01/15/2013 10:51 am ET Updated Mar 17, 2013

How Hope Went Under the Desk and Then Disappeared From Our World

It's hard, so many decades later, to make my way back to my Cold War youth, that time when the history of humanity was, as LIFE magazine so classically put it, "The Epic of Man." But hey, that was the era when we still thought dinosaurs were lumbering beasts, an electric typewriter was the leading edge of high-tech, and if, like my wife, you happened to live in El Paso, Texas, in the early 1950s, your TV set had nothing on it because the signal for the programs had yet to make it over the mountains.

It was also, in some ways, the most nightmarish of times. The old school fire drill had, by then, morphed into a "duck and cover" exercise. You dove under your desk in a crouch, covering your head with your hands and arms, while sirens screamed outside. You were, of course, practicing for the end of times, the moment when a Soviet nuclear weapon obliterated your city. Under the circumstances, your hands and that none-too-sturdy desk weren't the most reassuring of safety nets. But like all kids, I didn't really live in the worst or best of times, I lived in the only time there was, the only time imaginable, and the only place there could be (which happened, in my case, to be New York City).

Still, in a world then brimming with wealth but also riddled with barely expressed fear, there were some especially grim moments to remember. In October 1962, for instance, John F. Kennedy went on TV and the radio to announce the presence of Soviet nuclear arms in Cuba and say that we risked "the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth, but neither will we shrink from the risk at any time it must be faced." Listening, 18-year-old Tom Engelhardt feared that nuclear destruction was upon us, that we on the East Coast were toast, and that it had all somehow happened before life had even begun. Later in the 1960s, as the Vietnam War raged, I came to believe that we Americans were barbarians and wondered whether that war and the world that went with it would ever end.

Even then, though, young and old alike lived with a kind of optimism as well, a typically can-do American attitude, a sense of lurking hope, undoubtedly based at least in part on the globally dominant position of the country we all inhabited. And since we were still surfing the crest of a wave of unprecedented postwar wealth, if you chose to "turn on, tune in, and drop out," you never had a doubt that you could also turn off, tune out, drop back in, and get a job -- a good job -- any time you wanted. It's not a feeling the young would recognize now.

Today, the Cold War era of my youth might as well have been the Neolithic Age, something historian (and radio host) Jon Wiener discovered on a little odyssey through our American world of commemoration, including such magnificent sites you've never heard of as the NSA and (online) CIA museums and the Whittaker Chambers "pumpkin patch." He captures this in his new book, How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America, a splendid tour de farce of the museums and other memory palaces established largely by the American right in honor of the greatest triumph in human history, the winning of the... oh, remind me, what was it? And what was the name of that "evil empire" that disappeared without a trace in 1991? As he writes, "Despite an immense effort by conservatives to shape public memory of the Cold War, their monuments weren't built, their historical sites have had few visitors, and many of their museums have shifted their focus to other topics."

Still, the urge to commemorate is not to be sniffed at, and so, in "Eight Things I Miss About the Cold War," Wiener has recently taken readers on an eight-whistle-stop nostalgia tour of what was best about the Cold War era and is worst about our own. If I could add my own ninth category to his list, here's what it would be: my nostalgia for the deep-seated sense of optimism and hope basic to that era, something now so missing from our American world that, I suspect, the young don't even know it's gone.