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Richard Rhodes on: The Fear Caused by U.S. Overflights of the Soviet Union
Richard Rhodes Q: In part, there was a the Strategic Air Command's overflights of the Soviet Union were a response to the terrible fear in the U.S. Of a surprise attack. Describe what that fear did to this country.

RR: It's hard to remember from the perspective of today, when we have satellites buzzing overhead in every possible orbit, just how blind we were in the years after the Second World War. The only source of information we had in those early days, up to the early fifties, was repatriated German prisoners of war, who had been in Russia (either in prison camps or, many of them, scientists actually working in the Russian bomb program) ,who could debriefed. We spent millions of dollars. The CIA set up in Berlin, debriefing German prisoners of war who'd come out of Russia. That was our main source of information.

Especially when LeMay was given the task of being prepared to bomb the Soviet Union, he needed information. He needed radar screen photographs so they knew what the cities would look like, because this was all going to be instrument flying, using radar. And the only way to get that was to overfly. And so we overflew. Whether we also used those overflights to try to prod the Russian bear is another question. I think we did. But in any case, we needed to know more than we knew.

There was a terrible sense of dread in the United States, in the years after the first Soviet test. It had come too soon. The Korean War was a frightening experience. I'm quite sure that the whole McCarthy era really drew its dread and its ugliness from this existential fear that pervaded the country. This was the period of fallout shelters. This was the period of "duck and cover", when children were actually told in school how to prevent being destroyed by a nuclear weapon. And of course that had a paradoxical effect. It frightened people.

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