Whisper of Fear in the 1950's: A History Lesson

Whisper of Fear in the 1950’s
It’s the early 1950’s in Long Island, New York, and the air is thick with unspeakable fear. The end of World War II came with a bang that blasted the United States into a position of great world power. Soldiers returned home, the population boomed, and the economy soared. 

If countries were party guests, the post-WWII United States would be the boisterous braggart selfishly stealing the spotlight and applause from those more deserving. The Soviet Union, in return, would be the hot-tempered bodybuilder with a wounded ego intent on destroying the United States’ egocentric inflation.  And so, in the midst of the post war success, the United States found itself in the middle of a nation-wide panic brought on by the threat of destruction from the Soviet Union. 

This panic was most evident in the “bomb drills” required by the United States government to be taught in school. Along with basic arithmetic and grammar lessons, students were taught how to best protect themselves in the event of an atomic bombing. Every so often, a bell would ring loudly throughout the school building, and everyone would be instructed to duck under the desks with their hands covering their heads. Later, they would be sent home with an instructional pamphlet for their parents to read so that the entire family could be well prepared in case the Soviet Union followed through with it’s threat of destruction. Contained in this pamphlet were the detailed instructions of how to build a livable bomb shelter, what resources one would need to sustain themselves for a long period of time, and how best to handle the effects of radiation. Though it was unlikely a nuclear attack would leave behind many survivors, the citizens of Long Island, New York and beyond made sure to prepare for survival, if only to alleviate their growing fears.
Fear of a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union was not the only fear that existed on Long Island in this time, though. The threat of polio kept the whole island cautiously on their tiptoes. Surrounded by water, the citizens of Long Island felt the most vulnerable from both the nuclear war threatened by the Soviet Union as well as the growing contagion of a not-yet-vaccinated disease.

“It scared the snot out of me,” Brenda Tranchon, who was in high school at the time, said. “My mother used to take us to the hospital to show us all the people in the iron lungs, the big, scary devices used to help them breathe. There was no cure at the time. It was terrifying.”

The terrifying threat of polio was most prominent in the summer months. With the weather warming, the disease was most likely to spread across the island in a tidal wave of sickness. Without a cure, the disease would render it’s victims paralyzed, make breathing difficult if not impossible, and, if the victims managed to escape death, forever compel them to be the public reminder of the incurable threat.

For Brenda, and many others at the time, the threat of polio was more fearsome than the threat of a nuclear war.

"There were shelters everywhere." Brenda explained. "We knew what we were supposed to do, and where we were supposed to go. I don't think we were really afraid of the bomb. Not like we were afraid of polio. Nobody knew what it was, really, or how to stop it. You could get it anywhere. You weren't safe anywhere. We felt safer from the bomb."

Brenda was not alone in her fear. The fear of the unknown has tortured the well-being of humanity everywhere. In America, this fear of polio was directly correspondent to the fear of the unknown. The atomic bomb was an American-made device that the government at least pretended to know how to control. 

The bomb was designed by American scientist Robert Oppenheimer under the direction of President Truman who inherited direction of President Roosevelt’s Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project was created in secret for the sole purpose of designing nuclear weapons that would aid the United States in winning the war against Japan. The success the bomb had in World War II was exactly what prompted the Soviet Union to join in on the mass construction of nuclear weapons during this fearsome time period.

Polio, however, was a nature-made virus that seemed to spring out of nowhere, affecting the lives of unsuspecting citizens forever. There was no cure at this time, and no specific cause to be named. At one point, it was even thought that ice cream was the problem since children were the most likely to catch the virus and the virus was most common during the summer months. This theory was eventually replaced, of course, but not before the virus infected helpless thousands, and sent the rest of the population into a spiral of fear. 

The government could not even pretend to control the contagious disease that infected American citizens. The lack of control was evident no matter where you went as the vision of those infected, once infected, or lost to the virus haunted the streets in the form of caution and wary helplessness. 

With success comes great consequence. 

For the United States, the consequence of the achieved success in the aftermath of World War II was the sense of incredible fear that permeated it’s citizens. 

Eventually, these fears would subside. A cure for polio would be discovered, and the fragile alliance between the Soviet Union and the United States would be restored as larger matters and greater fears took the central attention. 

The great fear that encompassed the early 1950’s in the United States would recede in the light of the great accomplishments of the time, leaving fear to be a mere whisper from those who were there.

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