, both blowing unruly on a cold windy day.

The short speech gave me chills.

To those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.

We all lived with the specter of those “dark powers of destruction unleashed by science. Cue the mushroom clouds again. That kind of talk reached the middle schoolers loud and clear.

So let us begin anew–remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.

We knew what he meant. Listen, Russians. We all wanted peace with the Russians, but we, 12- and 13-year-old kids, didn’t trust them.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Kennedy’s words resonated. In that classroom we all believed in him. The Kennedy-Nixon debates, and the campaign, were forgotten. Kennedy was president and we — middle schoolers — believed in him. Maybe the adults were still playing out the Kennedy vs. Nixon election; but for us, this was the president. The first president we were really aware of, as we crossed over from kids to teenagers. We didn’t realize it yet, but this laid foundations for the changes to come.

1962: Bay of Pigs et al

Just a few months later, April of 1961, a US-sponsored invasion of Cuba failed. A force of Cuban exiles landed in Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Television news knew within days that the force was sponsored and supported by the CIA and the US government. The Eisenhower administration cooked up the plan and Kennedy approved of it. Fidel Castro had evolved. We first saw him as an interesting clown who took his chickens with him when he visited New York in 1959. The TV news made him a character, with his straggly beard. He gradually settled into a folklore-laden role as a hero to a good segment of youth and politics, but a goat to the mainstream.

Kennedy believed the domino theory that ruled US foreign policy of the decade. His cabinet of “the best and the brightest” saw nations falling like dominoes to the influence and pressure of Communist Russia and China.

Cold war positioning was clear. The world divided into communist vs. Western. Russia controlled the Eastern Bloc, a collection of satellite states including East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Rumania, Bulgaria, and Albania. China was closed up to all, a lock-up communist mystery. Russia and China both influenced Mongolia, North Korea, and North Vietnam.

Historians still argue about how much US policy pushed Cuba to Russia. The official view was simple: Castro was a communist, period. He was always going to be a Russian puppet. The alternate view, which I bought into quickly, even as a high schooler in the early 1960s, was that Castro could have been much closer to neutral if the US hadn’t pushed him away so aggressively. He was marooned as a leader of a poor developing country who needed support from one of the big powers. The US turned its back on him, so he turned to Russia.

I had the opportunity later, in the 70s, to refine that view with more information. I worked with a man who had been Assistant Director (subdirector) of Economic Studies under Castro, but then fled to the US. And in 1977 I spent six weeks in Cuba doing a book. But this is about the sixties. More about Castro in the seventies.

The day after the Bay of Pigs failure, Kennedy turned his attention to Vietnam. He wanted to fight those dominoes wherever he could. That wasn’t reported at the time, but for sure, Vietnam got steadily more important, in our TV news and print coverage, from then on.

In February of 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth in a space capsule. We all watched the mission on television, in a classroom. It was dramatic live TV as he the capsule splashed down into the ocean, and the boats from one of the big ships collected him.

October 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis. You may have read Robert Kennedy’s journal about it, published as 13 Days; And there was a movie made too, with the same title. I read the RFK book as required reading for a business school course in leadership.

For us, at the time, it was a day to day nightmare. The news stayed on all day and in our house too. I remember the images of ships in formation at sea, and the maps and diagrams on TV, drawings of missiles and arrows pointing from Cuba to the US, arrows showing the locations of ships heading towards Cuba with missiles on board.

Every day we saw Kennedy again, staring down Khrushchev.  We saw diagrams of Russian missiles headed toward Cuba and American ships blockading them. We saw mushroom clouds our heads again, more than ever. The fallout shelters and the fear we all lived with. It was on the tip of every eighth grader’s tongue. Every day we’d compare notes about what we saw on TV and what our parents said. Eventually, it ended. The Russians backed down, or so we were told. But it was a big deal to all of us, and the fear lingered on.

Throughout the fifties and sixties, nuclear testing continued in Nevada. We never heard much about it, but it was there, for years, just 300 miles or so from where we were growing up. In 1962 the US Navy dumped tons of nuclear waste into the ocean about 50 miles from San Francisco. It was stored in steel drums.