This article first appeared in the May/June 2022 edition of Home & Harvest magazine.
By Hayley Noble, LCHS Executive Director
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and other aggressions over the years, it seems that the Cold War did not end in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Tension was growing in 1945 between the United States and the Soviet Union at the end of World War II after the division of Berlin. The Soviet occupation of Central and Eastern Europe created the metaphorical “iron curtain,” effectively dividing Europe into “East” and “West.” Things came to a head in 1947 with the Truman Doctrine: a foreign policy of containing Soviet influence and communism put forth by President Truman. Many agree that this is considered the “official” start of the Cold War as we know it. Then on September 23, 1949, Truman announced to the press that a Soviet atomic detonation was detected, and the arms race truly commenced. The Cold War has a complicated history that is still being played out, with complex ties to Idaho. When most think of Idaho and the Cold War, they quickly think of history associated with Eastern Idaho: Idaho Falls, the Idaho National Laboratory, and the 1961 nuclear reactor accident. Latah County’s Cold War history is not nearly as dramatic or unique.
Many communities during this time considered the chief threat to be nuclear fallout from Soviet attacks. Throughout the 1940s to the 70s, the U.S. Department of Defense created many agencies to address this concern, such as the Office of Civil Defense, Civil Defense and Mobilization, Defense Civil Preparedness Agency, and so on and so forth. Eventually, all these iterations consolidated to become the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 1979. One of the main operations of these agencies was to inform the public about what to do in the case of an attack. They published a variety of guides and handbooks related to survival in the event of nuclear fallout. Among these were how-to’s on everything from building fallout shelters and radiation monitoring to medical care and preparing for mass casualties. Survival was on everyone’s mind.
Locally, the County Civil Defense Agency distributed a Community Shelter Plan instructing residents where to gather in case the attack warning sounded. Most of Moscow was to congregate at the University of Idaho, while the Kendrick and Lewiston grain elevators and others were used throughout the county. The warning sirens threatened to sound at any time. Moscow native LeNelle McInturff remembers the warning tones broadcast over the radio for emergency drills. Latah County, the City of Moscow, and Fire Chief Leon Sodorff prepared a Disaster Relief and Civil Defense Plan outlining how local authorities would respond to an event, such as an attack. It reads, “The mission of Civil Defense in the City of Moscow and Latah County is to plan for and take actions in an emergency to: reduce to a minimum the loss of life and property, maintain public morale at the highest possible level, provide the military with needed civilian support, and provide for the most rapid and complete possible recovery of our social institutions and economy.” The plan lays out the chain of command and responsibilities of all parties and breaks down subsequent groups and committees on their roles and responsibilities. It covers everything from how to provide security and communication, housing, rationing, supplies, transportation, medical services, and minimizing radiation. Presumably other cities and counties across Idaho published similar reports, demonstrating how much of a perceived threat nuclear fallout was.
The federal and local governments set up trainings and instructional videos for all citizens to follow. One of the most famous pieces of media to appear was the short film Duck and Cover, produced in 1951, featuring Bert the turtle as he learns what to do in case of disaster. Millions of children throughout the country were shown the film in school in the 1950s. As a child, LeNelle McInturff remembers her parents receiving all kinds of pamphlets on home safety and how to protect your home and family. She recalls seeing the Fallout Shelter signs all over town and the public service announcements on television. She vividly remembers a dream about the crawl space under her house serving as their family fallout shelter, complete with a lamp and desk to finish homework. LeNelle recalls the usual little toys included in cereal boxes were replaced with small plastic missiles with spring-loaded launch pads to shoot the missiles. She and her sisters had competitions to see whose went the farthest. As a kid Idahoan Ed Marohn remarked that “the Cold War as existing in our lives like eating and sleeping.” It was always present.
The federal and state governments issued training and course materials for those wanting to learn to use radiological monitoring equipment. Such kits included radiological monitor instruments, radioactive source material, training films, and student worksheets. The LCHS collection even contains forms filled out by Norman Lewis of Kendrick as he signed up for the training. An employee of the Idaho State Forestry Service, Norman scheduled trainings in March 1967 at the Latah County Court House, receiving the training films, teacher guides, and certification cards for students. Trainings and literature did little to assuage fears. LeNelle recalls her neighbor digging a fallout shelter under his barn and making sure no other families knew about it. Additionally, added fear mounted with the launch of Sputnik and the thought that Soviets were watching you from space.
But the fear did pass. The second Red Scare and Korean War of the 1950s gave way to the space race and Cuban Missile Crisis in the 60s. And, eventually, the events of Vietnam overshadowed the threat of nuclear attack and fallout shelters. Ed Marohn stated that “as the Cold War dragged on, we started to grow immune to its rhetoric, accepting it as a way of life.” The space race was over and other events loomed on the horizon. Focus shifted to general preparedness in case of more natural disasters. The University of Idaho College of Agriculture issued its own guides on how to navigate such disasters.
Throughout the 1980s, tensions eased and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 signaled the collapse of European communist governments and the end of the Iron Curtain. The Soviet Union was considered officially dissolved on December 26, 1991. But with the Soviet collapse, Russia lost relevance and power on the global stage. Vladimir Putin witnessed Russia’s diminishing status and when elected President he invoked imagery from Russia’s victories, such as the Great Patriotic War, known to us as World War II. Many suspect that according to Putin, the Cold War never ended. With Russia’s invasion of Georgia and Ukraine, it would seem he is attempting to reassemble the Soviet Union. The war crimes and atrocities in Ukraine have left the world terrified that other countries could be next. War amid a pandemic will lead to worsening health conditions and strain the global economy. Idahoans are already feeling those effects with tenuous supply chains and inflation, leading to rising food and fuel prices. Local farmers are concerned about the availability of fuel, fertilizers, and other chemicals needed to produce crops, affecting their profits. Additionally, the world is anticipating a drop in wheat exports as Russia and Ukraine are the world’s largest producers of wheat.
The Cold War, as we knew it, may be over but a new Cold War has emerged, where Russia is once again a global threat. The United States may not be its primary target, but through globalization all actions have consequences in the 21st century. We may not be building fallout shelters and publishing guides on how to handle mass casualties, but fears remain the same.
LC Civil Defense. Latah County Historical Society Archive. Moscow, ID.
Marohn, Ed. “The Cold War in Idaho: Uncle Sam Calls a Six-Year-Old.” Idaho Magazine. Nov. 2019. Accessed through the University of Idaho Special Collection. Moscow, ID.