Looking at the world with Cold War pessimism

On Feb. 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, and in a flash, Americans were made aware of the fates of cities such as Mariupol, Kharkiv and Kyiv. As the Russian assault stalled, and Vladimir Putin made his nuclear threats, another city came to my mind, marking me as a true child of the Cold War.

Hiroshima. Aug. 6, 1945. One bomb, one city.

During the 1960s and 1970s, after films such as “On the Beach,” “Fail-Safe” and, of course, “Dr. Strangelove” had made their way from movie screens to television screens, I watched them whenever they were scheduled. Despite my youth, I was mesmerized by them — yet terrified.

During those very formative years, I was also a newspaper junkie, and I followed the headlines as closely as I did the Sunday comics. Nuclear arms talks, tensions and treaties competed with Snoopy, Blondie and Smokey Stover.

In grammar school, we participated in required “disaster drills.” As the intercom blared its klaxon warning, we marched from our desks into the hallway to stand in rows facing our lockers, but we knew the score.

We lived in the shadows of the steel mills on Chicago’s Southeast Side. If war broke out, the mills would be targets, and we would be gone in a flash.

It’s no wonder that during those years, I started to have nuclear nightmares on a regular basis: bright flashes, mushroom clouds and the world on fire. They continued during the ’70s and ’80s, especially during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

By the ’90s, I found myself worrying about the state of leadership, at home and abroad. Would there come a time when we would have a generation of leaders for whom names like Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Bikini Atoll (where the first hydrogen bomb was tested) would be as trivial as the Sunday comics?

If so, would some world leader decide, “Why not, it’s just another weapon,” and issue an order that would change the world, if not obliterate it? Enter here Putin’s name (and let’s not forget Kim Jung Un).

A cautionary tale from history

Although it is August 2022, I’d like to briefly return to April 16, 1953. Recently elected President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered what became known as his “Cross of Iron Address” to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

In that sobering speech, Ike laid out the post-war world for Americans. We can either spend money on schools, hospitals and infrastructure, Eisenhower argued, or we can continue to spend on armaments, and by doing so, eventually stumble down the road to war. And because Russia (then the Soviet Union) also possessed the A-bomb, it would be an atomic war, and Ike knew that civilization could not survive such a conflict.

In a perfect world, there would be no atomic or nuclear weapons. Ours is, however, a less-than perfect world. We have our enemies, and under the bumbling of Donald Trump, we grew distant from past allies. If anything positive has resulted from Mr. Putin’s imperial ambitions, it is, hopefully, the renewed resolve of our European and NATO allies.

Unfortunately, I often find myself looking at the world with lingering Cold War pessimism. While almost seven decades have passed since Ike’s famous address, I don’t see the world as having changed much.

We are still standing at the same crossroads we were at after Hiroshima. Do we walk along the road of peace, economic prosperity and mutual respect among nations, or do we stumble down the road to nuclear nightmare? Or will we allow ourselves to be pushed ?

If that happens, who will be left to hear the Hiroshima peace bell ring?

John Vukmirovich is a Chicago-area writer and book reviewer.

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