The Distant Early Warning Line was a system of 63 radar stations built across the Arctic Circle to detect Soviet bombers. Constructed by Western Electric, it extended 3,000 miles along the 69th parallel from Alaska to Baffin Island. The Arctic Institute of North America estimated it took 25,000 workers and $300 million to build the stations.
The U.S Air Force took operational control of the DEW Line on July 31, 1957, two months before the Soviet Union launched earth’s first man-made satellite, Sputnik.
This magazine ad appeared shortly after completion of the system.
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.
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?
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.