Cold War Kid (Jenny Noyce)
Fears about the Cold War were still very much in the air when I was growing up. Though we never did “duck and cover” exercises or heard explicit propaganda about “commies” in my elementary school, I nevertheless had a notion of Russia as a monstrous fascist country that could swallow up America if our government did nothing to protect us. Reagan’s space race, too, contributed to my sense that our country was pitted against the Russians, and the first country to achieve “cosmic domination” would become THE world superpower. These ideas were certainly rooted in a child’s sensibility, but their simplicity reflects the “good vs. evil” rhetoric through which Cold War conflicts were represented.
As I was reading history/medical/legal expert Daniel Kevles’s piece about “the contested earth,” I began to recognize the large role that Cold War fears (and other legitimate national security concerns) have played in determining environmental policy. According to Kelves, the American West changed when Cold War imperatives produced “the conviction that national security required dynamic economic development.” With the arrival of federal defense projects, the West (and the desert especially) became not a site to be preserved, but rather an “emptiness” rife for atomic testing and military development (as writer Terry Tempest Williams observed in Refuge). This is a distinct shift in domestic political priorities motivated by a shift in international politics. Before there was a force out there to be scared of, preservationists could make efforts to protect the environment from the domestic powers that wished to manipulate it. But when “national security” trumps all other concerns, the preservation of the environment, as a political cause, becomes secondary (if not displaced altogether).
The irony, of course, is that the Cold War led to a ramping up of development of nuclear weapons in our deserts, and, subsequently, an increasing awareness of its consequences. Says Kelves, “the cold war helped further to lay the foundation for the second environmental movement by generating controversy over radioactive fallout from nuclear testing in the atmosphere.” We didn’t want the Russians nuking us, but in the process of protecting ourselves, we did as yet unknowable damage to our environment. Furthermore, nuclear fallout is not limited just to the Western land degraded by nuclear and defense industries, but extends well beyond political borders.
In Stacy Alaimo’s “Discomforting Creatures: Monstrous Natures in Recent Films,” the author analyzes the ways in which monster movies reflect anxieties about the blurring of boundaries between human and animal bodies. I think other types of movies popular during my upbringing might yield other interesting analyses about Cold War fears, as well as fears about environmental catastrophe. Such films might be those that aided in producing my young brain’s notion that the Russians are the bad guys. Consider action films: “Rocky IV,” “War Games,” “Hunt for Red October,” “Spies Like Us” (though a comedy). By secretly watching the movies on HBO on the basement TV, I was receiving messages that reflected Cold War paranoia: the Russians are the big, muscular, nefarious bad guys who must be conquered! Other movies, of course, are actually about nuclear war, and the fallout from it. “The Day After” was filmed in my hometown (Lawrence, Kansas) in 1984. The premise: what will the world be like the day after a nuclear explosion? Well, of course we have no idea, but…
This is a “behind the scenes” look at the making of the film (which stars Steve Gutenberg!). It’s set in Kansas because, as the director says, it’s the “social and geographical crosshairs of the continental United States.” You’ll notice that the director talks at length about his motivation to explore the multiple human dimensions of the fallout; he does not mention the environment once. It is, as the director says, a movie “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Wow. It’s real, I promise.