This is an excerpt from Norman Solomon's new book Made
Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America's Warfare State.
A story could start almost anywhere. This one
begins at a moment startled by a rocket.
In the autumn of 1957, America was not at war ... or at peace. The threat
of nuclear annihilation shadowed every day, flickering with visions of the apocalyptic.
In classrooms, "duck and cover" drills were part of the curricula.
Underneath any Norman Rockwell painting, the grim reaper had attained the power
of an ultimate monster.
Dwight Eisenhower was most of the way through his fifth year in the White
House. He liked to speak reassuring words of patriotic faith, with presidential
statements like: "America is the greatest force that God has ever allowed
to exist on His footstool." Such pronouncements drew a sharp distinction
between the United States and the Godless Communist foe.
But on October 4, 1957, the Kremlin announced the launch of Sputnik, the world's
first satellite. God was supposed to be on America's side, yet the Soviet
atheists had gotten to the heavens before us. Suddenly the eagle of liberty
could not fly nearly so high.
Sputnik was instantly fascinating and alarming. The American press swooned
at the scientific vistas and shuddered at the military implications. Under the
headline "Red Moon Over the U.S.," Time quickly explained that "a new
era in history had begun, opening a bright new chapter in mankind's conquest
of the natural environment and a grim new chapter in the cold war." The newsmagazine
was glum about the space rivalry: "The U.S. had lost its lead because, in spreading
its resources too thin, the nation had skimped too much on military research
The White House tried to project calm; Eisenhower said the satellite "does
not raise my apprehension, not one iota." But many on the political spectrum
heard Sputnik's radio pulse as an ominous taunt.
A heroine of the Republican right, Clare Boothe Luce, said the satellite's
beeping was an "outer-space raspberry to a decade of American pretensions
that the American way of life was a gilt-edged guarantee of our material superiority."
Newspaper readers learned that Stuart Symington, a Democratic senator who'd
been the first secretary of the air force, "said the Russians will be able
to launch mass attacks against the United States with intercontinental ballistic
missiles within two or three years."
A New York Times article matter-of-factly referred to "the mild panic
that has seized most of the nation since Russia's sputnik was launched two weeks
ago." In another story, looking forward, Times science reporter William
L. Laurence called for bigger pots of gold at the end of scientific rainbows:
"In a free society such as ours it is not possible 'to channel human efforts'
without the individual's consent and wholehearted willingness. To attract able
and promising young men and women into the fields of science and engineering
it is necessary first to offer them better inducements than are presently offered."
At last, in early February 1958, an American satellite – the thirty-pound
Explorer – went into orbit. What had succeeded in powering it into space was
a military rocket, developed by a U.S. Army research team. The head of that
team, the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, was boosting the red-white-and-blue
after the fall of his ex-employer, the Third Reich. In March 1958 he publicly
warned that the U.S. space program was a few years behind the Russians.
* * *
Soon after dusk, while turning a skate key or
playing with a hula hoop, children might look up to see if they could spot the
bright light of a satellite arching across the sky. But they could not see the
fallout from nuclear bomb tests, underway for a dozen years by 1958. The conventional
wisdom, reinforced by the press, downplayed fears while trusting the authorities;
basic judgments about the latest weapons programs were to be left to the political
leaders and their designated experts.
On the weekly prime-time Walt Disney television show, an animated fairy with
a magic wand urged youngsters to drink three glasses of milk each day. But airborne
strontium-90 from nuclear tests was falling on pastures all over, migrating
to cows and then to the milk supply and, finally, to people's bones. Radioactive
isotopes from fallout were becoming inseparable from the human diet.
Young people – dubbed "baby boomers," a phrase that both dramatized
and trivialized them – were especially vulnerable to strontium-90 as their
fast-growing bones absorbed the radioactive isotope along with calcium. The
children who did as they were told by drinking plenty of milk ended up heightening
the risks – not unlike their parents, who were essentially told to accept the
bomb fallout without complaint.
Under the snappy rubric of "the nuclear age," the white-coated and
loyal American scientist stood as an icon, revered as surely as the scientists
of the enemy were assumed to be pernicious. And yet the mutual fallout, infiltrating
dairy farms and mothers' breast milk and the bones of children, was a type
of subversion that never preoccupied J. Edgar Hoover.
The more that work by expert scientists endangered us, the more we were informed
that we needed those scientists to save us. Who better to protect Americans
from the hazards of the nuclear industry and the terrifying potential of nuclear
weapons than the best scientific minds serving the industry and developing the
In June 1957 – the same month Nobel Prizewinning chemist Linus Pauling
published an article estimating that ten thousand cases of leukemia had already
occurred due to U.S. and Soviet nuclear testing – President Eisenhower proclaimed
that the American detonations would result in nuclear warheads with much less
radioactivity. Ike said that "we have reduced fallout from bombs by nine-tenths,"
and he pledged that the Nevada explosions would continue in order to "see
how clean we can make them." The president spoke just after meeting with
Edward Teller and other high-powered physicists. Eisenhower assured the country
that the scientists and the U.S. nuclear test operations were working on the
public's behalf. "They say: 'Give us four or five more years
to test each step of our development and we will produce an absolutely clean
But sheer atomic fantasy, however convenient, was wearing thin. Many scientists
actually opposed the aboveground nuclear blasts. Relying on dissenters with
a range of technical expertise, Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson had made
an issue of fallout in the 1956 presidential campaign. During 1957 – a year
when the U.S. government set off thirty-two nuclear bombs over southern Nevada
and the Pacific – Pauling spearheaded a global petition drive against nuclear
testing; by January 1958 more than eleven thousand scientists in fifty countries
Clearly, the views and activities of scientists ran the gamut. But Washington
was pumping billions of tax dollars into massive vehicles for scientific research.
These huge federal outlays were imposing military priorities on American scientists
without any need for a blatant government decree.
* * *
What was being suppressed might suddenly pop
up like some kind of jack-in-the-box. Righteous pressure against disruptive
or "un-American" threats was internal and also global, with a foreign policy
based on containment. Control of space, inner and outer, was pivotal. What could
not be controlled was liable to be condemned.
The '50s and early '60s are now commonly derided as unbearably rigid,
but much in the era was new and stylish at the time. Suburbs boomed along with
babies. Modern household gadgets and snazzier cars appeared with great commercial
fanfare while millions of families, with a leg up from the GI Bill, climbed
into some part of the vaguely defined middle class. The fresh and exciting technology
called television did much to turn suburbia into the stuff of white-bread legends
– with scant use for the less-sightly difficulties of the near-poor and destitute
living in ghettos or rural areas where the TV lights didn't shine.
On the surface, most kids lived in a placid time, while small screens showed
entertaining images of sanitized life. One among many archetypes came from Betty
Crocker cake-mix commercials, which were all over the tube; the close-ups of
the icing could seem remarkable, even in black and white. Little girls who had
toy ovens with little cake-mix boxes could make miniature layer cakes.
Every weekday from 1955 to 1965 the humdrum pathos of women known as housewives
could be seen on Queen for a Day. The climax of each episode came as one of
the competitors, often sobbing, stood with a magnificent bouquet of roses suddenly
in her arms, overcome with joy. Splendid gifts of brand-new refrigerators and
other consumer products, maybe even mink stoles, would elevate bleak lives into
a stratosphere that America truly had to offer. The show pitted women's
sufferings against each other; victory would be the just reward for the best,
which was to say the worst, predicament. The final verdict came in the form
of applause from the studio audience, measured by an on-screen meter that jumped
with the decibels of apparent empathy and commiseration, one winner per program.
Solutions were individual. Queen for a Day was a nationally televised ritual
of charity, providing selective testimony to the goodness of society. Virtuous
grief, if heartrending enough, could summon prizes, and the ecstatic weeping
of a crowned recipient was vicarious pleasure for viewers across the country,
who could see clearly America's bounty and generosity.
That televised spectacle was not entirely fathomable to the baby-boom generation,
which found more instructive role-modeling from such media fare as The Adventures
of Spin and Marty and Annette Funicello and other aspects of the Mickey Mouse
Club show – far more profoundly prescriptive than descriptive. By example and
inference, we learned how kids were supposed to be, and our being more that
way made the media images seem more natural and realistic. It was a spiral of
self-mystification, with the authoritative versions of childhood green-lighted
by network executives, producers, and sponsors. Likewise with the sitcoms, which
drew kids into a Potemkin refuge from whatever home life they experienced on
the near side of the TV screen.
Dad was apt to be emotionally aloof in real life, but on television the daddies
were endearingly quirky, occasionally stern, essentially lovable, and even mildly
loving. Despite the canned laugh tracks, for kids this could be very serious
– a substitute world with obvious advantages over the starker one around them.
The chances of their parents measuring up to the moms and dads on Ozzie and
Harriet or Father Knows Best were remote. As were, often, the real parents.
Or at least they seemed real. Sometimes.
Father Knows Best aired on network television for almost ten years. The first
episodes gained little momentum in 1954, but within a couple of years the show
was one of the nation's leading prime-time psychodramas. It gave off warmth
that simulated intimacy; for children at a huge demographic bulge, maybe no
TV program was more influential as a family prototype.
But seventeen years after the shooting stopped, the actor who had played Bud,
the only son on Father Knows Best, expressed remorse. "I'm ashamed
I had any part of it," Billy Gray said. "People felt warmly about
the show and that show did everybody a disservice." Gray had come to see
the program as deceptive. "I felt that the show purported to be real life,
and it wasn't. I regret that it was ever presented as a model to live by."
And he added: "I think we were all well motivated but what we did was run
a hoax. We weren't trying to, but that is what it was. Just a hoax."
* * *
I went to the John Glenn parade in downtown Washington
on February 26, 1962, a week after he'd become the first American to circle
the globe in a space capsule. Glenn was a certified hero, and my school deemed
the parade a valid excuse for an absence. To me, a fifth grader, that seemed
like a good deal even when the weather turned out to be cold and rainy.
For the new and dazzling space age, America's astronauts served as valiant
explorers who added to the elan of the Camelot mythos around the presidential
family. The Kennedys were sexy, exciting, modern aristocrats who relied on deft
wordsmiths to produce throbbing eloquent speeches about freedom and democracy.
The bearing was American regal, melding the appeal of refined nobility and touch
football. The media image was damn-near storybook. Few Americans, and very few
young people of the era, were aware of the actual roles of JFK's vaunted
new "special forces" dispatched to the Third World, where – below
the media radar – they targeted labor-union organizers and other assorted foes
of U.S.-backed oligarchies.
But a confrontation with the Soviet Union materialized that could not be ignored.
Eight months after the Glenn parade, in tandem with Nikita Khrushchev, the president
dragged the world to a nuclear precipice. In late October 1962, Kennedy went
on national television and denounced "the Soviet military buildup on the
island of Cuba," asserting that "a series of offensive missile sites
is now in preparation on that imprisoned island." Speaking from the White
House, the president said: "We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk
the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would
be ashes in our mouth – but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time
it must be faced."
Early in the next autumn, President Kennedy signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty,
which sent nuclear detonations underground. The treaty was an important public
health measure against radioactive fallout. Meanwhile, the banishment of mushroom
clouds made superpower preparations for blowing up the world less visible. The
new limits did nothing to interfere with further development of nuclear arsenals.
Kennedy liked to talk about vigor, and he epitomized it. Younger than Eisenhower
by a full generation, witty, with a suave wife and two adorable kids, he was
leading the way to open vistas. Store windows near Pennsylvania Avenue displayed
souvenir plates and other Washington knickknacks that depicted the First Family
– standard tourist paraphernalia, yet with a lot more pizzazz than what Dwight
and Mamie had generated.
A few years after the Glenn parade, when I passed the same storefront windows
along blocks just east of the White House, the JFK glamour had gone dusty, as
if suspended in time, facing backward. I thought of a scene from Great Expectations.
The Kennedy era already seemed like the room where Miss Havisham's wedding cake
had turned to ghastly cobwebs; in Dickens' words, "as if a feast had been in
preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together."
The clocks all seemed to stop together on the afternoon of November 22, 1963.
But after the assassination, the gist of the reputed best-and-brightest remained
in top Cabinet positions. The distance from Dallas to the Gulf of Tonkin was
scarcely eight months as the calendar flew. And soon America's awesome
scientific capabilities were trained on a country where guerrilla fighters walked
on the soles of sandals cut from old rubber tires.
Growing up in a mass-marketed culture of hoax, the baby-boom generation came
of age in a warfare state. From Vietnam to Iraq, that state was to wield its
technological power with crazed dedication to massive violence.