From its beginning after the Second World War until its end with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cold War was marked, as everyone knows, by great worry. Some of the fear, like the universal contemplation of the possibility of nuclear destruction, or the thought of losing a war in Europe to the Soviet Union, was well founded. And some of the anxiety, such as paranoia about the possibility of communist agents taking over the U.S. government, was less justifiable..
Many of the fears were expressed explicitly, for example in activities during the time which have become legendary, such as the construction of family bomb shelters in suburban backyards, the Congressional hearings chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the air raid drills which nearly all American students had to practice roughly once a month, when the sound of a siren emanated from somewhere down the street and our teachers told all of us to get on hands and knees under our desks and wait for the all clear.
In other cases the fears were expressed indirectly, for example in the many science fiction films of that era about strange invaders from outer space and lizards made monstrous by nuclear mutations in their genes.
I have some claim to being the originator of one of the more creative expressions of indirect anxiety to appear during the Cold War.
In 1953, my father, my mother, my sister and I were living temporarily with her parents at their home in the Berkeley Hills while my parents looked for an apartment for us in the East Bay area. At the time, my father was a Hospital Corpsman in the U. S. Navy. He had served in the Korean War and then completed a tour of duty at the Naval Hospital in Bremerton, Washington, a small city with a very large harbor, where a major portion of the Pacific Fleet was stationed. Now he was beginning a tour of duty at the Naval Hospital in Oakland, and we were purposely taking our time to find an apartment, enjoying the chance to be with my mother’s family again.
My father, my mother, my sister and I stayed with my grandparents long enough for me to spend about six months in the fifth grade at elementary school in the Berkeley Hills.
During that time, my thirty fellow students elected me to be their class president. The position was an honor, to be sure, but in reality I only had two duties: to lead the pledge of allegiance each morning, and to stand in front of all our desks once each month and preside when we held the class meetings to discuss such issues as whether we were all being polite in class, who would be responsible for cleaning the chalk powder out of the erasers, and whether we liked the food being served in our school cafeteria.
The point of it all, our teacher explained, was to learn citizenship. And the attention to duty was reinforced in other ways. In the boys’ case, for example, most of the fifth and sixth graders came to school early and left the classroom early each afternoon to put on uniforms and march together to assigned intersections where we served as junior traffic policemen assisting students to cross the streets.
I got more models of duty at home. Not only was my father a Navy man; so also, was my grandfather. He had served as a gunnery officer in both world wars and, after leaving the Navy, as an armed teller at the Crocker Bank in San Francisco. Both men were, I would say in retrospect, levelheaded patriots. They saw war as an inevitable human activity, but they also wanted it to be avoided whenever possible, and they told all of us stories from time to time that made the evils of war very clear. At the same time, the two men were firm about the need to do one’s duty when the nation called. And they did enjoy the adventure of war. An important part of my boyhood was the stories they told from time to time about sea battles, island invasions, outrunning typhoons, rescuing comrades and refugees, and visiting exotic foreign ports.
All of the concerns about citizenship and rising to challenges came together in a very odd way a month or so after I became class president. Probably because I did not yet feel accepted enough at my new school, even though elected president, I began to get the feeling that I was not making sufficiently impressive use of the powers of my office. And so I started looking for a way to change the situation.
At this point, television exerted its effects. In the 1950s, television was full of items reflecting the Cold War, such as the anti-communist weekly program of the Catholic bishop Fulton J. Sheen, the televised Congressional hearings led by Senator McCarthy, and the long-running documentary Victory at Sea, which chronicled in triumphalist manner the exploits of Americans during the Second World War.
One of the items that happened to come to my attention at this time, while I watched the TV screen at home with my relatives, was a public service commercial for Radio Free Europe. Operating in tandem with a companion organization, Radio Liberty, RFE was a network of broadcasting stations, widely known at the time, set up in the United States and Western Europe to beam anti-Soviet programs across the Iron Curtain via short wave.
Radio Free Europe received extensive funding from the U.S. government but also had authority to raise funds from the private sector as if it were a philanthropic group such as the Red Cross or the American Cancer Society.
On the black and white screen in front of me, as I watched TV one evening at my grandparents’ house, there suddenly appeared an ad for RFE. It opened with suspenseful music and a static line drawing of the map of Europe. Then, as the music became more menacing, tar-like black goo began seeping from the right hand of the screen just west of Moscow. Soon the goo was making its way across the Iron Curtain and beginning to cover West Germany and France, at which point, in white, a hammer and sickle appeared in the midst of the goo, and radio towers, to the left of the goo, began pushing back against the goo by means of the lightning emanations of their broadcast signals. Then, as the music quieted down, a deep male voice told us that we could help to fight the communist menace by sending our dollars to the post office address that suddenly appeared on the TV screen.
That’s it! I thought to myself. Our class needs to hold a Radio Free Europe Cookie Sale!
To this day, I do not understand how I connected selling cookies with the communist menace. Maybe my mother and grandmother had baked cookies a few days before. Maybe there had been a Pillsbury commercial on TV earlier in the evening or the day before. Maybe I had passed a charity’s cookie sale downtown a few weeks before. But none of that mattered to me at the time. All I knew was that I had come up with a brilliant idea for doing my duty, and that it would make everyone more secure.
Later in the evening, when the TV was turned off, I asked my relatives what they thought of my idea. They were encouraging but not wildly so. Communism was a bad thing, they agreed; and being a good citizen was important. But, they advised, first present the idea at school, and, if you all get permission to go ahead, we’ll do our part.
The next morning, in class, after our pledge to the flag, I told everyone that I had a special announcement and dramatically outlined my idea. The students loved it, and our teacher gave his approval and said he would make the necessary arrangements with the Principal, other teachers, and the Parent-Teacher Association.
Three weeks later, during five successive lunch periods, our class set up card tables at one end of the school playground and sold the many, many platefuls of cookies our parents had baked or helped us to bake. Various parents showed up to act as chaperones along with our teachers and to help us be cashiers. The cookies were three for a nickel, and we made almost forty dollars in total.
Looking back, the innocence of it all is rather striking. Neither my fellow students nor I ever checked to make certain that the forty dollars actually made its way to Radio Free Europe. And most of the students who bought the cookies, especially the younger ones, probably did not know what Radio Free Europe was, even allowing for the fact that a couple of the parents brought RFE posters to school and set them on easels behind the cookie tables.
But we did all know, whether intuitively or logically, that we had done our part to be good citizens and to fight the communist menace, whatever it might be.