Editorial cartoon (8/16/2017)

"U.S. Army Dusts Off Cold War Playbook," read the headline on a front-page New York Times story earlier this month.

Most people my age pay attention when the government and military officials start using the words "Cold War."

We lived during its entire duration, after all, and the memories aren't all that pleasant. During our childhood we went through drills in school on how to best hide under our desks if an atomic bomb was dropped — as if a nuclear explosion would have about the same power as a tornado. We held our breaths when Wisconsin's 32nd "Red Arrow" Division was one of several major units activated over the crisis in Berlin and again about a year later when President John F. Kennedy and the Soviet Union's Nikita Khrushchev faced off over Cuba while rattling their nuclear bombs.

The war in Korea was inspired by the Cold War. Vietnam became a piece of it, too. Our fear that China and the Soviets would get one-up on us was a major reason we decided these were yet more wars we had to fight, even if Vietnam was nothing more than a futile cause.

We remember how our kids would go to bed wondering if the bad guys would drop a bomb before they awoke in the morning. People really did live in fear. Some would heed the Civil Defense Administration (the forerunner to what today we know as FEMA and Homeland Security) and build bomb shelters in their backyards, stocking them with nonperishable foods and months-long supplies of water so the family could live underground for weeks, if not months. Fiction writers would spin tales of people without shelters fighting to get into their neighbors' shelters as the bomb sirens blared in the distance.

The American Legion in my hometown, New Glarus, would hire us kids to spend hours watching for Soviet planes that might be on their way to obliterate Chicago. We had silhouettes on big posters of the "good guy" and "bad guy" planes to guide our observations. We never caught any of the bad guys trying to sneak through, but we had money to buy a few black-eyed Susan sundaes slathered with hot fudge topped by a pecan at Ed Fuhrmann's drugstore. Two bits each.

What we didn't know as kids we soon found out as adults. The Cold War was terribly expensive. The United States alone spent trillions of dollars arming the nation for a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union, which fortunately never came. But that's forgetting the thousands of American lives that were lost waging those proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam.

At the end of the 1980s as the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union was dismantled, we were jubilant that at last the Cold War was over. We could use those trillions of wasted dollars now for education, infrastructure, technology and hundreds of other peaceful purposes. No more witch hunts by the likes of Joe McCarthy or neighbors fighting neighbors to get into the bomb shelters or spending yet more billions on weapons systems no longer needed.

Oh, how foolish we were just 30 years ago. Before long a bunch of terrorists sucked us into the quagmire of the Mideast. We started a war against a country that had nothing to do with the 9/11 terrorist attack. Once again we're spending trillions while we can't figure out how to fix Americans' health insurance problems and now there's North Korea and its nukes to scare us all over again.

To top it all off, we elected a president who thinks the way to address all this is to meet the bellicosity of the North Koreans with juvenile rantings of our own.

So here we go again, dusting off the Cold War playbook. To paraphrase those Cold War balladeers, Peter, Paul and Mary, when will we ever learn?

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel

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