During American history classes at my high school, we laughed at images of children learning to “duck and cover” in case of nuclear attack during the 1950s. Our parents would laugh too when we told them about it, everyone having become accustomed to the idea that any nuclear exchange would probably end in both the United States and the Soviet Union emptying all their missile silos and potentially destroying all life on earth. Nuclear-disaster movies from the 1980s such as The Day After and Threads helped people conclude that the survivors of any nuclear war would envy the dead. But then, as Will Leitch pointed out recently, within a few years after the Cold War, American culture seemed to simply shed its previous fear, even obsession, with nuclear conflict. Duck-and-cover videos were spliced into glitzy multimedia, rendering them a kitschy artifact of our parents’ and grandparents’ lives.
Yet, on Saturday, residents of Hawaii received the following message from the Emergency Alert System on their phones: “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.” They turned on televisions and saw the same message, with additional instructions to lie on the floor. In other words, to duck and cover. And some people did just that. The effect of a false warning was to remind people how unprepared they are for not just a nuclear attack but for the use of conventional weapons against their state.
There’s a discussion thread on Reddit soliciting from people who were in Hawaii what they really did during the half hour or more that they spent believing they might be subject to an imminent nuclear attack from North Korea. Exaggerations, distortion, and aspiration surely play a role on a forum like this. Some say they made their morning coffee and chatted as normally as they could. Some manned their cellphone, routing communications for their families across the Hawaiian islands and to the mainland. Some, facing mortality, were subjected to troubling confessions of sin by loved ones. One man filled up giant emergency tanks of water — useful for island living almost any time — and a very intelligent way to spend a few minutes before a bomb goes off. Now they sit blocking his car in his driveway.
The government, if it ever revived the kind of civil-defense spending it maintained at the beginning of the Cold War, would probably be criticized for any information it gave out to people curious about what to do in the case of a nuclear attack by a rogue state like North Korea. After all, we usually can’t predict the circumstances of war, and any advice would be based on premises that may not hold. The advice in old duck-and-cover videos was quickly superseded by developments in Soviet weaponry. And besides, wouldn’t the education effort itself spread panic? Would it somehow take the pressure off our diplomatic personnel, military, and president from solving the problem themselves? Was this type of effort in the past not all a way of ginning up hatred against the enemy?
And yet, a little knowledge could save hundreds of thousands of lives — even the knowledge that a single, nuclear device exploding in a nearby city does not necessarily doom you and your loved ones to death. Especially when the bomb comes from North Korea. And a little unpleasant discussion around the dinner table about how to respond to such an attack could empower people to make plans for finding their families, or at least give them something constructive to do rather than lose themselves in panic, if the cellphone lines go dead in an attack.
The U.S. post–Cold War holiday from history was destined to end. And it should frighten every sensible person to consider that so many of the events that could have precipitated nuclear conflict during the Cold War were halted by men who personally remembered the last round of great-power conflict, and that all those men are now dead. They’ve been replaced by others whose experience of foreign policy could never be so educative. Similarly, in the Korean peninsula, the men who remember the awful horrors of that war are dying.
In many ways, the modern world is younger, dumber, and more innocent about these things than our grandparents were. We discovered that on Saturday in Hawaii. And now is the time to think it through. If you ever received such a text warning, would you fill your bathtub with water, or with your family members? How many of us turn to resources for advice — YouTube, text — that won’t be available in the event of real disruption?
If you don’t think about it yourself, you are outsourcing all the important decisions to the same sort of people who made the fat finger error that caused a mass panic last weekend.