How to harness the energy fueling our fear of Soviets


August 27, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

I'll never forget old what's-her-name. Martha, I think it was. She came from some eastern European country and landed in my elementary school class in the spring of 1956 so naturally, the times being what they were, nobody called her Martha.

Everybody called her Commie. In places like my elementary school in those dim post-McCarthy days, they were still holding air raid drills in case of Soviet attack. ("No talking," teachers would say, as you filed into the hallway and placed your head between your knees. "In the event of nuclear attack, anyone caught talking will have to stay after school.")

On the playground, I can still picture hyperkinetic kids gathering around poor, innocent Martha and chanting, "Commie, Commie, Commie," without actually knowing what the damned word meant.

It was just an echo of language we'd heard grown-ups use. A year or so later, in junior high, a science teacher broke the news to us about a satellite the Russians had just launched. They called the thing Sputnik. The science teacher said Sputnik meant America was falling behind in the space race. He said the Commies might be able to fire missiles at us one day from the moon.

I ran home and told my parents this stunning bit of news over dinner. Eat your vegetables, they said. What's the point, I said, since we're all going to be blown up, anyway.

By now, there were pictures in Life magazine of people building fallout shelters, from which their neighbors would be barred in the event of falling bombs. In high school, when Kennedy and Khrushchev went mano-a-mano over Cuban missiles, several of us cut a history class to listen to the end of the world come over the radio. What's the point of a history class if we're about to run out of history? Instead, the radio only played rock and roll.

You lived, all through those years, with the fear that everything could end all at once. In college, everybody discovered Bob Dylan and a haunting song called "Masters of War."

". . . You've thrown the worst fear/

That can ever be hurled/

The fear to bring children/

Into the world . . ."

But, exactly! The generation that had grown up under the mushroom cloud openly asked: Why hand over to another generation this legacy of fear? It was the only mind-set we'd ever known, a world of Americans and Russians building missile systems and keeping the populations suitably alarmed over apparent unalterable differences.

And all last week, as we watched the undoing of the Soviet coup and the unraveling of not only the Communist Party but also, hopefully, the mind-set of the last 45 years, questions about America kept coming to mind:

Is it safe, finally, to stop calling Martha "Commie" now? That is, is it safe to stop seeing all strangers as potential enemies?

Can we stop worrying about the Russians firing missiles at us from the moon? Can we move away from the insane arms race that simultaneously crippled the Soviet Union and left American cities beggars at the gate?

At Baltimore's City Hall, you mention this to the people who balance budgets and they snicker. Remember the so-called peace dividend of two years ago? When the Berlin Wall was falling down and all Eastern Europe began coming apart, these same city officials were licking their lips over wondrous financial windfalls.

With the Cold War ending, who needed all this federal military spending? Washington could finally begin spending money on the country's long-ignored, bankrupt, decaying cities. Rebuild school systems, restore neighborhoods, give the cops and the courts some help with the criminals. That's what everybody thought, anyway.

Two years later, there's no licking of lips. The cities still are ignored. The great international commentators speak of Mikhail Gorbachev being sadly behind the curve, but no one mentions the same of George Bush, who watches the Russian revolution from a golf course and answers reporters' questions between putts. While history holds its breath, when do we start asking the president about the rebuilding of America?

In hindsight, the Cold War looks like two nations doing a four-decade danse macabre for no clear reason. The Russians, having lost untold millions of its people during World War II, put up a 45-year front of secrecy and invincibility so that no one would attempt to violate them again.

Meanwhile, a succession of American presidents saw fit to keep the public constantly on edge. Politicians who should have known better OK'd billions for the ever-hungry Pentagon. Children who never knew better grew up frightened and suspicious of strangers who shared the same fears.

Where do we go from here? Do we spend the next generation flailing away at ghosts, or do we begin putting our energy into sane projects? The people at City Hall -- and at city halls all over America -- once dreamed of money for peaceful projects, but seem to have lost track of those dreams.

In the Soviet Union, they've begun to cast off their yesterdays. It's too late for them to keep ignoring problems strangling the nation. Can America do otherwise?

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