Josh Brooks — in addition to being the son of famous parents Mel Brooks and Ann Bancroft — is the author of World War Z, in which a viral pandemic turns victims into zombies, one of TIME Magazine’s Thirty Books to Read While Social Distancing. Research for this and his other books have turned him into an expert on big scale government emergency response. He recently spoke with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, our national public radio treasure, about how governments are equipped to respond to disasters.

Brad Pitt stars in World War Z, a film based on Josh Brooks’ novel

President Trump has expressed surprise, more or less pleading corporate ignorance about the cornovirus pandemic. No one knew this could happen, he said. Brooks offered this response.

“The notion that we were caught unaware by this pandemic is just an onion of layered lies … We have been preparing for this since the 1918 Influenza pandemic … We knew. We did not prepare.This is on us.”

The President also equated the federal government’s role with nationalization of industry. “We don’t want to be Venezuela,” he said.

“President Trump is spinning some sort of tale about the federal government coming in black helicopters and taking over factories. That’s not how it works at all,” Brooks said.

He explained what the President finally triggered late in the week. “The Defense Production Act allows the federal government to aggressively force the private sector to produce what we need …. to identify a supply chain and to help the private sector work it. If New York needs rubber gloves, New York cannot go out and build a rubber glove factory overnight. However, there might be a rubber glove factory in Ohio … but they might not have the latex, so the federal government can go to the condom factory in Missouri and say, ‘Listen, you have barrels of latex that we are requisitioning and giving to the glove factory in Ohio, and then we are transporting the finished rubber gloves to New York.

What the federal government was supposed to do is to put the word out, stockpile all the materials we need to keep this thing at bay, and then inform the citizens of what to expect.

We used to be very good at this during the Cold War. It was called Civil Defense. We had stockpiles of supplies for when we got nuked. After the Cold War, it was decided that we should buy what we needed when we needed, and the result is that the government sweeps the big box stores. And then we see panic buying among the public.

Josh Brooks made the point that countries that are threatened by their enemies have been better able to mobilize in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. South Korea’s quick and broad testing effort is a result of that country’s ongoing war status with North Korea.

I didn’t grow up in the United States, but my husband remembers being told to hide under the desks at school during Cold War drills. Even more dramatic in his memory is the Cuban missile crisis, when Americans scanned the skies like characters in a science fiction movie looking for aliens. The Soviets’ downing of an American spy plane Cold War and the capture of pilot Gary Powers caused great concern — what would the Russians do with our technology?

My father was with the American Embassy in Italy — and I was in grade school — during this period. Here’s an excerpt from my draft memoir about October, 1962.

And then, everything grew very tense at the Embassy. For thirteen days in October, the Cold War was on the brink of full-scale nuclear disaster, and Italy was in the cross-hairs. Fidel Castro’s request for Soviet military support had been responded in the affirmative. On October 16, President Kennedy was notified that a CIA U-2 spy plane verified that missile launch facilities were under construction. The clock started running.

Over the next six days, the President and his advisors met secretly to consider America’s options. Diplomacy? Perhaps the US could negotiate Khrushchev’s withdrawal, or apply pressure to against Castro force him away from the Soviets. Neither Khrushchev nor Castro seemed inclined to compromise. Military force? We could invade Cuba and overthrow Castro. We could use an air strike to attack the missile sites. Such actions could provoke Soviet military retaliation. Strategic prevention? A naval blockade would keep America in control while preventing missiles from arriving in Cuba.  

President Kennedy chose the naval blockade. Because it would take place in international waters, however, he needed the support of Latin America to carry it out. It was time to make the crisis public. In a live televised address to the nation on October 22, Kennedy said:

“Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on the imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other that to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.”

President John F. Kennedy

He concluded by announcing the naval blockade. The United States went on high alert. An attack on America became a real possibility for the first time since Pearl Harbor.The Organization of American States, which had kicked Cuba out earlier in the year, was unanimous in support. America’s relationship with Venezuelan President Betancourt, whose election in 1959 had ushered in democracy while we lived in Caracas, had proven its value. 

Italy had NATO missiles on its soil, as did Turkey, all aimed at the Soviets. The world held its breath as Kennedy and Khrushchev — and their representatives in the United Nations — exchanged heated words. On October 28, the crisis was resolved. Khrushchev removed the missiles in Cuba, and the United States removed NATO missiles in Italy and Turkey. The world breathed again. 

Here’s to us all breathing again.

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