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The cold war knock on the door

Russia's invasion is giving me flashbacks to childhood paranoia over nuclear war.

In 1983, ABC showed a made-for TV movie called “The Day After,” which told the story of Kansas families caught in a nuclear war between the USSR and NATO. A lot of us kids watched that movie and were traumatized.

I’ll be honest – I didn’t even have the guts to watch it.

Kids in the late 1970s and early 1980s lived in a constant state of paranoia about the possibility of nuclear war. It didn’t seem like a far-fetched thing at all. Between 1982 and 1985, Russia had three different leaders. In 1983, the USSR shot down a Korean airliner, killing everyone aboard. NATO was moving more nuclear warheads into Europe. Everyone was building more missiles and bombs. As Joseph Heller once wrote: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

As kids, we tried to imagine what would happen in a nuclear war. Living in Southern Ontario near Hamilton and Toronto on the Canadian side and Buffalo on the American side, we figured things probably wouldn’t go very well for us. You tried not to think about it, but every time a saber rattled somewhere in the world it felt like the bad guys were knocking on your door. Even pop music – like Nena’s 1983 upbeat hit “99 Luftballons” – was filled with angst.

Peace and prosperity

And then – in 1989 – the Berlin Wall came down.

Overnight, it seemed, the world was a safer place. The Doomsday Clock, which had been set at a few minutes to midnight, was moved to 17 minutes away from midnight as peace and cooperation between the superpowers led to the reduction of nuclear weapons. In 1992, Francis Fukuyama even wrote a book called “The End of History and the Last Man” which predicted that liberal democracies and free-market capitalism of the West represented peace and the final form of human government.

Since then, there has still been plenty to worry about. Climate change, 9/11, tsunamis, pandemics, small-scale wars and famines – even the distant threat of asteroids hitting the earth – have all been cause for concern. But none of those fates, no matter how real or destructive they may be, have been quite as terrifying as the threat of nuclear war. To put it another way: Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” was powerful, but it was no “The Day After.”

In the last forty years, my generation – Gen X – has grown up to become parents and grandparents. We’ve had good careers and a decent standard of living. We’ve travelled and relaxed and reveled in the benefits of a mostly peaceful world.

Not again

And then — this year — Russia invaded Ukraine. 

I can’t speak for my fellow Gen Xers, of course, but I can tell you that I immediately felt a familiar and forgotten knock at the door. 

“What if,” I asked myself, “This escalated?” I started re-playing the old scenarios of NATO versus Warsaw Pact. But while a lot of things about the Cold War were theoretical, the Web let me watch the Ukraine invasion in real time. It let me see exactly what a warhead landing in Toronto would do. 

I checked the supply of iodine pills. I checked to make sure my car would still run after being hit by an EMP. And I realized that having more information didn’t reassure me — it made me feel worse. 

The Cold War world of 1983 was more stable than this one. The countries involved were ideologically opposed, but ultimately rational. Meanwhile in 2022, so much rests on the unknowable mental state of one man — Vladimir Putin. 

The stakes were smaller in 1983, too. I only had to worry about myself, then. Now, I worry about my kids. And I think to myself: “I can’t believe I’ve come this far, only to live in fear for the lives of my children.” In a word, 2022 is worse — way worse — than 1983.

For decades, it seemed that humans — while still imperfect — were still making progress. The 2020s showed us we were naïve and complacent. If we want to move forward, it’s going to take a lot of hard work from all of us to put us back on track again. 

Author

  • Lloyd Rang works in communications and is a member of Rehoboth CRC in Bowmanville.

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