I cannot imagine writing about growing up Boomer without considering what was omnipresent in our minds when we were kids. How many Americans today, I wonder, have no idea as to what “Commie” refers? I suspect that among Boomers, virtually all of whom know the term because we grew up in a world immersed in the real fear of a thermonuclear World War III, many may have a fleeting thought that the circled window in the featured photo implies the location of Commie spies or sympathizers.
The featured photo shows, as it looks today, 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. On 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 for Russian bombers, which might 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.
In 2018, this would have been read as hyperbole by younger folks who have zero visceral understanding of what it was like to grow up during the Cold War. And especially so because of the, to them, long-past demise of the Evil Empire, and because of the monologues of late-night hosts that ridiculed the budding bromance between an American President and his Russian counterpart. Youngsters cannot begin to understand the fear I felt that had prompted me to look out that circled window to search for Commie bombers, a fear that has been piqued within me by the actions of an egomaniacal, psychopathic kleptocrat in 2022, a man who is the eco-political antithesis of a Communist. (See: How the West Botched Ukraine)
World war as a concept 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. Earnest, sweating re-enactors of our fathers’ exploits in Europe and the Pacific spent hours in creative play that involved “Japs” and “Nazis” fighting “G.I.s” in backyards and woods across America where Boomer boys with toy rifles did their best to create the sounds of rifle fire, accompanied by cries of “Come on Jeff, you’re down. I got you,” countered by protests of “Did not! I ducked and you missed.”
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 the 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, especially if you had a mother like Lois who had me read Hiroshima when I was nine.
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. And I was (and still am) horrified by the images I saw as a boy that depicted the devastation caused by those two American bombs, which remain the only thermonuclear bombs detonated in malice in human history, bombs that instantly killed 120,000 people.
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 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 had 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 decades before was still alive and well.
I often think about that awakening in 2001 and often recount the experience to others. Since the 2018 midterm elections, 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 against folks who are cast as 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 were ever presented—that acknowledge the reality that communism is a failed 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 turned 74, I had 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 have been and 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 or anything close to it. The brainwashing efforts of the US government to which we Boomers were exposed affected each of us in some way or another. For example, it allowed a large proportion of Americans to accept the Domino Effect as justification for pursuing a culturally disruptive and deadly war, and it 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 and autocracy, which the leaders of former communist countries employed to gain and enforce their hold on power, are ideologies that are still alive and thriving around the world. And as I write this, the fact that autocracy came within a hair’s breadth of overwhelming and destroying American Democracy on 1/6/2021 scares me much more than did the Commies whose imagined threats terrified me when I was an eight-year-old.
This is a significantly revised version of a post originally posted in 2019. The recent actions of Vladimir the Short, has motivated me to revisit and repost the above.
* When I was initially researching this post, 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 is!)
**The age at which the break even point is reached varies for each recipient based upon the number of years one contributed and total amount of SS tax contributed.
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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.)