Fortress America: How We Embraced Fear and Abandoned Democracy by Elaine Tyler May; Basic Books, 256 pp., $30
Face away from the blast: that’s what the animated Bert the Turtle advised American children to do if caught in an atomic attack. The year was 1951, and a shaken nation was coming to terms with the brand-new threat of nuclear war. The bomb is indeed something to be feared, according to the instructional film Duck and Cover, but no matter how frightened the victims, they should remember to protect their eyes.
The detail, one of many telling and poignant moments from Elaine Tyler May’s Fortress America, evokes the kind of half-laughter that catches in the throat. After all, the threat of nuclear war remains all too real, and that early, wishful impulse to control it seems in retrospect only a shade removed from the only alternative, despair.
As it happened, Bert the Turtle had something over the ordinary schoolchild—a shell to disappear into. The nation’s collective yearning for some variation on a shell is the focus of May’s study, which shows how Americans’ obsessive quest for personal security has contorted its political and cultural landscape.