From cold to warm and back again

March 1, 2022

Headline: Putin puts nuclear forces on high alert, escalating tensions.

I’m sure glad my wife and I had a safe room built into the basement of our house. We did it because we were worried about tornados and the dangers of climate change, but it’ll make a fine fallout shelter too.

To someone born early in the Cold War, who lived through some of its scariest moments as a kid, headlines like the one above are depressingly familiar. Though I don’t recall the details of the Cuban missile crisis or the Berlin Wall going up, I remember living in a bubble of grownup fear and paranoia.

Nikita Khrushchev.
Remember him?

One day in third grade, my teacher took off on a rant about Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who had threatened to “bury” the West and slammed down his shoe at the U.N. Schools ran “duck and cover” drills with kids diving under their desks, as if that would protect them from a nuclear blast. Textbooks warned that the Communists wanted to rule the world. For the first few years of the war, newspapers and TV portrayed Vietnam as a crucial effort to halt the Reds at the South China Sea.

Later, when the Cold War seemed to be over, I saw some of its weapons symbolically beaten into plowshares. As the Pentagon correspondent for the Voice of America, I traveled with the defense secretary to a missile base in Pervomaysk, Ukraine, where the new independent nation was breaking down the former Soviet arsenal.

My story from the day is lost in some obsolete archive. The AP’s Robert Burns wrote, “With the U.S. and Ukrainian defense chiefs looking on, soldiers laid to rest on Saturday one more ghost of the Cold War doomsday threat. ‘We are seeing history in the making,’ Defense Secretary William Perry said, a 60-foot-tall SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missile at his back. Ukrainian soldiers lifted the giant, gray SS-19 — its warhead already removed — out of its underground silo.”

Russian and Ukrainian officers and journalists under a partially dismantled Soviet bomber.
Russian and Ukrainian officers and journalists (that’s me in the trench coat and hat) under a partially dismantled Soviet bomber in 1995

From Pervomaysk, the secretary’s party flew on to Moscow. Our arrival, when we were greeted by the Russian army band playing “The Star Spangled Banner,” was a moment I’ll never forget. During our stay, some of the traveling press found time for dinner and some music (below), followed by a late-night walk around Red Square.

Three Russian women in traditional garb singing.
A Moscow night

Someday, such things might be normal again, like sitting in a crowded barbershop with no mask and no worries. This time, however, I’m not hiding under my desk (partly because my geriatric bones would complain strongly if I tried). I’m grateful for all the journalists, including those from VOA, who are reporting the truth from the war zone. To them and everyone, take care and be safe.

Ukrainian flag.

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Writer, editor, ex-journalist, all-around communicator. Comfortable in real and fictional worlds. Always on the lookout for a great story.

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