Living a Nuclear Childhood

By Michael Willard

When I was seven, I vividly remember the evacuation of the entire Whitehaven Elementary School in Memphis because Soviet nuclear missiles were headed our way.

Of course, it was a test, but the school principal announced over a tinny intercom later that day that nearly all of us would have been incinerated in the blast and firestorm. It was pretty heavy stuff for a kid.

After all, it was an age when we neighborhood kids drew down on one another with harmless cap pistols and pretended we were Roy Rogers, Gene Autry or that Hopalong Cassidy fellow.

For goodness sake, we watched Howdy Doody on the black and white television and pondered whether Santa Claus was real or a figment of our parents’ expansive imaginations.

Looking back many decades, it all seems rather silly. Why would Memphis be a target? Why did we pile into our parents’ cars when we had, at most, 15 minutes until we were so much molten ash.

The “duck and cover” school drills in case of an attack took much less energy and time, and you wouldn’t have to miss lunch or recess.

This was about the same time that salespeople who previously sold aluminum siding for houses found a profitable business in hawking family bomb shelters. My father passed up the offers and went for a new Oldsmobile instead. It was a wise decision.

For much of his life, my father worked in SAC, the Strategic Air Command. He was a controller and was among those whose job it was to make sure the B-52 bombers with nuclear warheads flying toward the USSR came back before they crossed Soviet airspace.

He felt he was doing something significant, and he was. However, it was a constant reminder that we lived in a fragile world where one pissed off Soviet leader could destroy the planet — not to mention a megalomaniac American President with a trigger finger.

A near lifetime later — with my boss, the Senate Majority Leader — I sat across from Soviet Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko in the Kremlin and observed a fascinating discussion between the two men on what was called SALT II, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty.

The treaty was designed to lessen the prospects of nuclear war, though I have never understood that merely limiting atomic weapons without getting rid of all of them made sense.

When you have sufficient kill power to destroy a country, why do you need it to the 10th power? It was called the MAD theory, or the certainty that Mutually Assured Destruction would keep all fingers off the doomsday button.

A few months later, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and my boss, Sen. Robert Byrd, withdrew the treaty from consideration. Always suspicious of the USSR, it was an easy decision for him. President Carter pulled the US out of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which I felt a foolish tit-for-tat.

I don’t know about you, but I, for one, don’t want to go back to those days.

It leads to a collective nervousness that can become pervasive and generational. It means we have to suck back in that great sigh of relief the world felt when the Soviet Union crumbled.

I yearn for those by-gone days. I lived in Moscow for three years in the mid-90s, and the atmosphere was refreshing. It was an exciting place to be an expatriate and living in the center of the city.

Now, the talk is whether President-elect Joe Biden will restore the arms control measures, negotiated under Barack Obama, to limit Iran producing weapons of mass destruction. I’m hopeful.

It was far from a perfect agreement, but I have not come across any that are without flaws when it comes to this subject. It is complicated by security concerns mixed with intense regional nationalism and perceived interests.

I have a history throughout the region.

The year before meeting with Soviet leadership on nuclear arms, I was in pre-revolution Iran with Byrd holding discussions with the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, on whether he could survive massive protests.

He couldn’t, and what followed has been four decades of conflict with Iran without direct confrontation.

The Iran agreement — with America’s role negated by President Trump — needs revisiting and improvements. After much negotiation, the US, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Germany signed on in 2015.

In essence, the document froze Iran’s nuclear buildup for 15 years in exchange for sanctions dropped. It opened the door to future negotiations and, perhaps, better relations.

In my view, any other path leads to the modern-day equivalent of what caused nightmares in childhood.

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I am a novelist, painter, songwriter and essayist but my day job is elevating the profile of authors, entertainers and business executives.

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