(This is a revised version of a post originally posted in 2019)
I cannot imagine writing about growing up Boomer without considering what was omnipresent in many of our minds at the time in our country’s history when we were kids. How many Americans today, I wonder, have no idea as to what “Commie” refers? And I wonder, how many of those who do know what the word signifies would have a fleeting thought that the circled window in the featured photo suggests there may be Commies behind it?
The image that heads this post shows, as it is now, the back of the house in which I lived during the 1955-56 school year in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania. The circled window was one of two windows in the bedroom my brother and I shared that year. Many nights after I had said goodnight to my parents, and after my brother had fallen asleep, I would quietly raise the blind on that window and search the sky above the horizon looking for Russian bombers that would fly over our house and drop bombs that would blow me and my world to smithereens.
Russians were Commies, Communists, the enemies of freedom and liberty, the antithesis of what America was, and as an eight-year-old, I was convinced that Commies wanted us all to die. Perhaps this sounds like hyperbole to younger folks given the end of the Cold War, the demise of the Evil Empire, and late-night hosts joking about a bromance between the Presidents of Russia and the US, but I remember the fear I felt that prompted me to look out that circled window, watching for Commie bombers.
War was still a consuming presence in the minds of kids in the Fifties—like me—even though we Boomers—by definition—had been born after the war. We spent hours in creative play as “Japs” and “Nazis” fought against “G.I.s” in backyards and woods across America with toy rifles accompanied by cries of “Come on Jeff, you’re down. I got you,” and replies of “Did not! I ducked and you missed,” coming from earnest, sweating re-enactors of our fathers’ exploits in Europe and the Pacific.
In 1955, the USSR, the entity we all referred to as Russia, had not replaced the Axis powers as enemies in our play possibly because acting out thermonuclear war was beyond our creative capacities. We were conscious, to a degree, of horrors associated with the holocaust of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was hard to escape images of atomic destruction in newsreel footage or on the TV, and I could not (still cannot) take my eyes off images of mushroom clouds. I was fascinated by descriptions of the power of hydrogen bombs—we all called them H-bombs—as being as much as a thousand times more powerful than either of the bombs America dropped on Japan.
In school, we engaged in drills where we ducked under our desks and covered our heads with the ludicrous presumption that doing so would stave off the horrific heat and power of a thermonuclear blast. What the duck and cover drills did teach us was that we should be terrified of the Commies. As a country, we had already faced off against the Chinese Communists in Korea, which ended in a draw, but it was Russian bombers I worried about, not the Chinese, as I looked out my second-floor window at the night sky.
I do not recall references to McCarthyism, Hollywood blacklists, and the like when I was in third grade, and if I was exposed to adult conversations about such things, I would be surprised if I would have had any sense of their significance, but I did have a sense that Commies were sneaky. They could be in our communities, and we wouldn’t know it. That’s why I wouldn’t be surprised if a Boomer, seeing “Commie” in combination with an image of a circled window in this post, might have the notion it was intended to imply that there might be a Commie spy inside.
Russian propaganda* was something that was continually railed against by the media of the time and by politicians. Propaganda, as I understood it as a child, was basically a totally false set of stories that were told to hurt America in the eyes of the rest of the world, and even more sinister, propaganda was lies that Commies used to brainwash Russian citizens who were unwitting dupes. Mother Culture whispered in our ears that Communist Propaganda was something we should all be wary of; of course, it was not until high school that I realized Russian and Chinese Communists were not the only ideologues who used propaganda. The US had been playing the same game for years.
Ten years after 1991, the year that historical consensus accepts as the end of the Cold War, the impact of the stress and worry created by the world that surrounded the third grader I once was never crossed my mind. And then one evening, my wife and I joined a spontaneous, late-evening conversation over drinks in the kitchen of an Argentinian who was a friend of friends.
After a few seconds of reflection, I realized the third grader’s fears had been awakened by just hearing someone declare that he had been a Communist. I had never been in the presence of anyone who said such a thing, and no one I had known in the Fifties and Sixties would have dared to make such a proclamation. The indoctrination—the brainwashing—I had received as a kid that had me hating and fearing Commie bogeymen was still alive and well.
I often think about that awakening in 2001 and often recount the experience to others. Since the 2018 midterm election, memories associated with the fear and hatred of Communists during the first four decades of our Boomer lives have become more present in my mind as I read and hear what seem to be disproportionate criticisms by commentators and politicians about folks who claim to be Socialists. I wonder if the term Socialism is being expressed negatively with the calculated understanding that the term will connect with the fear of Communism that Boomers once lived with for decades. I wonder if such a connection resonates with younger Americans, who have little or no emotional connection to the Cold War and who have paid scant attention to their lessons in history—if, in fact, such lessons are ever presented—that acknowledge Communism as a failed economic ideology.
A negative view of Socialism on the part of Boomers would be a curious response given that the vast majority of us have been and/or will soon be beneficiaries of the socialist country that we are (think: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, corporate bailouts, farm subsidies, food stamps, etc.). And for those of us who profess that Social Security isn’t Welfare for the Elderly because we’re simply receiving the money that we paid into a federal fund, plus interest, be advised that when I turn 74, I will have received all of my contributions made since the age of fifteen, plus accrued interest (you do the math; I did), which means that from 74 on, I will be on the dole for the rest of my life. If that isn’t Socialism, I don’t know what is.
Doesn’t my acceptance of monthly Social Security deposits into my checking account—not to mention the Medicare benefits of which I have taken advantage—make me a compliant Socialist? Maybe so, but for sure, it doesn’t mean I’m a Commie, says a resistant voice in my mind. The brainwashing to which we Boomers were exposed affected each of us in some way or another. It allowed a large proportion of Americans to accept the Domino Effect as justification for a disruptive and deadly war and led to the election of a President who demanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Historians will long muse over the significance of such things, but I am one Boomer for whom Commies are not a threat; however, Totalitarianism—which the leaders of former and current Communist countries employed to gain and enforce their hold on power—is an ideology that is still alive and thriving around the world. And as I write this, the very real possibility that Totalitarianism is on the verge of overwhelming and destroying American Democracy scares me much more than did the Commies who terrified me when I was an eight-year-old.
* When I was initially researching this post at the age of seventy-two, I did not know that the word “propaganda” originated with the Catholic Church (from the ablative singular feminine of propogandus, which is the gerundive of the Latin propagare, meaning “to propagate” [Merriam-Webster Dictionary]—for the record, I have absolutely no idea what any of that means!). Wikipedia claims that historically, propaganda was a neutral, descriptive term that did not become associated with a manipulative use until the Twentieth Century. “Who’d a thunk it?” (A question that is sometimes attributed to Mortimer Snerd—If you’re a Boomer, you know who that was!)
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(The featured image was downloaded from Google Earth. No copyright infringement is intended nor is there an intent on the part of the blogger to monetize the use of the image.)
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