You never know who will show up in the back seat of a taxicab. It’s like a talk show on wheels, really. A guest enters, we chat for a while, then he or she exits and the next one gets in. It’s quite a remarkable human situation, if you think about it, especially in a city like New York where the movers and shakers of the world tend to congregate.
Back in 1992 I had a passenger in my taxi who made a puzzling statement to me and this statement, considering who he was, has kept me thinking about its meaning ever since. This story is actually one of the most frequently told stories to passengers in my cab, although I’ve never written about it until now. And I do so now because with presidential politics being what they are in the United States at this time, I feel a responsibility to share this information.
My passenger was an American man who I estimated to be in his ‘70s at the time. I remember thinking that he looked to be in great physical condition for his age and that he mentioned to me that he walked ten miles a day, which impressed me. I don’t recall how it came up in conversation, but somehow the following datum emerged: he told me he had once been a member of the Atomic Energy Commission.
Whoa. You may not be old enough to know what that meant, but if you were around in the ‘50s and ‘60s you most likely do. The Atomic Energy Commission was the highest level federal agency in the United States which regulated the use and development of atomic energy, including the creation of new types of atomic weapons. In terms of its importance to the country, it might be compared today to the National Security Agency (the NSA) or the CIA. Top secret, hush-hush agencies with great, sometimes controversial, responsibilities to the security of the country.
Realizing that I had a rare opportunity here, I tried to make the most of it in the limited time we would be together. I know I asked him several questions which he was glad to answer, but there is only one thing I specifically remember asking his opinion about, something I’d already had some attention on for a few years.
And that was this: it had occurred to me some years prior that there seemed to have been a shift in the public consciousness concerning the threat and consequences of atomic war. It seemed to me that people weren’t nearly as concerned about it as they had been before. You didn’t see articles in the papers or magazines about it anymore, or hear people talking about it anymore. Nobody seemed to be worried about it anymore, even though the Cold War was still going on. I don’t know when this change occurred, but I supposed it was a gradual thing that may have started in the early ‘70s, perhaps when the Viet Nam war ended — I don’t know.
When I was growing up in the late ‘50s and throughout the ‘60s, the seriousness of even the possibility of nuclear war was very much in the public consciousness. I would say that it and the arrival of television were the two things that shaped the psychology of my generation. These two developments created a significant “generation gap” between us Baby Boomers and our parents, actually. They had lived in a world where nuclear bombs and televisions did not exist. This resulted, I think, in a different view of the world for us and certainly a different view about warfare. For all the millennia preceding the advent of the atomic bomb, warfare meant men fighting directly against other men with some sort of hand-held weapon or by shooting short-range explosives at each other. Even in the most horrific wars, it was still understood, if not consciously then subconsciously, that when the war was over, or even if it was never over, the human race would still exist and although it might change for the better or worse, there would still exist what is called “civilization”.
The invention and then the proliferation of nuclear weapons, however, changed that very basic reality. For the first time in human history, weaponry had been created which could mean the extinction of civilization, if not the extinction of the human race itself and perhaps even all forms of life on the planet. Man had developed the means of destroying himself as a species. And this would happen not through masses of armies going up against each other but by certain people pushing certain buttons which would launch the nuclear missiles. Thus the new reality was that even if everything seemed harmonious and peaceful, this world would always be a very dangerous place. It could all end tomorrow, complete destruction, just like that, if certain people pushed certain buttons. That’s a pretty depressing thought, isn’t it?
I grew up knowing, and worrying, about this. With the Cold War brewing it was always in the back of my mind that this day could be the last day. This fear was heightened considerably by the
Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962 when the Soviet Union and the United States came to the brink of nuclear war. It was horrifying. I remember one specific incident which occurred in my 8th grade music class during the crisis. Our teacher brought out a record of the music from a new Broadway show called Fiorello! about the former mayor of New York City, Fiorello LaGuardia. We were to listen to the record and there would be a discussion about it when it was over. She placed the record on the turntable and we waited for the music to begin. However, this show didn’t begin with music. It began with the blaring siren of a fire engine. (Mayor LaGuardia was famous for showing up at fires.) The entire class, hearing the sound, let out a collective scream. Not a funny, teenage scream — a real scream of terror. That’s how on edge we were, and we were only kids.
So I brought this up with my passenger. I asked him if I was correct in my observation. Did something change? Are people in general not concerned about the possibility of a nuclear holocaust like they used to be? He thought about it for a moment and then told me that I was correct, it was true. And then he added this comment, and these were his exact words:
“A country that’s worried about a nuclear war is a country that won’t buy a new car.”
I don’t remember if I asked him what he meant by that. I don’t think I did, actually, maybe because we were at the end of the ride. But his comment has stayed with me all these years. If it had come from just anyone, I suppose I would have forgotten about it the next day, but this was coming from the guy from the Atomic Energy Commission, so it carried significant gravitas.
After giving it much thought, and after hearing the opinions of many passengers in my cab, I came to the conclusion that what he meant was that a country of worried people was bad for the economy, with the implication being that a robust economy was an important ingredient in keeping the peace, not only in America but around the world. Plus this: what’s the point in having the media and governmental agencies agitating the population about nuclear holocaust when there’s nothing the average person can do about it, anyway?
I decided he was right. This made sense. A population which believes the world may end tomorrow might well turn out to be a population of nihilistic, live-for-today stoners. What it takes for a society to prosper — the steady flow of commerce — could be reduced to a trickle. No Brillo pads to clean your sink. No gravy on your mashed potatoes. No invention of the iPhone. No Pokemon Go. If things get bad enough in a country, people will become desperate. Governments can be overthrown by violence and atomic weapons can get into the hands of some very destructive people. So the man from the Atomic Energy Commission was right.
Or was he?
As this presidential election cycle rolls forward in the United States I have given his comment even more thought, and it seems to me something was overlooked. A country that isn’t keenly aware of the seriousness of what atomic weapons can do is a country that might elect a rabble-rousing loose cannon to the presidency who could conceivably blunder our way into a nuclear holocaust.
So there is something the average person can do about it. He or she can understand that the risk of atomic warfare is the number one issue in any presidential election, and vote accordingly. No other issue even comes close. Not bad trade agreements, not student debt, not illegal immigration, not even psychotic lunatics opening fire in airports.
Please consider this: the president of the United States, when it comes to nuclear war, virtually has the power of God. By his or her command all we know of civilization could quite suddenly come to an end. By his or her command billions -- billions -- of people could perish, perhaps even every human being on this planet could perish. Perhaps even every living thing on the planet could perish. Is that not the power of God?
So temperament, sanity, intelligence, and compassion mean everything in a presidential election. It’s the great decision we as Americans must make every fourth year, and it tests our wisdom as a nation. Candidates who are rude, impulsive, thin-skinned, angry, and impossible to give advice to can be elected to the offices of mayor, governor, and senator all day long, and sometimes are.
But never to the presidency.
The motto of one of the great American presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, was “Speak softly and carry a big stick”. There are plenty of big sticks in the United States arsenal. It’s the “speak softly” part that is so important in a nuclear age.
If you’re an American, I do hope you will give this your most sober consideration before you vote.
There are links to several Wikipedia pages in this post. I’m giving three of them again here in case you missed them:
The Cold War
The Cuban Missile Crisis
I ask you to go to these sites and read the articles. I know it’s disturbing as hell to read this stuff, it really is, but I feel we cannot afford to be unaware of exactly what’s at stake in this and in every presidential election. We should all be quite conversant about this subject. This is the world we live in. Let’s not kid ourselves.