The Cold War
From the end of World War II through the mid1980s, the world endured a period commonly known as “The Cold War,” a standoff between nuclear superpowers which constantly threatened each other with mutual destruction. During this time, both the United States and the former Soviet Union built up huge arsenals of nuclear weapons aimed at each other. It was clear that if the weapons were ever unleashed, all life on Earth would end. Consequently, although there were many “brush fire” wars in remote corners of the globe, there was not a world war of the scope of either World War I or World War II. Nevertheless, there was a great deal of posturing and mutual fear. Many young people growing up during this time were convinced that their world would end in a nuclear firestorm.
The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 did nothing to allay fears. When the Americans discovered that the Soviets were installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, just ninety miles off the Florida coast, the world was thrown into near panic. For seven days President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev played a high-stakes game, each waiting for the other to blink, their fingers poised above the nuclear triggers that would send the world into oblivion. Only at the last possible moment did the Soviets recall their ships and begin dismantling the missile site. This close call convinced many that Doomsday was at hand.
Concurrently, the technology boom was in its infancy. During the time this story was written, the physical size of computers began shrinking as the capacity of computers increased. Further, the military began to rely on computers to help fly planes and control bombs. Indeed, computers controlled the American nuclear arsenal, a fact that created cultural anxiety as evidenced by the movies and best-sellers of the time. The greatest nightmare was that a computer gone amok would launch the world into World War III, a war no one would win. The 1962 bestseller Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, and the subsequent 1964 movie version, described just such a war, as did the 1964 Stanley Kubrick black comedy, Dr. Strangelove. Indeed, it appears that American fear of technology and nuclear war nearly equaled American fear of communism during the Cold War years.
The Vietnam War
At the height of the Cold War and American fear of communism, a series of events took place that led to American involvement in the Vietnam War. The French defeat in the 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam opened a vacuum of power in this southeast Asian country—a vacuum quickly filled by the communist nationalists led by Ho Chi Minh. American presidents from Eisenhower to Nixon found themselves enmeshed in the struggle to avoid a communist Vietnam. By 1967, the date of the publication of “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” American military involvement in Vietnam had mushroomed into a full-scale war. The war, however, was filled with ambiguity. In the early 1960s, American participation in the war was sold to the public on the basis of the “domino theory”—if Vietnam fell to the communists, then all of Southeast Asia would fall, followed by the rest of the world. By 1967, however, the American public was split in its opinion of the war. In the United States, protest marches and the burning of draft cards came to be regular occurrences as many citizens doubted the morality and cost of U.S. involvement.
The public unrest and upheaval, coupled with the high-tech military might unleashed on the Vietnamese and the evidence of Soviet and Chinese involvement with the North Vietnamese further contributed to the cultural anxiety noted above. Many Americans saw the war and the social crisis it precipitated as evidence that the United States was entering its last days.
The Space Race
Competition with the former Soviet Union took on yet another face during the 1960s. Early in the decade, President Kennedy vowed to put a man on the moon by the close of the decade in response to the 1957 Soviet launch of an unmanned satellite, Sputnik. Also in response to Sputnik, the U. S. government put American schools on notice that they must prepare students in math and science in order to meet the Soviet threat of dominance in outer space. The U. S. space program grew rapidly during the 1960s. While it was a program born out of fear of Soviet domination, the program still captured the hearts and minds of Americans. The race for the moon and beyond became an expression of American optimism, that it might be possible to spread the American way of life out into the galaxy. Moreover, by looking out into space, Americans could look away from Vietnam. When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface in 1969, for a few moments, the American people were united in their admiration for space and technology.
Not surprisingly, science fiction enjoyed a resurgence of popularity at this time. America’s fascination with the space race is evident in the number of books published by Ellison, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Ben Bova, and others during the 1960s. During this decade, Gene Rodenberry began the perennially popular television series, Star Trek, a series to which Ellison contributed a number of scripts. An essentially optimistic expression of American individualism, courage, and commitment to democracy, Star Trek and its later television incarnations, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek: Voyager, as well as a host of movies and sequels devoted to the legend, provided an ongoing cultural barometer of values and philosophy. The influence the 1960s series had on the American public was such that the first space shuttle launched was named “Enterprise,’ ‘ the name of the spacecraft in Star Trek.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Harlan Ellison, Published by Gale, 2002.