It's hard, so many decades later, to make my way back to my Cold War youth, that time when the history of humanity was, as LIFE magazine so classically put it, "The Epic of Man." But hey, that was the era when we still thought dinosaurs were lumbering beasts, an electric typewriter was the leading edge of high-tech, and if, like my wife, you happened to live in El Paso, Texas, in the early 1950s, your TV set had nothing on it because the signal for the programs had yet to make it over the mountains.
It was also, in some ways, the most nightmarish of times. The old school fire drill had, by then, morphed into a "duck and cover" exercise. You dove under your desk in a crouch, covering your head with your hands and arms, while sirens screamed outside. You were, of course, practicing for the end of times, the moment when a Soviet nuclear weapon obliterated your city. Under the circumstances, your hands and that none-too-sturdy desk weren't the most reassuring of safety nets. But like all kids, I didn't really live in the worst or best of times, I lived in the only time there was, the only time imaginable, and the only place there could be (which happened, in my case, to be New York City).
Still, in a world then brimming with wealth but also riddled with barely expressed fear, there were some especially grim moments to remember. In October 1962, for instance, John F. Kennedy went on TV and the radio to announce the presence of Soviet nuclear arms in Cuba and say that we risked "the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth, but neither will we shrink from the risk at any time it must be faced." Listening, 18-year-old Tom Engelhardt feared that nuclear destruction was upon us, that we on the East Coast were toast, and that it had all somehow happened before life had even begun. Later in the 1960s, as the Vietnam War raged, I came to believe that we Americans were barbarians and wondered whether that war and the world that went with it would ever end.
Still, even then, young and old alike lived with a kind of optimism as well, a typically can-do American attitude, a sense of lurking hope, undoubtedly based at least in part on the globally dominant position of the country we all inhabited. And since we were still surfing the crest of a wave of unprecedented postwar wealth, if you chose to "turn on, tune in, and drop out," you never had a doubt that you could also turn off, tune out, drop back in, and get a job -- a good job -- any time you wanted. It's not a feeling the young would recognize now.
Today, the Cold War era of my youth might as well have been the Neolithic Age, something historian (and radio host) Jon Wiener discovered on a little odyssey through our American world of commemoration, including such magnificent sites you've never heard of as the NSA and (online) CIA museums and the Whittaker Chambers "pumpkin patch." He captures this in his new book, How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America, a splendid tour de farce of the museums and other memory palaces established largely by the American right in honor of the greatest triumph in human history, the winning of the... oh, remind me, what was it? And what was the name of that "evil empire" that disappeared without a trace in 1991? As he writes, "Despite an immense effort by conservatives to shape public memory of the Cold War, their monuments weren't built, their historical sites have had few visitors, and many of their museums have shifted their focus to other topics."
Still, the urge to commemorate is not to be sniffed at, and so today, to commemorate his new book, Wiener takes TomDispatch readers on an eight-whistle-stop nostalgia tour of what was best about the Cold War era and is worst about our own. If I could add my own ninth category to his list, here's what it would be: my nostalgia for the deep-seated sense of optimism and hope basic to that era, something now so missing from our American world that, I suspect, the young don't even know it's gone. Tom
Eight Things I Miss About the Cold War
Fifty Years Ago, College Was Cheap, Unions Were Strong, and There Was No Terrorism-Industrial Complex
By Jon Wiener
At a book festival in Los Angeles recently, some writers (myself included) were making the usual arguments about the problems with American politics in the 1950s -- until one panelist shocked the audience by declaring, "God, I miss the Cold War." His grandmother, he said, had come to California from Oklahoma with a grade-school education, but found a job in an aerospace factory in L.A. during World War II, joined the union, got healthcare and retirement benefits, and prospered in the Cold War years. She ended up owning a house in the suburbs and sending her kids to UCLA.
Several older people in the audience leaped to their feet shouting, "What about McCarthyism?" "The bomb?" "Vietnam?" "Nixon?"
All good points, of course. After all, during the Cold War the U.S. did threaten to destroy the world with nuclear weapons, supported brutal dictators globally because they were anti-communist, and was responsible for the deaths of several million people in Korea and Vietnam, all in the name of defending freedom. And yet it's not hard to join that writer in feeling a certain nostalgia for the Cold War era. It couldn't be a sadder thing to admit, given what happened in those years, but -- given what's happened in these years -- who can doubt that the America of the 1950s and 1960s was, in some ways, simply a better place than the one we live in now? Here are eight things (from a prospectively longer list) we had then and don't have now.
1. The president didn't claim the right to kill American citizens without "the due process of law."
Last year we learned that President Obama personally approved the killing-by-drone of an American citizen living abroad without any prior judicial proceedings. That was in Yemen, but as Amy Davidson wrote at the New Yorker website, "Why couldn't it have been in Paris?" Obama assures us that the people he orders assassinated are "terrorists." It would, however, be more accurate to call them "alleged terrorists," or "alleged terrorist associates," or "people said by some other government to be terrorists, or at least terroristic."
Obama's target in Yemen was Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who was said to be a senior figure in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. According to the book Kill or Capture by Daniel Klaidman, the president told his advisors, "I want Awlaki. Don't let up on him." Steve Coll of the New Yorker commented that this appears to be "the first instance in American history of a sitting president speaking of his intent to kill a particular U.S. citizen without that citizen having been charged formally with a crime or convicted at trial." (Awlaki's 16-year-old son, whom no one claims was connected to terrorist activities or terror plots, was also killed in a separate drone attack.)
The problem, of course, is the due-process clause of the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits "any person" from being deprived of "life, liberty, or property without due process of law." It doesn't say: "any person except for those the president believes to be terrorists."
It gets worse: the Justice Department can keep secret a memorandum providing the supposed "legal" justification for the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen, according to a January 2013 decision by a federal judge. Ruling on a Freedom of Information lawsuit brought by the ACLU and the New York Times, Judge Colleen McMahon, wrote in her decision, "I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret."
It's true that the CIA has admitted it had an assassination program during the Cold War -- described in the so-called "family jewels" or "horrors book," compiled in 1973 under CIA Director James Schlesinger in response to Watergate-era inquiries and declassified in 2007. But the targets were foreign leaders, especially Fidel Castro as well as the Congo's Patrice Lumumba and the Dominican Republic's Rafael Trujillo. Still, presidents preferred "plausible deniability" in such situations, and certainly no president before Obama publicly claimed the legal right to order the killing of American citizens. Indeed, before Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. regularly condemned "targeted killings" of suspected terrorists by Israel that were quite similar to those the president is now regularly ordering in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, Yemen, and possibly elsewhere.