Was there a constant 'fear of the bomb' in the Soviet Union and America during the Cold War?

Or were there times where there wasn't such a fear? Possibly during the Nixon-Brezhnev détente, or Samantha Smith's peace activism?

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    I'll try to find time to make a proper answer, but for me personally as someone growing up in middle-America in the 70's and 80's, the answer is an unequivocal yes. I honestly went to bed every night until about Nov 9, 1989 not entirely sure the world wouldn't be destroyed in my sleep.
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 8, 2016 at 22:32
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    What @T.E.D. said. I was in central Europe and there too, the answer was yes. It's the reason the 80s were so awesome - we had ridiculous hair and even more ridiculous clothing while dancing to ridiculous but brilliantly danceable music because we never knew if it wouldn't end in nuclear armageddon. OK, the US only had hair-band poseurs, but in Europe we had Nena and Gary Numan! ;)
    – Marakai
    Jun 9, 2016 at 0:04
  • We did bomb drills during elementary school, in the 1950s. Things had cooled off by the mid-60s, after the nuclear treaties started. By the time I was in the service, late 60s, it was just background information - MAD at work, I suppose. Jun 9, 2016 at 0:06
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    I probably ought to per-emptively move this to chat. Please put your "Me too. This is what it was like for me..." answers (which I'm actually enjoying greatly) there, and only comment here on other issues of this question. Feel free to vote up one of the above comments if you agree with them though.
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 9, 2016 at 0:12
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 9, 2016 at 0:12

3 Answers 3


In the USSR there was none among the common people, maybe except the Cuban crisis period, I don't know. There was totally no fear of war, let alone, a nuclear one. The state propaganda emphasized peace and and international friendship.

Regarding the Cuban crisis some people I had talked to said that they realized how dangerous it was only years after, and that they had no fear of war at the time.

It seems in the West on the other hand the fear propaganda was put in full and they could really strike us under this psychosis.

Next follows my opinion. Peace was a part of the social contract in the USSR. The Communist government failed to provide high standards of living but at least they provided peace and were basing their legitimacy on that. There were many WWII veterans who knew how bad the war was so the TV constantly stressed that wars were over now thanks to our party and government who guard our peaceful skies and constantly struggles for peace in the world.

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    At least part of the fear of the bomb in the West could be due to electoral politics. JFK used the scare of a Missile gap (a supposed USA inferiority to the SU in ICBMs) for attacking Richard Nixon. Similarly, the less famous Bomber gap also was used as a way to justify military spending.
    – SJuan76
    Jun 9, 2016 at 7:28
  • @SJuan76 why is the downvote?
    – Anixx
    Jun 9, 2016 at 9:43
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    It was not me... but if I had to guess, I would point at the It seems in the West on the other hand the fear propaganda was put in full and they could really strike us under this psychosis. line. Or perhaps it was in line to T.E.D.'s comment about "Please put your 'Me too. This is what it was like for me...' answers (which I'm actually enjoying greatly) there [in the chat]".
    – SJuan76
    Jun 9, 2016 at 9:47
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    @jwenting no, most people knew that the West was powerful, possibly more powerful than us. Also, most people understood what a nuclear exchange would be like.
    – Anixx
    Sep 11, 2016 at 6:46
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    Probably that is the difference: while west was fed with "Russians want to kill us" propaganda, USSR people were fed with "it is great that we live in peace, remeber how cruel the war was".
    – Dima
    Nov 19, 2016 at 15:29

As an American born in the 1950s, I remember a "fear of the bomb" in the early stages of the Cold War. In addition to "fire drills" we (as schoolchildren) had "bomb drills" of hiding in a "basement," or absent such, under our desks.

This was perhaps less so immediately after World War II (1945-1950), and escalated during the 1950s after the McCarthy "anti Communism" hearings, and particularly after Sputnik in 1957, when the Soviet Union briefly moved head of the U.S. in space exploration. The level of concern seemed to peak in the early 1960s, after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the world moved closer to a nuclear exchange than ever before or since.

The purpose of the Nixon-Brezhnev detente of the 1970s was to diffuse this tension, but in the 1980s, President Reagan reversed this policy with "Strategic Defense Initiative "star wars," to try to "outbuild" the Soviet nuclear program into the ground. It was so successful that it brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union itself, not just its nuclear program.

  • +1 for explaining the difference between the early and late cold war. By the time I was a grade school kid in the 1970's, back-yard bomb shelters and "duck and cover" drills were completely gone. Part of the reason for the change may have been simply that the power of the nuclear arsenals had grown to the point where there was no real illusion that civilization would survive a full-scale nuclear exchange. MAD (mutually assured destruction) was so solidly established that (a) there was no point in making survival preparations, and (b) people were more confident in MAD as a deterrent.
    – user2848
    Jul 31, 2016 at 17:51

I became aware of the Cold War and the risks of a nuclear war in the late seventies. Most people in the UK didn't worry about it often, but it was always there. I particularly remember the night of the KAL007 shoot-down, September 1st, 1983.

I got home late, turned on the radio to BBC World Service and heard the news. I stayed up for a while to see if the situation would escalate, but when that didn't seem to be happening, I went to bed, not sure if there would be a morning.

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