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Living with nuclear holocaust

During the Cold War, the Pentagon armed the state of North Dakota with so many nuclear warheads that if the state had pulled out of the Union, it would have been the third largest nuclear power in the world.

Despite our proximity to North Dakota, northern Minnesota missed out on the nuclear boom. We're just as close to Moscow, but the Pentagon built no missile silos east of the Red River.

You wonder which bureaucrat in Washington, D. C. made that decision.

The nuke boom brought a lot of jobs to North Dakota, but it also made the state a target for missiles from the Soviet Union.

From where I grew up, we could see North Dakota from my front doorstep.

As a kid with a vivid imagination, my childhood nightmares often featured dozens of fiery mushroom clouds rising to the west.

In the case of a nuclear exchange, I knew the Dakotans across the river would fry first, but it wouldn't be more than a few minutes before we'd sizzle on the Minnesota side, too.

My fears were later confirmed by Cold War era movies that depicted Grand Forks, N.D., as the first American city to be incinerated by Soviet missiles.

Of course, if Grand Forks were hit, the effects would be felt for hundreds of miles in every direction.

In the back of all of our minds, we knew we would be doomed.

For the length of the Cold War, the prospect of a sudden nuclear exchange between the United States and Soviet Union always loomed, and not just in the tender minds of sixth graders who read Reader's Digest too much.

The two superpowers nearly lobbed bombs at each other across the Arctic during the famous Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It was a scary time.

Less publicized, even today, are other close calls. As aging retired civil servants from the 1960s and 1970s write their memoirs, we learn that the two sides approached the brink other times as well.

Fears of nuclear annihilation were realistic. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was the policy of both the United States and the USSR.

The plan? If one country launched a missile attack, the other would fire off all their missiles in response. Both nations would be destroyed and nobody would win.

The policy was insane. However, because both sides retained leaders with at least a minimal sense of responsibility for the fate of humanity as a whole, a final crisis was always averted.

What kids under 25 years of age these days don't understand is the fear we all felt during the Cold War.

Today, Islamic terrorists might strike buildings in New York and kill thousands, or a right-wing terrorist might set off a bomb in Oklahoma City that kills hundreds.

However scary, those attacks are relatively limited in scope.

But a nuclear war would have done us all in. Millions of us. At once. City or country. No bomb shelter, no hiding under desks, no ducking in the basement would have saved us.

When the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, that ever-present threat of instant obliteration vanished from our psychology in an instant.

I'll never forget the unbelievable moment nearly 20 years ago when a trembling Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev stood next to Russian president Boris Yeltsin and dissolved the Soviet Union.

The Cold War was over. For the first time since 1949, we could rest easy and feel secure that we wouldn't be fried by hundreds of nuclear bombs while we slept.

The long-standing nuclear threat was like background noise, a constant buzzing that you forgot was there.

When the threat disappeared, the effect was like when the fridge quits running. You don't realize the thing was rattling until it shuts off, and then does it ever get nice and quiet.

But pretty soon you forget how quiet it is and some other distraction comes up and you forget how nice it is not to have the fridge rattling.

We have moved on, as we always do. The Soviet Union is forgotten except in the minds of a few old Cold Warriors who mistakenly use the term to refer to Russia.

But we would be remiss if we let the twentieth anniversary of the single most significant, dramatic and world-changing historical event in the past sixty-five years go unobserved.