To many Americans, the cold war is ancient history. Yet only a few decades ago the planet was dangerously divided between West and East, and the antagonism between the U.S. and the Soviet Union defined global politics. Flare-ups such as the Korean “police action,” which killed millions of people in the early 1950s, and the Cuban missile crisis, 10 years later, drew the American and Soviet governments and their proxies to the threshold of nuclear war.
At the same time, Americans lived in mortal fear of an enemy much closer to home. That enemy was polio—short for poliomyelitis, also known as infantile paralysis because of its prevalence among children and young adults. Scientists had known its cause—a virus spread via contact with fecal matter—since the 1930s, but its control eluded them. During sporadic epidemics authorities closed swimming pools, movie houses and other popular gathering spots, hoping to contain the disease, which attacked the central nervous system, often crippling and sometimes killing its victims. Newsreel footage of toddlers with twisted limbs and teenagers lying helplessly on their backs in coffinlike iron lungs frightened the public as few of the era’s images did.