Primary target

By Daniel Dunkle | Jan 05, 2017

I grew up in a paradoxical time in U.S. history, the 1970s and 1980s.

Ostensibly, throughout most of my childhood, we were at peace. I grew up in Hampden right outside Bangor in a time when kids rode their bikes around town with no supervision; a time we now look back on with a certain amount of nostalgia.

But we lived under a shadow.

For as long as I can remember, I was aware of the possibility of nuclear war. Specifically, I believed that on any given weekday afternoon as I sat in my room working on math homework, the TV or radio might broadcast an emergency signal warning me that, within the hour, intercontinental ballistic missiles launched by our enemies, the Soviets, would rain down on the nation, obliterating all of those nice bike-riding neighborhoods in clouds of fire and radiation.

Someone had helpfully pointed out to me that Hampden was close enough to a "primary target" that there was absolutely no hope of survival should this occur. I remember the terms, the names for the missiles and had a fairly detailed vision of how it would go down. I remember wondering why my home was a "primary target."

People would say, "Would you really want to survive, anyway?" It was madness.

If you're my age or older, you know exactly what I'm talking about. You may remember watching "The Day After" in 1983, a television movie about what would happen to small-town America in a nuclear war. 100 million people tuned in, according to the all-knowing internet. It was treated almost like a lengthy public service announcement.

More vividly, I remember the movie "War Games," also in 1983. I was 10. Matthew Broderick plays a young computer whiz who hacks into the government's defense computers and inadvertently starts a countdown to nuclear war. The movie starts with two soldiers in an underground missile silo about to turn the keys to launch Armageddon, and ends with characters staring up at a big map of the world where missiles streak across the sky and explode in bright circles over primary targets, including Maine. Fortunately, the disaster is stopped just in time, as it is in so many movies of that era.

For a child this creates terror. I had nightmares about nuclear war. I wasn't alone in my anxiety. You may also remember 10-year-old Samantha Smith of Manchester, who, in December 1982, wrote a letter to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, saying she was worried about nuclear war. He wrote back to her, saying he wanted peace as well, and invited her to the Soviet Union. She accepted the invitation and became a goodwill ambassador.

Children are often so much more rational and wise than the adults around them.

I was in high school when the Berlin wall came down and the end of the Cold War seemed to be declared. I was uneasy at first, unsure we had really managed to buy the world a Coke, but talk about nuclear war faded.

Then yesterday I read an editorial published in The Portland Press Herald from The Orange County Register that talked not only about President-elect Donald Trump's Tweet urging expansion of nuclear "capability," but also the fact that the same day President Obama signed the The National Defense Authorization Act. This is apparently an annual bill affecting our military, but this year it strikes the word "limited" from the description of the missile program.

The LA Times ran an article Dec. 23, saying, "President Obama has signed legislation that, by striking a single word from longstanding U.S. nuclear defense policy, could heighten tensions with Russia and China and launch the country on an expensive effort to build space-based defense systems."

It goes on to say, "...Huge bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress approved the policy changes over the past month, with virtually no public debate."

You can read the full articles at these links:

With virtually no public debate, we are reversing decades of bipartisan U.S. policy that has reduced nuclear tensions and stockpiles, and you have to blame pretty much the whole government, rather than just condemning one party or president.

I remember the arguments of the 1980s and I imagine many of them will be brought out of mothballs should this ever rise to the attention of the populace. It will be said, "We have to have more nukes to keep them from getting us first." Mutually assured destruction. Madness.

I believe the idea of reducing tensions was a worthwhile one, and I have serious doubts about the ability of the incoming administration to reduce anyone's tensions about anything.

Scientists in the articles I have read argue space-based defense systems, while astoundingly expensive, will not assure us safety from our "enemies."

Imagine if instead of building nuclear missile launchers in space, we took that money and fixed roads, created incentives for small businesses and educated our children better. Wouldn't that be a positive thing? And as a bonus, investing in education for our children and infrastructure for our nation puts no one anywhere else in the world in fear. The philosophy of those promoting a renewed nuclear arms race is that fear will bring about something good, will make us safe. But fear doesn't work that way. History demonstrates that the worst acts were prompted by fear.

I am already disappointed that I could not raise my children in a safer world, and I do not want them to also face the same nuclear fears I did.

Tragically, Samantha Smith died in a plane crash in 1985. We could use her wisdom now.

Daniel Dunkle is news director for Courier Publications. He lives in Rockland with his wife, Christine, two children and two cats. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @DanDunkle.

Comments (2)
Posted by: Maggie Trout | Jan 06, 2017 14:18

But here's the issue, further explored:  that of the influence and bias in the media, and the popularization of one child's letter, even that it came from the United States, as though there were not dissidents suffering throughout the various regimes in the then Soviet Union -- that no child there was terrified.  I don't know if readers can access this url for a google book, but I came across the 'Bulletin of Atomic Scientists' from 1985:

' Vol 41 No 2

Posted by: Maggie Trout | Jan 06, 2017 12:10

While one can know and appreciate living with the anxiety of nuclear war, as so many do,  I do not see concluding that Samantha Smith's voice was the only one to be heard, nor that it is only through the "wisdom" of a 10-year-old child that there might be increased wisdom on the part of world leaders.  The author of this piece presented the rightful fears of proliferation.  The accompanying image is enough for some, if not many, to give rise to the recurrent nightmares of which the author speaks.  Yet, he references the absurdity in the belief that "fear will bring about something good," and make us safe.  Further, that "History demonstrates that the worst acts were prompted by fear."  The matter of recent and potential future acts by world leaders needs to be addressed directly, by all,  and not relying on the stories of children, whether it be regarding dire nuclear threat, or whether or not there is a Santa Claus. 

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