4. Halley’s Comet returned in 1986, a trying year for the United States
In 1986, the Iran-Contra Scandal emerged into public consciousness. The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster occurred, bringing the first deaths to American astronauts during spaceflight, among them the first American teacher designated to fly in space. The Chernobyl nuclear accident occurred. It seemed as if the technology which drove the modern world, and the gateway to the future, were irretrievably breaking down. As Halley’s Comet approached its 1986 rendezvous with the Earth, Leland Jensen, the leader of a small sect of Baha’i followers, predicted the comet would be pulled into the Earth’s orbit. According to the convicted child molester and nationally known charlatan, the comet would break apart and the descending pieces would destroy life on Earth.
Jensen’s group of followers likely never exceeded 200 to 300, but his prediction received widespread notice and was echoed by others claiming the series of disasters and brush wars signaled the end was nigh. The comet’s return, in the end, was anticlimactic, with it being less than visible due to its angle to the sun, and urban pollution, including light pollution, which rendered it invisible to the naked eye for most of its visit. Halley’s Comet is expected to return in 2061, assuming life still exists on Earth four decades from now. Whether it does or not, the comet is likely to show up.
During 1968 divisive issues tore America’s social fabric apart. Race riots turned large swathes of America’s cities into smoking ruins. Peaceful demonstrations turned violent, sometimes through the actions of outside instigators, sometimes through the actions of the police and National Guard. College campuses became the sites of high indignation, rather than higher learning. Protestors marched against the draft, American involvement in Vietnam, racial inequality, feminine inequality. That spring, Soviet troops crushed the beginnings of reforms in Czechoslovakia meant to provide more freedom for Czech citizens. Instead, the reform movement was crushed under the boot heels of more than half a million Soviet troops.
The murder of Martin Luther King in April led to massive riots in American cities, with the notable exception of Indianapolis, where a campaigning Robert F. Kennedy delivered an impassioned speech, imploring the largely black crowd to remain peaceful. Two months later Kennedy too lay dead, struck down by an assassin. Student riots occurred in Paris, France, Belgrade in Yugoslavia, and in Rio de Janeiro. A massive earthquake struck the Philippines, while in Costa Rica a volcano dormant for centuries suddenly erupted, burying three villages. For people across the globe, 1968 appeared as the end of the earth, with humanity rapidly approaching violent extermination.
At the end of the Second World War, the United States possessed the largest Navy in the world, the largest Air Force, and a weapon used only twice thus far in history, the atomic bomb. America’s exclusive ownership of atomic bombs lasted less than five years. In 1949 the Soviet Union, aided by Americans sympathetic to communism who conducted espionage on their behalf, successfully detonated an atomic bomb. The 1950s brought in a new belief at the end of the world, as the Soviets and the United States developed more powerful atomic bombs. By the middle of the decade and even more powerful weapon, the thermonuclear bomb, appeared in the arsenals of both.
At the same time, throughout the years of the Eisenhower Administration, relations between the Soviet Union and the United States deteriorated into the Cold War. Fear of nuclear annihilation grew throughout the decade of the 1950s. Both the USSR and the United States developed new means of delivering nuclear weapons, from submarines and from land-based ballistic missiles. Both nations experimented with atomic cannon, portable atomic weapons (such as the Davy Crockett, the smallest nuclear system ever deployed), and other tactical uses of the nuclear bomb. The widespread belief the next major war would end humanity on earth developed steadily through the 1950s and 1960s.
7. The government took steps to reassure the public
Beginning in the 1950s and continuing well into the 1960s, the federal government took action to create the belief that most Americans would survive a nuclear attack by the Soviets. Community fallout shelters appeared in American cities and towns, marked with the sign of the Civil Defense Administration. The shelters were stocked with food and water, located in the basements of large buildings. Beginning in 1955, the Eisenhower Administration presented recommendations for a seven-day stock of food and water in American homes, to survive the aftermath of a nuclear attack. Children received lessons in protecting themselves from nuclear bombing in schools, in “duck and cover” drills.
Despite the actions of the government, which continued under the Kennedy Administration, few believed that nuclear war could be survived if they were directly attacked. The Soviet and American governments recognized the reality through the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction, they informally arrived at the conclusion that neither side would survive a nuclear war. Known as MAD, it was the primary impediment to nuclear destruction throughout the Cold War, though both sides continued to take steps to ensure they would emerge from a nuclear exchange with their society relatively intact. Throughout the Cold War, the belief a nuclear exchange would bring humanity to an end prevailed, the single greatest reason no exchange ever occurred.
In October, 1962, the Soviet Union, desperate to counter the growing number of America’s nuclear-powered and armed submarines, installed long-range ballistic missiles on the island of Cuba. The missiles gave the Soviets the ability to strike targets across the United States mainland, including most of its nuclear forces, before the Americans could react. The Soviets also objected to American nuclear missiles (Jupiters) in Turkey and Italy, which gave the Americans a similar quick-strike capability. In July, 1962, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Cuba’s Fidel Castro met and agreed to begin the installation of the missiles in the fall. An American U-2 spy plane obtained the first confirmed images of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba on October 14, 1962.
For the next week, the Kennedy Administration and the Joint Chiefs of Staff considered alternatives and prepared a response to the Soviet action. Kennedy was adamant the missiles would be removed, but balked at military action such as bombing the sites or invading Cuba. The Joint Chiefs favored an invasion, and the head of the United States Air Force, Curtis LeMay, agitated for an immediate attack. The American people were not informed of the crisis or the existence of hostile nuclear weapons only ninety miles from Florida until the evening of October 22. At that time President Kennedy announced his intention to quarantine the island, stopping all ships approaching Cuba on the high seas, in international waters, and ordering any carrying offensive weapons or the components for their support to turn around.
9. Following Kennedy’s speech the world prepared for nuclear war
China immediately announced its support for Cuba, and by doing so its support of the Soviet Union in the growing crisis. The Soviet Union called Kennedy’s naval quarantine “outright piracy”. In turn, Kennedy elevated the defense readiness of the United States’ armed forces worldwide. Preparations for airstrikes and a follow-up invasion of Cuba continued in the United States, though no longer covertly. French newspapers questioned the accuracy of the photographic evidence of the missiles presented by the CIA. In Rome, Pope John XXIII issued a statement imploring the world’s governments, “do all that is in their power to save peace.
A frightened world stood at the precipice of nuclear annihilation, with America’s top military advisors pushing the young President to take immediate action through bombing and invasion. On October 26 Castro addressed Khrushchev, urging a preemptive nuclear strike on the United States, to forestall an American invasion of Cuba. Khrushchev demurred, continuing secret backdoor negotiations with American diplomats and through couriers. Through the end of October nuclear war seemed imminent. In the end, a deal between Kennedy and Khrushchev brought the crisis to an end without a series of mushroom clouds over the United States, the Caribbean, Western and Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union.
10. The aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis included a lengthy arms race
The US nuclear arsenal contained a vastly larger collection of tactical and strategic weapons in 1962. The Soviets used the following years to catch up, triggering an arms race, a feature of the Cold War. In the United States, personal fallout shelters became popular consumer items. In 1961, a letter from President Kennedy advising the use of personal fallout shelters appeared in Life Magazine. The Cuban Missile Crisis sparked a boost in the sales of personal fallout shelters in the United States, which surpassed the sales rates of the preceding decade, when they first appeared. The idea of surviving nuclear war to emerge in a greatly changed society at first appealed to thousands.
By 1964, the idea of surviving nuclear war began to subside, as did the appeal of doing so to many. Post-apocalyptic novels, films, and television programs presented a society fraught with perils and suffering. More and more Americans came to believe that a nuclear war meant the end of life on earth, as other nations joined the list of nations stockpiling nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them to targets around the world. In 1960 France joined the nuclear weapons club, followed by Communist China in 1964. India detonated its first nuclear weapon in 1974; Pakistan in 1998, and it became widely believed Israel held nuclear weapons, though the exact date of procurement is unknown. By the mid-1970s, nuclear war was considered the greatest threat to humanity’s survival.
11. Jeanne Dixon predicted several different dates for Armageddon, including 2020
Jeanne Dixon claimed many accurate predictions of events during her lifetime, including the assassination of President Kennedy. In 1958 she claimed the winner of the 1960 presidential election would be a Democrat and that he would be assassinated in office. In 1960 she changed her mind and predicted Republican Richard Nixon would win the election. After Kennedy won and his subsequent assassination in 1963, Dixon claimed the events established her prescience beyond doubt. She also predicted the world would end in 2020, after a war involving nearly all the nations of the world destroyed human life on earth.
It was not her only predicted date of the end of the world. Those who fear such predictions can take heart in the fact that she predicted an earlier date, February 4, 1962, as the day the world was fated to end, a date supported by numerous astrologers and seers in India. It was widely believed in India, and among many of her believers in the west, said to be based on an unusual planetary alignment occurring on that date. It was inaccurate, as were other dates she named, so perhaps the supposed end of the world in 2020 will prove to be incorrect as well.
In the late 20th century the world became more and more reliant on computers for its daily operations. In particular, businesses relied on large mainframe computers to record information, control communications, and operating systems including the electrical power grid, water distribution, and banking. Up to the final decade of the 20th century, nearly all programmers saved memory space by abbreviating the date, recording the final two years and omitting the “19”. Computers recognized “99” as referring to 1999. As the turn of the century neared, the belief spread that the calendar turning to “00” would be unrecognizable to the computers which controlled so much of society’s infrastructure. Prognosticators spread the alarm, that January 1, 2000, would see the complete breakdown of society.
Another major concern arose over computers used to prepare and project budgets or debts such as mortgages. Projections into the 21st century were feared as potential causes for malfunctions. Still another concern arose over the fact that early programmers frequently used the entry “9999” as the indication of an end of the program. Thus, the fear arose that September 9, 1999, (entered as 9/9/99) would lead to widespread system failures. In reality, programmers recognized the problem as early as the 1960s, and work to address any potential failures was well underway, though the general public was for the most part unaware of them. Fearmongers and profiteers ensured the public was aware of the potential for disaster.
In the United States and in Western Europe, government programs were initiated to prevent the pending disaster of the Y2K problem. The United States enacted the Year 2000 Information and Readiness Disclosure Act, in essence, a law requiring companies and government entities to share information and progress over solving the problem. Similar legislation and actions occurred in Europe. The United Nations convened a conference on the problem in late 1998, and created the International Y2K Cooperation Center in Washington DC. In the United States alone almost $150 billion was invested by businesses and governments to ensure their systems were adapted to a new term in the English language – Y2K compliant.
News media dutifully reported on the efforts, and computer consultants and programmers, particularly those adept with COBOL, found their services in high demand. Though the problem was very real, threatening all sorts of infrastructure and institutional services, work to correct it was successful. As the feared date approached, nearly all necessary services and software systems were protected, having become Y2K compliant. Yet a large number of citizens around the world looked at the last tick of the clock on December 31, 1999, as the beginning of the end of the world. They were egged on by those who saw a potential for profit and self-advancement.
As the last half of 1999 began, talking heads on television, seers and prophets, fundamentalists, survivalists (later called preppers), and others spread the alarm that the end was nigh. There were rumors of nationwide failures of point of sale systems and inventory controls. Grocery stores would run out of food, and the first product of American hoarding in times of crisis, toilet paper. Guns and ammunition were sold briskly, as people prepared to protect what they had from predicted rampaging mobs. The widespread belief that the air traffic control system would immediately fail, causing havoc in the skies, adversely affected ticket sales.
Televangelists tied the millennium and the Y2K problem to the end of the world, as they exhorted their flocks to send money while they still could. Others took a less mercenary view, though they too announced the end of the world was nigh. People feared carnage on the streets and highways, believing traffic control systems would fail. Even as more and more critical entities reported their systems tested as Y2K compliant, panic among many spread. Some preppers claimed that prison and jail security systems would fail, releasing thousands of violent convicts to the streets, as police communication and control systems simultaneously went haywire. Others scheduled “end of the world” parties for New Year’s Eve, 1999.
On January 2, 2000, with the world still operating pretty much the same as always, United Press International ran an article discussing the reactions of survivalists. Many had created websites and online forums, urging their followers to sell their stocks, withdraw their money from banks, and purchase gold as a hedge against the breakdown of society. Often their sites linked to others selling survival food and gear, including shelters eerily similar to the fallout shelters of the 1950s and 1960s. As it became obvious that society had not and would not collapse due to the Y2K bug, some changed their position, while others focused on the relatively minor problems which had occurred.
One problem was an incorrectly coded webpage for the US Naval Observatory’s Atomic Clock. Though quickly corrected, the website briefly posted the date as January 1, 19100. Some doomers reported that the site indicated a widespread international conspiracy among governments which covered up the severity of problems being encountered around the globe. They reported the cover-up would soon collapse, taking civilization with it. Others changed their predictions of the end of the world, using the time-honored practice of simply changing the end of the world to a later date, when the “temporary fix” which resolved the Y2K issue failed triggering the foreseen collapse. Some predicted the problem would occur two decades later, when the calendar shifted to 2020.
The well-known story of Henny Penny, also known as Chicken Little, is based on oral folk tradition and is a fable with several different endings. One thing common to all versions is a chicken concerned with the end of the world, demonstrated by the repetition of the phrase, “the sky is falling”. In 1806, in Leeds, England, another chicken contributed to the local belief that the world was coming to an end, indicated by the return of Jesus Christ as foretold in the Bible. The chicken, a hen, laid eggs which had “Christ is coming” written on their shells as they emerged. The bird, which became known as the Prophet Hen of Leeds, was owned by a self-proclaimed fortune-teller and prophet named Mary Bateman.
Mrs. Bateman was a con artist, though she succeeded in convincing many in the Leeds area that the end times were upon them. Later investigation found that she had used acid to etch the phrase in the eggshell before re-inserting them in the hen’s oviduct just before witnesses arrived to observe the miraculous event. After seeing the hen lay the egg, the witnesses spread the word about Mrs. Bateman’s veracity. Throughout Leeds, citizens prepared for the world to end. After her fraud was revealed, Mrs. Bateman operated other scams and crimes, including a murder by poisoning, for which she was tried, convicted, and hanged in March, 1809. The world went on.
17. The televangelist who predicted the end of the world in 1982
In 1980, televangelist Pat Robertson addressed his followers with a startling prediction. Robertson frequently informed his viewers of conversations he had with God, and reported what God had told him during their discussions. In May, 1980, Robertson told his viewers on the program The 700 Club, that the end of the world was scheduled for autumn, 1982, specifying either October or November, though he later modified it to the end of the year. “I guarantee you by the end of 1982 there is going to be a judgment on the world”, he said. Robertson is not the only televangelist to predict the end of the world, and include a time and date.
Jack Van Impe, another televangelist and predictor of the end times, once informed his audience of believers that through the use of the Book of Revelation, he had calculated the amount of landmass which would be devastated by nuclear war. According to Van Impe, 18,963,194 square miles of the earth would be devastated as part of the end times. He also predicted the return of Jesus would occur between 2001 and 2012, though Christians had nothing to fear, as the date would begin the thousand-year reign before Armageddon. Believers in the televangelists and their messages view nearly all events as indications the end times are here, or in the very near future.
The summer of 1967 is often referred to as the Summer of Love. It was the year The Beatles released their masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Peace and love were watchwords, and Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco became an icon of the era. It was also the summer in which American cities exploded in riots across the country. Buffalo, Cairo, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Newark, and Portland all suffered through multi-day rioting. Two of the worst that long summer occurred in Detroit, and in Newark. In all, 159 riots occurred in the United States in 1967, leaving behind 83 dead, thousands of injuries, and property damage in the tens of millions.
Night after night, Americans turned to the nightly news on one of the three networks which existed at the time, hosted by experienced and trusted professional journalists. They saw American boys returning in body bags from the quagmire of Vietnam, the streets of their cities exploding in violence, and increasing numbers of American youth simply dropping out of society. American streets were patrolled by armed National Guardsmen. To quell the Detroit riots, the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions of the US Army deployed in the city’s streets. All of it was seen on television by increasingly disturbed Americans, as it became more and more apparent to some that the country was falling apart.
Although most people associate the protests against the Vietnam War with the mid-to-late 1960s, the first occurred in the United States in 1955. American merchant seamen protested the use of American ships to transport foreign troops and equipment to Vietnam. Public burning of draft cards began in the spring of 1964. By the end of that year, coordinated nationwide protests against the war took place. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson was hung in effigy during an anti-war protest at Berkeley. In 1967 Vietnam Veterans against the war formed to participate in protests. Some protests became violent, incited by both police and outside agitators.
Americans of earlier generations, the veterans of World War II and Korea, were largely dismayed by the protests. America became polarized about the war, with conservatives largely supporting it and liberals in opposition. Most liberals also supported the Civil Rights Movement, another divisive issue, in both North and South. Protests which occurred in the 1967 summer of riots, and the following year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, often turned into violent confrontations. In 1968 the world saw the police response to an anti-war protest at the Democratic National Convention disintegrate into what one journalist called a “police riot“. Later investigations placed the blame for the violence squarely on the Chicago Police. Television showed it all.
Following the death of Martin Luther King, most major American cities and several smaller ones exploded in urban violence. In Washington, Stokely Carmichael and other black leaders encouraged rioting and the destruction of white-owned businesses. During the ensuing rioting and looting in Washington, several black-owned businesses in the Northwest section of the city painted the words “soul brother” on the windows and doors in the hope the rioters would leave them undamaged. Whole blocks of the city burned to the ground. In some areas of the city, the devastation could still be seen at the dawn of the 21st century. The DC police, armed with tear gas and batons, were overwhelmed. On the second day of rioting, Friday, April 5, 1968, President Johnson ordered federal troops to contain the riots.
Troops from the 82nd Airborne Division stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, as well as additional troops from Fort Meade in Maryland, arrived in the city. In all, 11,850 federal troops and another 1,750 National Guardsmen established a presence in Washington. Machine gun nests appeared on the steps of the Capitol Building. The US Army’s Third Infantry Regiment surrounded the White House. Washington became an armed camp, supporting the largest occupation of an American city since the capture of Richmond, Virginia, in April, 1865. Television dutifully broadcast images of America’s capital city patrolled by heavily armed combat troops, viewed by frightened Americans.
Following the Second World War, American society changed dramatically with the emergence of the new middle class. The expansion of the suburbs, the emergence of the new medium of television, and the growing affluence of teenagers in the United States combined to create a new fear among American adults. Americans, particularly white Americans, began to experience a fear that the “American Way” faced serious threats from outside sources. The threats included racial tensions in the United States, the godlessness of communism pervading the entertainment industry, perceived as dominated by foreign influences, and a new form of music which grew in popularity in the 1950s. Popular among the young, rock and roll became a threat to American values.
Popular films depicted the degeneration of American youth, including Rebel Without a Cause, High School Confidential, and even the musical West Side Story. Black leather jackets, blue jeans, and switchblade knives became symbolic of teenage rebellion, as parents viewed with alarm the deterioration of society. Parents were supported in their belief by hearings in Congress, televised for the first time, by exhortations from pulpits, radios and televisions screens from “moralist” protectors of the status quo, and by groups of teenagers being depicted as “gangs” gathered to commit crimes of vandalism and worse. Throughout America, the belief that communist entities were behind the corruption of values existed, in varying degrees based on location and political views.
22. The moral panic over video games in the late 20th century
The first video games were simple affairs. Games appeared that were innocent, such as Pac-Man and similar amusements. As the 20th century drew to an end, improvements in technology led to more realistic graphics and storyboards in games, which led to role-playing. The player became a part of the game, assuming a character. Games became more violent in nature. The evolution coincided with a concern (which existed since the 1920s) over the nature of the lyrics, and even the rhythm, of popular music. Parental concerns that music, television, movies, and video games all lauded violence among American youths and were leading to increased crime and the subsequent dissolution of society increased, as did calls for legal action.
Often fueled by excessive and inaccurate media reports, urban legends emerged inexorably linking video games to violent behavior, with gamers inured to violence through constant repetition of acts of fantasy. To many, video games became symbol of the end of civilized society. Acts of violence in video games became a subject for discussion in the media, in political circles, and even argued before the Supreme Court of the United States. Video games became, in the eyes of the so-called Moral Majority and the extreme right, symbolic of the collapse of American moral values and society. Since then the games have become even more realistic in their presentation.
During the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel and the nations of Egypt and Syria, Arab oil-producing countries flexed their economic muscles through the embargo of oil sales to countries which provided aid to Israel. On October 16, 1973, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Qatar, Kuwait, and Abu Dhabi all slashed oil production while simultaneously raising prices. By the end of the year, oil prices in the United States skyrocketed. By early 1974 the price of oil in the United States quadrupled. Worse, as far as consumers were concerned, was the lack of gasoline and heating oil. Long lines of automobiles formed at gasoline stations, often to find no gas available.
President Richard Nixon asked for gasoline stations to stop selling gasoline on Saturdays and Sundays, and about 90% complied. The measure, intended to discourage recreational driving, brought an end to the American tradition of a Sunday drive, enjoyed by suburban families since the 1950s. Several states imposed rationing, with odd-even days, based on the last number of a customer’s license plate. Plates ending with odd numbers allowed the vehicle to be fueled only on odd-numbered days. The federal government imposed a national speed limit of 55 miles per hour, a law that remained in effect until 1995. Throughout 1974 shortages of gasoline and heating oil threatened all aspects of the economy and daily life in the United States and in many European countries as well.
In the United States, the year 1979 unfolded in rising despair. American international prestige suffered a blow when the Shah of Iran fled his country, and the former American ally of Iran devolved into a geopolitical enemy. American diplomats were seized by Iranian revolutionaries who took over the embassy in Tehran. An attempt to free them using a military operation turned into a catastrophe in the Iranian desert the following year. In July, the Skylab orbiting space laboratory fell back to Earth, generating fears of its impact causing catastrophic damage. President Jimmy Carter achieved a major diplomatic victory with the Camp David Accords between the United States, Israel, and Egypt, but in domestic affairs, he came to be regarded as inept and weak.
Throughout the year, oil shortages which followed the Iranian Revolution and which were exploited by OPEC again produced heating oil and gasoline and diesel fuel price increases. Interest rates on auto loans and mortgages negatively impacted the automobile industry and housing market. Interest rates on thirty-year mortgages climbed into the double digits. Inflation spiraled prices for consumer goods out of control. The following year the economy stalled, unemployment jumped, and prices and interest rates remained high, as the hostage crisis in Iran dragged on throughout the year. For many Americans, 1979 marked the beginning of the end of the American dream, and the conservative coalition between the right-wing conservatives and Christian fundamentalists emerged as a potent political force in the United States.
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