Of Poetry and Plutonium: The Cold War in Bergen County

Authored by Jessica Santulli

This is a poem typed on a faded typewriter during the 1980s. The title is "A Prayer in Time of Need" by Marjorie Medary.
This poem, which reads like a prayer, was penned by Marjorie Medary, a patron of the Oakland Public library in Oakland, New Jersey. It is part of a collection of poetry that was on display at the library during the 1980s, reflecting the effects of the Cold War on New Jersey and the United States.

The Cold War is defined as a period of hostility and political tension between the Soviet Union and the United States of America from after World War II in 1945 through 1990, when the Berlin Wall fell (Halperin and Woods 1990). This era was certainly a trying time for world leaders, diplomats, politicians, and the military. But how did ordinary people in Bergen County, New Jersey handle the looming threat of Nuclear War?

In 1955, residents of Northern New Jersey were astonished to see a Nike missile erected by the Army right in their own backyard at Campgaw Mountain. Suddenly a picturesque mountain used for hiking, camping, and skiing was now under the command of the Army’s 483rd Anti-Aircraft Artillery Guided Missile Battalion. The base was comprised of two separate facilities: a Control Area at the top of the mountain in Franklin Lakes, and a Launcher Area, located one mile north on the west side of Campgaw Road in Mahwah (Bender 1999).

Some inhabitants of the area were in favor of this proactive anticommunist action of building a missile. However, others never thought that the Cold War would hit so close to home. Bordering the towns of Franklin Lakes and Mahwah sits the Borough of Oakland. The Oakland Public Library patrons responded to the growing nuclear tension around them through the act of artistic creation. Medary’s “A Prayer in Time of Need” is one example of Cold War poetry in the library’s collection of patron-created art.

Poetry written during the Cold War Era reflected this phenomenon of people coming together. Academics were interacting outside their designated social and political circles. People spoke to each other “who refused to know each other’s names a decade ago” (Torgersen 1982, 31). No longer was writing poetry limited to professors who trained their students to model the stylization of the previous generation. Students began experimenting with a new kind of imagery that often took a stance instead of adopting a reflective tone. At least, poetry was uniting the Caucasian population. African-American poets, such as Langston Hughes, likened the oppression of his race to an atom bomb in his 1951 collection Montage of a Dream Deferred (Williams 2011, 155). Ultimately, the poetry of the Cold War era elicited a human response in its readers. The poetry that audiences respond to is the poetry that will continue to inspire, no matter what stylistic techniques are used (Torgersen 1982, 34).

The changing attitudes of poets during the Cold War reflect the Vincentian Spirit of St. John’s University, which seeks to promote global harmony and compassionate concern for others (St. John’s University 2019). The missile sites in Franklin Lakes and Mahwah were finally closed in 1971, but the sixteen years of their presence helped the neighboring town of Oakland grow in community through art. With an uncertain future of the United States, Medary’s poem testifies that Oakland residents – like many others in the nation – turned to God and art for help in their time of need (Kirby 2017).

References

Bender, Donald E. 1999. “Cold War at Campgaw Mountain: Nike Missile Battery NY-93/94.” Bergen County Historical Society. http://bergencountyhistory.org/Pages/nikemissile.html

Halperin, Morton H., and Jeanne M. Woods. 1990. “Ending the Cold War at Home.” Foreign Policy, no. 81: 128-43. https://doi.org/10.2307/1148812.

Kirby, Dianne. 2017. “The Cold War and American Religion.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.013.398

Medary, Marjorie. n.d. “A Prayer in Time of Need.” Poem, Oakland Public Library.

St. John’s University. 2019. “Our Mission.” History & Facts.             https://www.stjohns.edu/about/history-and-facts/our-mission

Torgersen, Eric. 1982. “Cold War in Poetry: Notes of a Conscientious Objector.” The American Poetry Review 11, no. 4: 31-34. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27776982.

Williams, Paul. 2011. “White Rain and the Black Atlantic.” In Race, Ethnicity and Nuclear War: Representations of Nuclear Weapons and Post-Apocalyptic Worlds, 147-79. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt5vjdcf.9.

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