The PBS American Experience documentary on Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds was a strong reminder of how easily fooled many Americans were in 1938 – and apparently also by today’s entrenched political fantasies on the hard right. As witnesses to the mass hysteria that struck the dupes of the broadcast of a Martian landing in New Jersey later noted: “I couldn’t understand how anyone would fall for this.” But folks, countless people did, in fact, even with scattered reports of suicides. Indeed, they did.
As a reporter for the Columbus Citizen-Journal during the Cuban missile crises, I got a taste of mass fright in the newsroom as several colleagues hovered over the rattling wire service machines waiting for the latest word on the ominous approach of Russian ships to Cuba to dare triggering a war between two atomic powers. The young reporter sitting across from my desk remained on the telephone to her mother with panicked instructions to rush food, water and medical supplies to the basement (as if that would have helped!).
Of course, the threat of annihilation was in this case real unless the confrontation was somehow resolved .
At night, I watched dirt flying from a lantern-lit hole in a neighbor’s yard opposite our place. He had chosen to construct a fallout shelter, which was OK, I guess, if perishing in a useless homemade shelter was preferable to atomic incineration.
But American ingenuity in the marketplace took hold the next day as ads appeared from construction companies that they could offer guaranteed family fallout shelters for the family with no interest and six months or so to pay.
OK, the bomb be damned. Everybody back to work! I never asked my young colleague what her mother was going to do with all of the food and medical supplies in the basement.