Not Fade Away


Back in 1952 it was obvious that after twenty years the Democrats would at last lose the White House. The public wanted a change, and there were no Democratic candidates with the stature (“presidential timber” was the phrase of the time) of any of the Republicans like Thomas Dewey or Robert Taft, or Dwight Eisenhower or Douglas MacArthur. Dewey and Taft were arch-enemies. Dewey was an internationalist and Taft was more an isolationist. He wanted us out of Europe. As things went, Taft began edge past Dewey in the standings. As nominations were still primarily backroom arrangements–primaries were just beginning–such standings were difficult to glean, but the press and politicos seemed to think that things were leaning in Taft’s direction. There was a draft-Eisenhower movement in the works–he was, after all, the big American hero of WW2, the architect of victory–but he would rather not be president. He’d done his bit and wanted to retire. But he was worried about Taft’s isolationist tendencies…Ike was worried that it was basically handing over Europe to Stalin. Stalin gave him the creeps. So he told Taft that if Taft stated that he would continue the current American policies in Europe–NATO, the Marshall Plan, etc.–that he, Eisenhower, would make a Shermanesque declaration of his lack of presidential ambitions (“I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.”) Taft refused. Ike jumped in. It looked neck and neck heading into the convention. So Taft decided to jump the gun on normal procedure and announced his choice of running mate before the convention. He chose Douglas MacArthur. Continue reading

Listening to Wanda Jackson and thinking about the end of the world.

“Fujiyama Mama” by Wanda Jackson is on the radio. Some badass rockabilly from 1957. Haven’t heard this in decades.

I’ve been to Nagasaki, Hiroshima too!
The things I did to them baby, I can do to you! 

I suppose atomic bombs could be kind of funny/cool until the late 50’s. Mutually Assured Destruction–MAD–was just depressing though we weren’t quite there yet. The Russians had a couple hundred nuclear bombs. We had 2,500. We would win. As would Wanda Jackson in the sack, apparently. By 1960 the Russians had 1600 bombs, but we had over ten times that. We would still win, though there’d be a lot less left, and certainly no Wanda Jackson songs. By 1965 the Russians had over 6,000 bombs, enough to blow up the world, and we had over 30,000. I’m not sure what Wanda Jackson would say at all. Not even the hottest mama could do to a man what thirty thousand H-bombs could do.

I was born in 1957, the year Wanda Jackson recorded Fujiyama Mama. I have no memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which has always struck me as odd, being that I six years old. We were living just outside Washington D.C., and if the missiles flew and bombs dropped we were as good as vaporized. My parents must have hidden it from us, as did the teachers. My folks must have been terrified. My father certainly was, he was working with the navy at the time and privy to all sorts of water cooler scuttlebutt. He told me later he was scared out of wits. The worst week of his life, he said. Somehow none of this had sunk in. Or perhaps I repressed it, though I have vivid memories of the Kennedy assassination just a month later. I was fully aware of the fact that we could all be obliterated, however. I remember duck and cover drills in kindergarten. The air raid siren would go off, and the teacher had us curl up under these tiny desks. It would have kept us alive an additional millisecond. Some of my earliest memories of nuclear bombs were just being scared and depressed and trying not to think about them. Maybe scared isn’t the right word. Dreaded maybe, though one doesn’t think of children dreading anything, just being scared. I remember seeing some movie about the end of the world when I was in third or fourth grade up in Maine in 1966, Five or On the Beach, and though the thing was hopelessly over my head I completely understood the feeling of doom. I watched it all the way through to the end and it was like I’d discovered a grown up secret–we were all doomed. There I was nine of ten years old thinking about the end of the world and feeling hopeless. I remember walking outside and it was chilly and grey and very, very sad. Those years of duck and cover drills had taken their toll.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War, those times can seem funny now. I really like that John Goodman flick Matinee, basically a screwball comedy about the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s charming. The end of the world rendered cute. How can you not love it?  The only funny take on the end of the world I remember before then was Dr. Strangelove, which is hysterically funny. Came out about the same time as Failsafe, which is not funny. I wonder if they were ever double billed anywhere? Two ends of the world for the price of one. Which would they show first? In Failsafe Blackie bombs New York City and the last thing you see is a flock of pigeons. In Strangelove you get Vera Lynn. Don’t know where don’t know when. I suppose I’d want to see the pigeons first. Why ruin the whole weekend scared and depressed? Better to be laughing, scared and depressed.

Thinking about it now, though, dread is an apt description. Weird how that never completely disappeared back then, the dread. It was always there, in the background, and no matter how much you’d forget about it, there was always something to make you remember. As a kid no matter where we moved we were always in a target zone, which by the 70’s meant annihilation. You can’t duck and cover from multiple H-Bombs, and by the time I graduated from high school the Russians had almost 20,000 of them. We had 27,000. Where the hell would Kremlin drop it’s 20,000 nuclear bombs? Where would the Pentagon drop our 27,000? After the first thousand there’d be nothing left. I can’t remember how we dealt with this conundrum. I do know that we lived every moment with the thought in the back of our minds that just one mistake by somebody somewhere could send fifty thousand nuclear weapons to their targets and annihilate not just us and the USSR, but all life everywhere. That was the beauty of mutually assured destruction. We studied it in college. We looked for ways to game it, to fix it so one side could win. It never happened. Both sides always lost.

By 1980 the US had actually reduced its arsenal, though we had bigger and better quality bombs. One of the newer ones could vaporize Omsk, say, where we’d needed two before. Though we’d probably hit Omsk with two or three anyway, just to be sure. The Russians kept growing their stockpile. They had thirty thousand warheads in 1980, and almost forty thousand in 1985. We wondered what they could possibly do with forty thousand nuclear bombs. When does Mutually Assured Destruction veer into just a waste of money? I mean if you could already destroy the world with, say, five thousand warheads, why destroy it eight times over?  As if there was any logic to any of this, really, by that point.

The atom bomb still had a kind of innocence in the fifties. First Hiroshima. One little bomb, one vaporized town. Then Nagasaki, and another vaporized town. The Japanese got the message, the war was over, the boys came home. So simple. There was logic to it. Sure it was morally awful, but you could argue that it made sense. Then forty years later there are 50,000 bombs and it made no sense at all. It’s hard to find any logic except Mutually Assured Destruction. Then suddenly the Soviet Union was gone, just like that. The Cold War was over. Neither we nor they were on the brink of self-immolation. Indeed, it wasn’t even us or them anymore. The bi-polar system was gone and destroying the world no longer made any sense geo-politically. Now we freak out over terrorists.

Yet even the craziest terrorists, even terrorists with nuclear bombs, seem like child’s play compared to Mutually Assured Destruction. Though it’s hard to explain that now. It’s hard to explain just what it was like living with the threat of complete and total annihilation over our heads. Everyday with that thought in the back of our minds that, well, this could be it. This could be your very last sunrise. Your very last sunset. The very last time you see your kids, your wife, your parents. That could have been your very last kiss. Everybody’s very last kiss. Someone will press the button and nobody will ever fall in love again.

The Wanda Jackson tune ended ages ago. Now it’s something wry and ironic. There’s time to be wry and ironic now. The world won’t end any second.