BEING RIGHT FOR THE WRONG REASONS

Posted in Rants on April 16th, 2008 by Ed

As some of you are well aware, I'm obsessed with Cold War-era culture. While re-reading one of my favorite pieces of non-fiction, Kenneth Rose's One Nation Underground: the Fallout Shelter in American Culture, I did the grad student thing and followed up on a footnote. It led me to an equally interesting article about the social and cultural history of Cold War-era civil defense indoctrination in schools by historian JoAnne Brown: "A is for Atom, B is for Bomb: Civil Defense in American Public Education, 1948-1963" (jstor access required). The entire article is fascinating (if you're me) but one part just floored me. It says everything you need to know about the time period – and probably goes a long way toward explaining baby boomers.

Many large public school districts (including New York and San Francisco) implemented a plan to issue metal dog tags to all school children. The stated purpose was something about helping to identify lost children, although everyone over the age of four understood that their real purpose was for the identification of bomb-charred corpses. I'm sure that militarizing the act of being in school, not to mention indoctrinating little kids to expect death to rain down from the skies at any moment, had some relatively profound psychological effects on the kiddies. But it could have been worse. Here's another plan proposed by the Deputy Superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools in 1951:

Tattooing is considered occasionally, but generally rejected because of its 'associations' and impermanence in case of severe burns.

What a snapshot of 1950s America: a bunch of white guys sitting around talking about tattooing five year-olds….and rejecting it not because it's unfathomably fucked up but because tattoos are unreadable on scorched corpses. Oh, and those "associations" with the Holocaust. Which had wrapped up only 6 years before this quote. But let's assume they would have overcome that minor obstacle had they devised a tattoo ink that withstands a 5,000 degree fireball and a hundred lifetimes worth of gamma rays in 3/10ths of a second.

It stuns me, not having lived through the period, how matter-of-factly people managed to talk about nuclear war as though it were A) imminent B) unavoidable and C) survivable. They talk about ID-ing all the dead kids with about as much emotion as field trip permission slips and new math textbooks.

I strongly recommend Rose's book if you're even remotely into social criticism. While the topic might not seem like it, this is a book anyone could enjoy. If you do have a specific interest in Cold War culture, I also recommend Tom Vanderbilt's Survival City: Adventures in Atomic America (an architectural critic's look at the crumbling ruins of buildings and structures purpose-built for World War Three) or Andrew Grossman's Neither Dead nor Red. And of course you can't overlook culturally-revealing staples of fiction like On the Beach, A Canticle for Liebowitz (in my all-time top three favorite books ever), or Alas, Babylon.