To some, duck-and-cover may be amusing kitsch, but when I showed the film to my teenage daughter while researching this piece, she found it terrifying. (Welcome to my Cold War childhood). And, as a recent New York Times article noted, the question of how to educate people without panicking them, or creating political backlash, has generated considerable discussion within the Obama Administration. (One message, using an attack on Las Vegas as an example, was torpedoed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, who thought it bad publicity for a town already hit hard by the recession.)
It has also generated some criticism from those who remember how much flak Bush Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge got for similar proposals — right down to the duct tape and plastic sheeting — when the Department of Homeland Security was new. It’s understandable that people might snark about that, but physics is no respecter of political differences. That the Obama Administration is pursuing a policy driven by science, rather than by politics, is something that should be praised, not criticized.
Of course, one question not driven — directly, anyway — by science is the question of how likely a nuclear attack might be. On that subject, the Obama Administration, presumably, has better intelligence than I do. But I note that the feds seem to be highly interested in an experimental new drug for treating radiation sickness. That’s not encouraging.
If the likelihood of a nuclear attack is hard to judge, what’s beyond dispute is that we are in many ways much less prepared to deal with one than we used to be. Fallout shelters in public buildings are no longer marked and stocked, and public knowledge about nuclear weapons and their effects isn’t what it was during the Cold War era. In the course of teaching nuclear-related cases in my Administrative Law and National Security Law courses, I’ve observed that most of my students (military veterans and a few emergency-services types excepted) know next to nothing about A-bomb related things that were common knowledge a couple of decades ago. Replenishing that popular knowledge base seems worthwhile, as long as there are nuclear weapons on the planet.
It’s extremely good advice (though yet another reminder of the strange mid-century nostalgia inherent in our brave new president), and I agree that we should be discussing the topic. But the boomer-era left shouldn’t be able to turn on a dime after nearly a half-century of endlessly mocking nuclear war preparations to suddenly embracing the idea overnight without at least a few raised eyebrows. It’s very much akin to the way Bill Clinton suddenly waxed nostalgic for the Cold War era shortly after its conclusion helped to propel him into office. As Howard Dean once said, “I will use whatever position I have in order to root out hypocrisy;” there seems to megatons worth on this topic on his side of the aisle.