The Cold War was perhaps the most frightening period in American history. Each new day, as millions of Americans set out to reap the benefits of American freedom and prosperity, presented a chance of complete devastation from a nuclear attack. The most significant factor fostering such widespread national fear was the mere inability of knowing when that day would come. Matthew Farnish discusses the implications of this Cold War national mindset in his essay “Disaster and Decentralization: American Cities and the Cold War.” Farnish emphasizes the central realization of American weakness by paraphrasing Bernard Brodie’s beliefs: “The atomic bomb…radically altered the ‘significance of distance between rival powers’, raising ‘to the first order of importance as a factor of power the precise spatial arrangement of industry and population within each country.'” In other words, the centralized and highly populous American cities prevalent during the Cold War were “inviting targets” for a nuclear strike, meaning spatial separation of the population and industry was crucial for survivability after such a strike. If America were to maintain a superior position amidst a nuclear war, it would have to decentralize and disperse its urban centers. Farnish reflects that various forms of media, through dramatization of nuclear attacks on cities like New York and Washington, fueled the paranoia and facilitated a natural migration from cities to suburbs. Naturally, he claims, suburbs allowed a more natural and secure life, free from the dangers of nuclear devastation. However, Farnish labels cities as both “threatened from above and within,” highlighting that social tension in urban areas likely would hinder efforts of post-attack reconstruction involving different interest groups, such as blacks and whites. The vulnerability of the city as a populated nuclear target and disorganized system elevated decentralization as a key factor of the Cold War civil defense program in maintaining American strength.
Throughout his essay, Farnish also describes the haunting images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki post-nuclear detonation. These images, making their way into the American public, stimulated media responses of images of New York and other profound American cities devastated by nuclear attack that incited fear and anxiety among Americans. Similarly, the image of the Twin Towers burning and falling after the 9/11 attack is etched into the minds of all Americans: an image reminiscent of Cold War fears of atomic attack on a city center. The main difference in this imagery is that an atomic attack never occurred on American soil whereas 9/11 was a reality: American cities truly are vulnerable to fatal attacks. Today, Americans are weary of tall buildings, and we even plan our new skyscrapers with structural supports designed to withstand a plane crash. We are also hesitant, especially in my case, to insert ourselves into large crowds or urban centers in fear of a terrorist attack. This paranoia is supported by the reality of terrorism and illustrated by the burning twin towers, much like the reality of a nuclear attack in the Cold War.
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