All this talk about war between Israel and Iran has stirred memories of the Cold War. Israeli politicians and President Obama have said it is “unacceptable” to them for The Islamic Republic of Iran to build nuclear weapons. For emphasis, the President added “I don’t bluff.” Iran claims that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes, but much of what it says and does, including threatening Israel, is highly provocative.

Israel certainly has reason to fear a nuclear-armed Iran, given the many direct and suggestive statements Iranian leaders have made about the hoped-for demise of the small country, that has experienced six wars in the six decades of its existence. Tel Aviv going up in nuclear flames would cripple the State of Israel, though the Jewish people would survive. Such a strike would also kill many Arabs and Palestinians, if that would matter to Iran.

But Israel would then retaliate with its fairly-well-established nuclear arsenal, crippling the much larger country of Iran—not destroying it but bombing it back into, shall we say, the camel and barter age.

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That, you may recall, was the simple logic of mutual deterrence or mutually assured destruction, also known as MAD. As the theory went, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union would start a war on the other because either side had a second strike capability strong enough to inflict horrific damage on the other side. Both nation states, while holding deeply different political views, were thought to be rational and would act in their self-interest; they would want to survive.

Both the U.S. and USSR had many thousands of nuclear warheads, enough, some thought, to destroy all civilization on Earth, to bring about a so-called “nuclear winter.” These thermonuclear weapons could be delivered by long range bombers, ICBM’s (intercontinental ballistic missiles), and by submarines.

It was imagined that World War III would start in Europe, where NATO and the Soviet Union and its client state Warsaw Pact kept battle-ready tactical nukes, especially NATO which faced the daunting task of stopping vast Soviet tank armies charging through the central German plane to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. One of our little nukes was a rocket called Davy Crockett. It could be fired from the back of a jeep. The driver would then put his pedal to the metal and drive like hell in the opposite direction.

The weapons we feared most were the ICBM’s, which would be fired over the North Pole and strike American cities in 30 minutes from lift-off in the Soviet Union. Not much time to prepare for your doom.

I grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, home to the DuPont Company and several large chemical plants there. We thought, for sure, we were fairly high up on the Soviet target list. So when the Civil Defense sirens sounded, that would signal the end for us. Every school and major building had one of those air raid sirens on its roof. When the siren, with its long trumpet, sounded, the teacher immediately stopped class and told us to go under our desks and put our hands over our necks, as we curled into a ball, facing away from the windows, which covered one entire wall. It was a penetrating wail.

If you sat at one of those desks with the seat attached to the desk, curling up under it was difficult and uncomfortable because of the metal strut connecting seat to desk. Two or three minutes later, the siren sounded the all clear, and we resumed class as if nothing had happened. No one joked, passed notes or fired spitballs during the drill itself. I can’t remember if the teacher hid under her desk or not.

This went on year after year, in every class, during the 1950s and into the ‘60s. Black-and-white Civil Defense films were shown in class, on tv, and as part of the news shown in movie theaters before the main feature, in those days. The latter disappeared when practically every home owned a television. Thus we knew the stages of destruction of the Bomb: first the flash of light at detonation, then the blast and hurricane force winds, followed by the rain of lethal fallout coming from the signature mushroom cloud.

One year, my school instituted a new policy. If you brought in a signed permission slip from your parents, you would be allowed to leave the school and spend your final moments with your parents if the sirens sounded for real. This was not practical for most of us. My father worked at one of those chemical plants and would undoubtedly be caught in traffic. So would my mother, if she were out and about. I did not live within walking distance of school.

Some buildings in downtown Wilmington were marked with metal yellow and black CD triangles, meaning that if you heard the awful siren, you could find shelter in that structure during an actual raid.

My school conducted longer drills, when we went down to the halls in the basement, in groups, and sat uncomfortably on the concrete floor. These drills lasted for one or two hours. We did not have iPods or anything like that. We were allowed to talk quietly during these drills. The school stockpiled water, food and medical supplies in the basement. I don’t know if these measures were a result of state, local or school regulations.

My mother kept several boxes of canned foods in our basement. We did not practice any drill or routine at home that I can remember. I doubt that we would have survived a big hit in Delaware. This was when we lived out in the country. Sometimes the National Guard conducted exercises in our upscale neighborhood, with troops standing at the fence separating our property from the field in back, reading maps.

One day I looked up at the bright blue sky. High above, flying in V-formations, leaving contrails, were squadrons of heavy or medium bombers, dozens of airplanes. I stood and watched as the giant silver planes passed overhead. What was that all about? I never knew.

Film footage of the latest nuclear test blasts, the newest ICBM (ours or theirs), concerns about Strontium 90 and other nuclear particles getting into our food supply, especially milk, peace demonstrations, and related topics permeated the news and our lives.

I don’t remember when the last CD siren sounded and the last duck and cover drill took place in America. The Vietnam War replaced fear of all-out war with concerns about the legitimacy of a regional conflict half way around the world. The reaction of the first generation born into a nuclear world, to the Vietnam War, was largely negative and hostile. It seemed unnecessary to us. We did not feel threatened by events in Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson said that American boys should not be doing the job of Asian boys.

The unacknowledged lesson we learned from getting down on the classroom floor when the siren wailed was that resistance to nuclear weapons was futile. There would be no enemy to fight on the village green. We would experience a blast and the window wall would crash into us rolled into a ball on the floor. We would probably never know what had happened, who had fired the first shot. The duck & cover drills of the 1950s gave rise to the peace movement a decade later.

The country took another turn after the attack of September 11, 2001. The enemy was not an anonymous bomb or missile released from afar, but fanatics who had trained and lived among us. The nuke, if it came to that, would be a suitcase bomb.

Civil defense gave way to emergency management designed to deal with any kind of crisis: a natural catastrophe like an earthquake as well as war. The attack of 9/11 spawned the Office of Homeland Security and its many departments.

When I think back to the early days of the Cold War, I wonder how we survived. Not a single nuke went off in anger or was triggered accidentally. Some bombs fell from bombers and burned when they hit the ground. Luck was with us; the wind was at out back. When I look at the world today, I wonder how long that luck will last.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.

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