The Cold War was a terrifying time to be alive.
The war began in 1946 and ended in 1991 when the USSR collapsed. During this period, tensions between the United States and the USSR were extremely high. Proxy wars were fought around the world and there was a constant threat of nuclear warfare.
Reading about historical events and watching documentaries can tell us the facts, but it’s a different thing entirely to think about what it was like to experience it. Here are just a few things US citizens lived through during the cold war.
Children learned to do “duck and cover” school drills.
After the Soviet Union detonated its first known nuclear device somewhere in Kazakhstan on August 29, 1949, US anxieties about the threat of nuclear annihilation rose significantly.
Civil defense in the 1950s called for people to take what shelter they could.
President Harry S. Truman’s Federal Civil Defense Administration program began requiring schools to teach children how to dive under their desks in classrooms and take cover if bombs should drop, according to History. How protective such actions would be in an actual nuclear strike continues to be debated — and has thankfully never had any practical testing.
In any case, this led to the official commission of the 1951 educational film “Duck and Cover,” which you can stream online thanks to the Library of Congress.
There was a constant threat of nuclear annihilation.
The Cold War ebbed and flowed in terms of tension, but it lasted from the end of World War II until the early 1990s and the eventual fall of the Soviet Union. That’s a long time to brace for potential impact, both as individuals and as a society.
Many Americans thought nuclear war could break out at any moment.
During this time, libraries helped to train and prepare people as best they could with available civil defense information. They showed educational films, offered first aid courses, and provided strategies to patrons on how best to survive in the event of nuclear war. These are valuable services in any time frame, but the tensions constantly playing in your mind as you participated must have been palpable.
As always, pop culture both reflected and refracted societal anxieties back at citizens as a way of processing them. This AV Club timeline offers several great examples, from “The Manchurian Candidate” to “Dr. Strangelove, Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb” and through the decades to the extremely on-the-nose ’80s film, “Red Dawn.”
Some families built fallout shelters in their backyards.
In the aftermath of the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the entire world learned exactly how decimating nuclear warfare could be.
As Cold War tensions escalated between the US and the Soviet Union following World War II, it’s not terribly surprising that the Department of Defense began issuing pamphlets like this one instructing American families on how best to protect themselves in the event of a nuclear attack.
Bomb shelters were not uncommon.
Converting basements or submerging concrete bunkers in backyards that were built to recommended specifications became a family bonding activity — although in urban areas, buildings that generally welcomed the public including church and school basements and libraries were also designated fallout shelter locations.
There was a strict curtailing of civil liberties during the Red Scare.
While the Cold War was intensifying, one nickname used for communists was “Reds” because that was the predominant color of the flag of the Soviet Union. The House Un-American Activities Committee and infamous Joseph McCarthy hearings happened during this time period, which attempted to root out subversion in the entertainment industry and the federal government.
President Truman’s Executive Order no. 9835 — also known as the Loyalty Order — was issued for federal employees, but smaller businesses soon followed in the federal government’s footsteps. The Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations — effectively a blacklist — was also issued.
Many of the people accused of being communists by McCarthy lost their jobs when in reality there was no proof they belonged to the communist party.
This search for potential communists did not end with the downfall of McCarthy. During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, for instance, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover labeled Martin Luther King, Jr. a communist simply because he stood up against racism and oppression.
The US and USSR came close to all-out war because of the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Two events during the 1960s almost brought the world to an all-out war.
The first was in 1961 when 1,400 Cuban exiles were trained to overthrow the Fidel Castro’s Cuban government, which had made diplomatic dealings with the USSR. The exiles were sent on their mission by President Kennedy, who had been assured by the CIA that the plan would make it seem like a Cuban uprising rather than American intervention.
What became known as the Bay of Pigs had a disastrous outcome, with over a hundred Cuban exiles killed and the rest captured. Many Americans began bracing for war.
By 1962, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev bolstered Cuba’s defenses with nuclear missiles in case the US tried invading again. The arms race between the US and the Soviet Union was already in full swing, so tensions were steadily increasing.
When American spy planes gathered photographic evidence of these missiles, President Kennedy sent a naval blockade to “quarantine” Cuba, according to the JFK Presidential Library.
He also demanded removal of the missiles and total destruction of the sites that housed them. Khrushchev wasn’t anxious to go to war either, so he finally agreed after extracting a promise from Kennedy that the US wouldn’t invade Cuba.
People worried the space race could lead to nuclear war.
Through a modern lens, the space race led to scientific advancements across the world as countries rushed to be the first into outer space and to land on the moon.
But at the time, the prospect of the Soviet Union beating the US to the final frontier was more terrifying for Americans than we might realize today.
Dr. Wernher von Braun, the NASA Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, explains the Saturn rocket system to President John F. Kennedy at Cape Canaveral, Florida on Nov. 16, 1963.
CNN reports that regular Americans frequently worried that if the Soviet Union could get a human into space, it could also get nuclear warheads into space. The USSR became the first country to successfully launch a human being into space with Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961, and the US later landed on the moon in July of 1969 after heavily investing in its NASA program.
Proxy conflicts, including the Korean War and the Vietnam War, continue to affect the world today.
While the US and the USSR never engaged in armed conflict against each other, they did fight in and fund other conflicts, otherwise known as proxy wars.
The most famous proxy wars during this time are undoubtedly the Korean War and the Vietnam War, but there were numerous other proxy conflicts that happened during the Cold War. Many of these conflicts were extremely deadly for both soldiers and civilians, including the Angolan Civil War, the Cambodian Civil War, and the Congo Crisis, just to name a few.
These proxy conflicts also continue to have consequences for citizens and veterans, and have shaped the modern world as we know it.
This article originally appeared on Insider. Follow @thisisinsider on Twitter.
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