The sound of the Cold War

One of the most fascinating aspects of Cold War spy craft is the most innocuous-sounding: numbers stations. They broadcast seemingly random strings of numbers or letters over shortwave frequencies. The broadcasts are received by agents embedded in other countries. Because the signals are one-way, spies are able to hear and decode the messages without fear of radio-tracking.

Originating during World War I, numbers stations proliferated during the Cold War, that period of tension between eastern and western powers from 1947 through 1991.

In the novel Distant Early Warning, Wil and Glenn Andersen believe these broadcasts are aimed at a spy operating in their neighborhood.

This is what the boys might have heard on their shortwave receiver. It is a recording of a woman reading a string of numbers in German. The numbers were often read in groups of three, four, or five. The file comes from The Conant Project on SoundCloud. The Conant Project consists of dozens of recordings of numbers stations from around the world, available for listening or download. (For a look at contemporary use of the stations, see the Numbers Stations Research and Information Center.)

Soviet spy radio set (Eagle) Mark II R-350M. (Photo by Maksym Kozlenko. Used with permission under Creative Commons license.)

Everything Old is New Again

They were the best of times and the worst of times. America in the 1950s was booming. From Detroit to Levittown, people bought cars and houses in record numbers. President Dwight Eisenhower established the interstate highway system to boost commerce and provide escape routes during atomic evacuations. Low inflation and rising GDP. Drag races and sock hops, flattops and greasers, Elvis and Buddy. The dawn of the space age and color TV. A time of infinite possibilities.

But the 1950s weren’t all happy days.

Political conflicts generated a fearful response: Communist witch hunts, nuclear tests, fallout shelters, air-raid drills. Across the country, Americans faced a host of existential issues, from over-consumption to Russian aggression, racism, nuclear war and the threat of epidemic disease, issues that reverberate today.

Bert the Turtle from Duck and Cover

Then there were the natural disasters that plagued small towns like the one where I lived: the Flood of ’55, the blizzard of ’58, and a fire that destroyed a block of Main Street that summer. One storm alone, Hurricane Diane, took 180 lives and caused more than $832 million in damage, making it the most-costly hurricane in U.S. history to that date. (Those challenges form the heart of Distant Early Warning, a new book about one family’s struggle with the challenges of the Cold War.)

If anything, it was a decade of contrasts, both backward- and forward-looking: the USSR and the USA, eastern steel and western gold, San Francisco and Selma, beatniks and bottlenecks, Gunsmoke and The Twilight Zone.

Prosperity and paranoia. Do times ever change?

What do you remember? What would you like to forget?

Civil Defense Air Raid Drill Oak Ridge TN 1953

A Cautionary Tale

It is the late 1950s, and the Andersen family is at war with itself. As back-to-back hurricanes ravage the rural town of Pennsboro, the family suffers an irredeemable loss. Georgia becomes mired in a haze of medication and TV. Marsh retreats into work and fantasies of the redhead next door. Wil, a precocious boy with a fondness for a girl with almond eyes, suspects his parents are possessed by the aliens from his favorite movie.

Adding to their private grief is the collision of consumerism and the Cold War, amid the rising threat of Soviet missiles that may render obsolete America’s last hope for defense, the newly completed Distant Early Warning Line. With the launch of Sputnik, the family’s anguish comes to a head.

As the Andersens watch the first man-made satellite write history across the sky, they wonder if they, and the world, will ever find peace.

Based on true events, Distant Early Warning portrays the fears and dreams of a generation as it navigates the promise and perils of mid-century America. The book is available here.