Boomers Both Feared and Laughed at Russia

Spying and hacking and meddling … oh my! Russia is in the news again, but that is nothing new to boomers. We lived with practically daily news about the country and people we were told were our biggest adversaries.

There are famous stories of General George Patton advocating war with Russia at the end of World War II. His rationale was that it was inevitable that we would face the country some day, and at that point we had troops and equipment available in the area already. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed, but just four years after the end of the war, the first salvo of the Cold War was hurled when the Soviet Union tested their first nuclear bomb.

We tended to use the terms “Russia” and “Soviet Union” interchangeably, though there was a difference. Russia was and is a country in and of itself, but the U.S.S.R. (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) was a collection of Country/States that comprised the Soviet Union, until its dissolution in 1991. The U.S.S.R. was under the control of the Communist Party, headquartered in Moscow, Russia.

Once the Soviets became the second state to possess nuclear capability, fear spread across the U.S. Boomers recall the Duck and Cover government educational film (1951) and the craze of people building home fallout shelters (See: Signs of the Times: Fallout Shelter Signs Were A Common Sight for Boomers). In the beginning we were told we’d survive a nuclear attack if we were at school, simply by sliding under our school desks. At home, we could survive indefinitely inside shelters that were either pre-made and installed, or custom made by the homeowner. These shelters were stocked with water, canned goods and everything a family might need to remain locked away underground until nuclear fallout clouds might dissipate. Information at the time thought that might not take more than a month — at least that is what the government was saying aloud.

Soon after the Soviets’ first nuclear test, the country was gripped by McCarthyism, named after Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) and the congressional hearings he chaired on the possible infiltration of Communists into the U.S. (1950-54). His first inquiries concerned the loyalty of government employees, then he targeted the film and TV industry.
The same year McCarthy began his “Red Scare,” the U.S. entered the Korean conflict, ostensibly to stop the spread of Communism.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev said in a speech in 1956 that he felt the Communist system would outlast the western Capitalism system by saying, “We will bury you.” He repeated the phrase at the United Nations in 1960, pounding his fists and ultimately, his shoe, on his desk. The line elicited front page news for the American press. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 added more fuel to the fire of nuclear fear (See: Boomer History: The Cuban Missile Crisis).

Meanwhile, the film and TV industry was busy doing what people always do to their adversaries — demonize and make fun of them. Some of the most popular movies and TV shows referenced the Soviet Union in an adversarial role. Most, however, may have made allusions to Russian spies and meddling, but the foes were more often super villains from international crime syndicates as opposed to state operators. Here are a few of Mister B’s Cold War favorites:

James Bond — The first James Bond film was released in 1962. The books, authored by Ian Fleming, did plot U.S. and Soviet spies against each other on occasion, but the movies seldom did. In From Russia with Love (1963), James Bond “must” seduce a beautiful Russian agent in order to acquire a decoder device. In You Only Live Twice (1967) super-villain Blofeld is capturing Soviet and American satellites in an effort to start a war between the two countries. In The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), British and Russian submarines are being hijacked, so the two countries’ governments combine forces to investigate. Heading into the 1980s and ’90s, the Soviets and British (and by proxy, Americans) appear in an adversarial role in several Bond films, but that is out of the range of the prime boomer years, so Mister B will leave that for your own research.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) – This movie set up a “what if” scenario of a rogue American general intent on starting a war between our two countries. In the movie, the U.S. President reaches out to the Soviet Ambassador to try to explain the situation and brings him into the top-secret War Room in the process. There, the Ambassador, skeptical of U.S. motives, is busy taking pictures of his surroundings. The satire showed the absurdity of our mutual distrust in the face of total annihilation.

Fail-Safe (1964) – Like Dr. Strangelove before it, this film creates a scenario where a nuclear exchange between the two countries is frighteningly close at hand. In this film, though, American bombers are accidentally sent to destroy Moscow due to electrical and computer malfunctions. The U.S. asks the Soviet Union for help in averting a worldwide crisis. Unlike Dr. Strangelove, this was serious drama. Mister Boomer had read the book in school before the movie was made.

The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (1966) – When a Soviet submarine accidentally runs aground off the coast of a small New England town, members of the crew realize they have no choice but to go ashore and seek help to free their vessel. Reflecting the paranoia of the day, townspeople mistake the small boat as a Russian invasion force. Merriment ensues.

Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale – Cartoon characters on Rocky and His Friends and The Bullwinkle Show (1959-64), these spies and dastardly do-no-gooders were actually from Pottsylvania, despite their obvious Russian names. Their superior was known as Fearless Leader. Boris’s name is a play on the name of Boris Godunov, a 19th century Russian tsar who instituted a spy system to protect his power from internal and external enemies. Boris Badenov proclaimed himself the “world’s greatest nogoodnik,” another reference to the Russian language.

Much taller than Boris, Natasha Fatale was his partner and evidently the brains of the operation. She appeared to hold some affection for Boris and often saved him from his own misdoings. Like Boris, she spoke in a broken English reminiscent of a Slavic-Russian accent.

Spy TV Shows — A series of TV shows cropped up in the early ’60s that used the Cold War as backdrop, but again, seldom mentioned Russia and the Soviet Union by name — although there were instances where the two countries worked together to thwart a common enemy. Among them were The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68),  I Spy (1965-68), The Avengers (1966-69), Mission: Impossible (1966-73), The Prisoner (1967-68), and Get Smart (1965-70). All of them used at least some humor in their scripts.

What memorable laugh or fear-stricken book, film or TV show about the Russians do you remember, Boomers? (For further Mister B insight, see: Laughing Through the Cold War)

Signs of the Times: Fallout Shelter Signs Were A Common Sight for Boomers

Having lived through the Cold War, boomers remember Fallout Shelter signs on government buildings, large office buildings and apartment complexes. Yet most boomers, having lived through the origin of the signs, do not know the history behind them.

A Fallout Shelter sign was a public notice of emergency shelter, presumably in case of nuclear attack. The government-issued signs were iconographic and simple in their design: three yellow downward-pointing triangles contained within a black circle resting on a yellow background. Below were the words, “Fallout Shelter.” Additional messages on the sign could offer an occupancy capacity or directional arrows.

Within a decade after the end of WWII, advances in technology enabled the two remaining world Super Powers to build long-range missiles capable of delivering atomic destruction over great distances. By the 1950s, the Cold War emerged as an arms race, with each country wanting to keep a balance of power — as in matching the other’s number of available nuclear warheads — as a deterrent. An attack by either could result in the total annihilation of their respective countries, if not the entire planet. Fear began to grip the American public at the prospect of an attack via the U.S.S.R.’s ICBM missile system. Early Baby Boomers recall the national 1951 “Duck and Cover” program at school, where they were told to “duck and cover” should they see a nuclear flash of light. It was apparent early on that this type of action was not going to offer enough protection. As a result, plans circulated for home fallout shelters, and pre-fabricated shelters intended for home use were also made and sold.

Government officials were concerned about the rising national debate on the morality behind neighbor against neighbor — those with shelters vs. those without — should an attack occur. It was decided a system of public shelters, with each having a capacity of 50 or more, should be instituted. The country had a shelter system in place for years before WWII. These shelters, marked with a sign containing a large “S” and the words “Public Shelter,” were intended for use in instances of natural disasters, then as bomb shelters during WWII, should the homeland be bombed by enemy planes. Widespread bombing on the mainland did not transpire, though we now know the Japanese military did undertake a mission to bomb the Northwest states near the end of the War.

All but abandoned after the War, President Kennedy assigned the responsibility of re-establishing this shelter network to Civil Defense, a branch of the Department of Defense (DOD), and asked Congress to authorize funds to create signage and stock these shelters with provisions that included water, food, first aid kits, communication equipment and other things considered essential for survival.

The task of creating the design of the sign was given to a government contractor in Virginia. It was this graphics firm that suggested the colors and symbol as a simple graphic that would be easily recognizable. In recent years it has come to light that the symbol of the three triangles were not meant to evoke the symbol for radiation, as many people had come to believe. Rather, it was based on elaborate symbolism of the essential functions of the fallout shelter system. A DOD newsletter (OCD region 3, Volume 1, No. 2, March 1963) explained the reasoning behind the design and attributed it to Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civil Defense, Steuart L. Pittman:
There are six points to the shelter sign. They signify: 1. Shielding from radiation; 2. Food and water; 3. Trained leadership; 4. Medical supplies and aid; 5. Communications with the outside world; 6. Radiological monitoring to determine safe areas and time for return home.
The newsletter article added, “It is an image we should leave with the public at every opportunity, for in it there is hope rather than despair.”

This explanation, however, was not communicated to the general public.

In December of 1961, the DOD unveiled the new Fallout Shelter sign to the wire services. As newspapers began to disseminate images of the signs along with government-supplied information on what to do in case of an attack, the first sign was installed in a building in White Plains, New York. In less than a year, the signs could be seen across the country. The ubiquitous signage was immediately recognizable then as it is to people of a certain age now. The DOD was still distributing the signs as late as 1977, and many remain visible in all parts of the country.

Fallout Shelter Sign
Many Fallout Shelter signs can still be seen, including this one that Mister Boomer passes every day.

Mister Boomer did not actually know of a family who had a home fallout shelter, so the national system was going be the best his neighborhood could do. For Mister B’s family, the basement of the house would have to suffice. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, his parents began to stock a storage area in the basement of the house with SPAM, canned vegetables, gallons of water and jars of other canned items. The canned items came mostly from Mister B’s grandmother and aunts, as his mother did not take to canning fruits and vegetables like other members of her family.

Though the spectre of nuclear attack was evident in the creation of the family’s emergency stock, it was also a practical precaution as Mister B’s area was prone to both floods and tornadoes. Cans would be rotated to upstairs use every few months, and Mister B remembers his father replacing gallons of water a few times, before the family abandoned the practice entirely in the mid-60’s. By then Mister B, like a good many boomers, heard the scuttlebutt around school that in the event of nuclear attack, none would survive in his region. A newspaper report had indicated the targeting positions of Soviet Union missiles, and his area was directly in their sights since it contained so many factories. Local steel mills, a paper factory, and airplane and auto plants were prime targets for an enemy bent on disabling a country’s ability to wage war.

Mister Boomer made notice of the Fallout Shelter signs, but like many boomers at an early age, did not think that these shelters would mean the difference between surviving an attack or not. Boomers lived their lives with the ever-present possibility of nuclear attack hanging over them, but they pressed on, not thinking much about it or the Fallout Shelter signs that dotted the cityscape.

What experiences do you recall with Fallout Shelter signs, boomers?