Mushroom Memories From the Cold War Era

Like so many of you, I am a child of the Cold War. Those decades when the United States, China, and the Soviet Union kept the world on the edge of nuclear holocaust 24/7-365.

During those decades we all learned to “duck and cover“, be aware of strangers asking questions, fear Communism (even if we didn’t know what it was), accept the cost of a strong military, permit the government to conduct highly secret operations, and stand quietly by while the House Un-American Activities Committee stripped many Americans of their rights because they wouldn’t roll over and drink the Kool-Aid.

On our black and white TVs we allowed our fears to be intensified by watching such shows as I Led Three Lives, the story of Herbert Philbrick who became an agent for the FBI and infiltrated the Communist Party in America. In our theaters we got cold chills watching such movies as The Manchurian Candidate.

My fears of the Soviets and Chinese were strengthened by my joining the Navy, becoming a Radioman, and acquiring a Top-Secret Cryptography security clearance. I knew, that I knew things, that the enemy would like to know, and the enemy might be the guy sitting next to me in a Newport, RI bar, offering to buy me a beer. This feeling was probably intensified by my discovering Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and devouring each book as the series grew.

While serving in the Navy most everything I did was somehow related to countering the Soviet threat. I was stationed on a destroyer escort whose purpose was to sit in the North Atlantic and monitor Soviet surface and air traffic headed towards North America and to report such to the North American Air Defense Command. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, on a different destroyer, we ran all over the Caribbean chasing Soviet submarines, stopping and boarding Soviet ships threatening to slip through the US Naval blockade around Cuba, or escorting troop ships carrying thousands of US Marines on their way from California bases to Cuba via the Panama Canal.

When I was discharged from the Navy I was contacted by a “government agency” regarding employment. My sense of learned paranoia convinced me that this unnamed agency was probably a Soviet spy ring trying to enlist me. I called the FBI in Cincinnati and  was told that some government agencies do operate from behind a cloak and to follow through with any appointments and meetings and let them know if anything suspicious occurred.

Several weeks later I drove to Dayton for an interview and discovered I was being recruited by the CIA for a position in their communications branch. I ended up going to McClean, VA for three days of interviews, personality inventories, psychological evaluations, lie detector test, skill evaluations, etc. I didn’t accept the job they offered because it would have required living overseas for most of my working life. But, the experience greatly added to the Cold War, hush-hush, it’s them or us, state of mind.

It wasn’t just me, it was millions of us who served in the military during the 50s and 60s and were directly involved in “containing” the spread of world-wide communist domination. I have several close friends who served on missile or attack submarines and each has a Hunt for Red October type story to tell. Nuclear missile submarines were the third arm of America’s nuclear triad offense system (air-land-sea) helping insure that if the Soviets struck first there would be immediate and total retaliation. Our whole stated purpose for overseas bases and deployment and our military engagements in Korea and Vietnam were to combat the spread of communism, to contain it.

These were interesting and scary times and much of what occurred was based on reality. But, like most everything, the reality was often blurred by lack of knowledge, misinterpretation of knowledge, or the intentional distortion of knowledge to fit the purposes of government policy.

The Cold War has been over for a couple of decades now and many of its secrets are being declassified. If you watch the news carefully you’ll come across stories shedding light on what was happening behind our backs and debunking many of the things we believed to be true. One example is the ignorance with which we taunted Soviet submarines as we pursued them all over the Caribbean during the Missile Crisis. We never saw them as a threat we couldn’t manage. Years later it became known that each submarine carried several nuclear tipped torpedoes and the individual boat commander had the right to deploy those weapons at his own discretion and independent of permission from Moscow. A perfect example of ignorance being blissful.

What prompted this piece was reading an article challenging the myths regarding the end of the Cold War and another one about an early secret project using satellites to spy on China and Russia. It is a real life example of all the far out schemes we’ve seen in James Bond movies and Tom Clancy novels. Satellite spying is an everyday reality today and the technology is light years beyond what existed in the Cold Year era. But, it was the crudeness of that early technology that caught my attention. Here’s a LINK to the full article. And, while communism is not the all-encompassing enemy it once was, don’t think for a second the mega top-secret projects don’t still exist. Only thing that’s changed is the increased cost and who the perceived enemy is.

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