"Which is worse? The wolf who cries before eating the lamb or the wolf who does not."— Leo Tolstoy

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Cold War Remembrance: Or How I Learned to Hate the Bomb

On November 19, 1959, a cartoon debuted on the ABC television network featuring a moose and a squirrel who matched wits with two ""Pottsylvanian nogoodniks," Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale. As a small child, I enjoyed listening to the Russian accents, particularly how Natasha would say "moose and squirrel."


Two years before the debut of Rocky and Bullwinkel, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first Earth satellite. Sputnik terrified the American public and ignited the "space race" that lead to the Apollo Program. With the development of intermediate and long range intercontinental ballistic missiles,  the "arms race" was kicked into high gear.  On October 31, 1961 - my first Halloween - the Soviet Union tested the 50 megaton Tsar Bomba, which remains to this day the largest nuclear bomb ever detonated.

A year later - in October, 1962 - the Cuban missile crisis was precipitated by the presence  in Cuba of Soviet nuclear missiles capable of reaching New York City in a matter of minutes.  This is a U.S. Government civil defense movie that was shown to the American public during the 1950' and 60's:

In high school, I became interested in nuclear weapons policy. I read books on the subject and followed the progress of disarmament negotiations.  In 1983 I was selected to represent Cornell University at an international collegiate disarmament conference held at Dartmouth College.  Not a single person at the disarmament conference would have predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union within the next ten years. Yet only eight years later - twenty years ago this December - the Soviet Union was formally dissolved.

In 2009, while working as a volunteer legal specialist in the former Soviet Republic of Kyrgyzstan, I met my wife who was born, raised and graduated from medical school as a citizen of the Soviet Union.  On our second date I asked her to say "moose and squirrel" for my amusement, which is when she started calling me "crazinski."

The Central Asian republics were an important part of the Soviet nuclear weapons program.  The mineral-rich mountains of Kyrgyzstan were the primary source of the uranium used in the Soviet nuclear arsenal, and extensive nuclear testing was done on the remote steppes of eastern Kazakhstan.

 Recently,  I was walking with my wife and noticed a cold-war era fallout shelter sign still hanging on the side of an NYU building near Washington Square Park in New York City. I was born in New York City and lived within blocks of this fallout shelter until I left for college.  As a child I used to play in Washington Square Park, a stone throw from the shelter.  

Photo by Nick Hentoff
I wondered  how many of  the college students who attend NYU - and walk under the sign each day -  know what it  represents.  I wondered how many people my age  see the sign and reflect on how much the world has changed in the past fifty years and just how lucky we all are to still be here.

Of course, both Russia and the U.S. still have large stockpiles of nuclear weapons and much remains to be accomplished in ongoing disarmament negotiations.  In addition, both nations need to address the cold war legacies still plaguing some of the former Soviet Republics. Kyrgyzstan still has dozens of uranium tailing dump sites that continue to poison the land and its people. The poorly constructed containment facilities are located in a seismically active region where earthquakes and floods threaten an environmental disaster of unprecedented proportions.

Still, it occurs to me just how improbable it is for my wife and I to be standing together in 2011 looking at this rusted fallout shelter sign with the realization that the Soviet Union no longer exists and that the dystopic danger the sign represented is a distant collective nightmare that no longer threatens the mutual destruction of our homelands.

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