Cities Under Attack: The Cold War Fear of Urbanization

When people think of the Cold War, the image at the forefront of their minds is often the nuclear bomb. That is because this time period was defined by the possession of nuclear power, along with the fear that America might be attacked. People were deeply worried that America’s large and bustling cities would be the first victims, as Farish notes in “Disaster and decentralization: American cities and the Cold War.”  He states that “a city was, as Bernard Brodie put it, ‘a made-to- order target, and the degree of urbanization of a country furnishes a rough index of its relative vulnerability to the atomic bomb.’” This quote speaks to the rest of Farish’s study, in which he observes cities, with their concentrated populations and hubs of activity, were particularly susceptible to nuclear attack because hitting a city would cause maximum damage. This, then, is part of the reason so many people sought refuge in the suburbs; the quiet inconspicuousness of suburban life made one far less likely to be attacked.

Farish also describes the sensationalization of the bombing of Hiroshima and how that might take place in the United States in the media: the city is booming in one moment, completely demolished in the next. The ruin described in these accounts came to fruition in a sense when the attacks of 9/11 sent New York City, a symbol of capitalism and economic success in America, into a state of devastation and disarray. Though New York was not destroyed by nuclear power, its situation as a highly populated city meant that thousands of lives were either lost or grievously affected, and severe damage occurred due to the assault.

After 9/11 and into today, the media often focuses on the imagery of the Twin Towers falling in discussion of the disaster. Having visited the 9/11 Memorial Museum this summer, I can confirm that these images stir up deep fear and distress, even for those who did not personally witness the event. These disturbing images reignite the Cold War fear of the urban lifestyle; I even found myself thinking that living in my small, suburban hometown of Bakersfield, California, makes me less of a target than someone in an immense, well-known urban city like New York. The recurrence of these images lends itself to the kind of dramatization of further demolition of other large, urban areas that was seen during the Cold War. People are once again imagining the suburbs as an escape from the vulnerability of the city.

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