The Great American Panic: The United States and Urban Chaos

With nuclear threat ever present on the horizon, America entered a state of perpetual fear centered around the fear of mutually assured destruction with the Soviets. Because of this, Mathew Farris argues in this book Disaster and Decentralization: American Cities and the Cold War, that “the suburban nuclear family quickly became the locus of normality  — and thus of the burgeoning civil defense programme.” The the country in a constant state of fear, the Untied states relied on a very specific, very strict set of expectations and values for each American in order to feel some sort of ease in a tumultuous environment. By focusing on the idea of the nuclear family, suggesting a tight knit family that lived in a suburban house with a white picket fence, Farris gets at the three central fears of the Cold War era. The tight knit family is representative of faith in the fellow American. During the Cold War, paranoia ran rampant and it was expected of each American to spy on their fellow neighbor in order to report them should their actions or methods seem threatening to the idea of a faithful American. If they conformed and portrayed a stereotypical nuclear family, then urban cities should be peaceful and not concerned with the chaos of fear. The idea of conformity also enforced strict gender roles to the point, as Farris notes, that “suburban women and female sexuality represented the greatest threat to national order” because they were deviations from the expectation of women during this time.

Secondly, the suburban flight of the American nuclear family was directly correlated with the idea of white flight to the suburbs. Another characteristic of the Cold War was White Flight to the suburbs. During this time period, class lines seemed to disintegrate as people of color moved into cities and others moved out, however, the racial lines and distinctions within the country grew and became even more prevalent than before. The idea of suburbia, Farris argues, is one of light while cities were mysterious and dark. By creating an image of light associated with the nuclear family, Farris explains that suburbs eliminated the possibility of the unknown, which highlights the Cold War era’s fear of that  which it did not know.

Finally, the idea of the white picket fence as a means of protection. With the Cold War era came the rise in home defense. People did not feel safe in their homes. With nuclear war an ever present fear, people felt that they had to protect themselves from any threat that they could. This scrounging  for a sense of protection is a direct result of the images that were shown to the American people post Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The obsessive need to seek protection from the horrors of a nuclear attack led the American people rely on any mean necessary, even if that was just a white picket fence.

Interestingly, we see this same mentality being implemented into today’s society. Every September 11th since the attacks, social media, news, and other media sources plaster the screens with images of two burning towers as a means to remind people of the events that took place fifteen years ago. The result of these images is two fold. It reminds the American people of a sense of helplessness that we had not known before, but also motivates the public to adopt a self preserving mentality. The victimization of the American public is an intense tool that has been used since the attacks to incite both fear and patriotism into the public. The fear resulting fear, fear of another attack, fear of that which we do not know, or fear of losing a certain lifestyle, has contributed to the “us versus them” mentality in the United States. As a result, xenophobia and racism have become more strongly ingrained in the American psyche. This is also a result of the self preserving mentality. The idea of what an American is has been redefined in the context of the events of September 11th in the sense that an American is white, Christian, and male. While this definition may seem old, its application and its use as justification for prejudice have changed in recent years. Every year on September 11th, the American public is reminded of the image of a “true” American and the images of the attack only serve to reenforce this idea.


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