RAY SUAREZ, HOST:
During the Cold War, the government and media gave Americans constant warning about threats of nuclear war and Communism.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So the Commies want you. They have a variety of approaches. Any one of them may sound reasonable, even commendable. Just don't ever agree to join any committee or support any cause until you know what their real objectives are.
SUAREZ: And it's during this period where historian Elaine Tyler May starts her new book, "Fortress America: How We Embraced Fear And Abandoned Democracy." At the heart of the book, she examines if we've ever really been in the kind of danger our leaders have spent 50 years telling us we're in.
ELAINE TYLER MAY: Basically, the message was - the bomb could drop at any time. Each person is responsible for their own safety. There's really nothing the government or the leaders of the country can do to protect you. You have to be prepared to protect yourself. Build a shelter. Drop underneath your desks at school if you're a child.
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UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Duck and cover.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) He did what we all must learn to do.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) You...
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #3: (Singing) And you...
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #4: (Singing) And you...
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Duck and cover.
SUAREZ: Were we also getting false reassurance that things were survivable? I was one of those kids climbing underneath the desk at PS 128 just maybe 10 miles away from Wall Street. That was never going to help me survive a nuclear attack on New York City.
MAY: Right, exactly. And people knew that. And reading through the civil defense guidelines at the time, it was obvious that those guidelines were ludicrous. Nothing that was offered to the American people was going to protect them if, in fact, a nuclear warhead landed on the United States.
SUAREZ: In my years as a reporter, I've spoken to people in some of the safest neighborhoods in America who, when I asked them - what are the problems around here? - they tell me violent crime. Why are Americans so bad at gauging their own risk? Has this kind of anxiety been engineered into the way we think of our society?
MAY: Well, I don't actually think that Americans are so susceptible to messages coming from on high that they simply accept wholeheartedly the kinds of warnings that come to them in the media and from political leaders. On the other hand, as our leaders and our media have focused overwhelmingly on issues of danger to personal safety, it has had a tremendous impact to the point where even as those dangers statistically declined, fear of those dangers increased.
So in the 1960s and '70s, as you have more and more people of color and more and more women entering the public arena, there was a lot of reaction to that. There was a lot of backlash as well. And that backlash took the form of inciting fear that women were really at risk of being attacked if they went into the public arena. And women were warned over and over again that they should go home to be safe. They shouldn't be out at night. They shouldn't be on the streets alone.
And at the same time, there was a very, very loud and increasingly exaggerated attention to crime and particularly a focus on the notion that black men, particularly young black men, were dangerous. Now, what we know statistically - the individuals who were most likely to be victims of crime were black men. Those who are least likely to be victims of violent crime are white women. And yet the way that the media and a lot of political leaders framed it, it was just the opposite.
SUAREZ: Is that why 25 years into an era where violent crime was dropping like a rock and now reaching levels that the country hasn't seen in 60 years, a successful candidate for president was able to talk to the country about - instead of talking about how much safer we are, talking about American carnage?
MAY: Yes. And it has really affected our political life. It has affected our personal lives. And really, since the late 1960s, American politicians, American leaders have used the fear of crime to call for law and order kinds of policies, to encourage Americans to be afraid of their neighbors, of people they don't know. And that has really caused a lot of retreating from a sense of the common good. It's created distrust where we know that those fears are highly exaggerated and completely out of touch with the reality of the situation.
SUAREZ: Elaine Tyler May is regents professor of American Studies and History at the University of Minnesota. The book is "Fortress America: How We Embraced Fear And Abandoned Democracy." And, Elaine, I should mention that your son is a colleague here at NPR, but you were already booked on the program before we even found that out. Great to talk to you again.
MAY: Thanks so much, Ray.
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