“The Teacher Would Suddenly Yell ‘Drop!’ ”

The duck-and-cover school exercises from the nuclear era are being invoked as a parallel to active shooter drills. Is that a useful comparison?

A child ducks under a desk in a still from the educational film Duck and Cover.
A child ducks under a desk in a still from the film Duck and Cover.
Archer Productions/Internet Archive

We’ve been living in the age of the active shooter drill for quite some time now. The Government Accountability Office reported back in April 2016 that of the 88 percent of K-12 schools in the United States that had emergency plans in place, 96 percent of those plans included protocols for defense against an active shooter. But after the Parkland, Florida, shooting, we’ve had what feels like an increased volume of commentary from parents airing their existential discomfort with the fact that their kids—sometimes as young as preschool age—have to prepare for such scenarios.

The thought of a group of 6-year-olds being instructed to throw books at a man armed with an AR-15 is exceedingly dark and has more than one writer invoking the duck-and-cover era of school civil defense as a parallel. How well does that parallel work? How did Americans come to accept the idea that their kids would practice hiding under their desks from a nuclear attack? And how did those kids feel about those drills? As it turns out, the experience turned some of them—kids and parents—into radicals.

Part of the reason critics advocating for gun control are talking about duck and cover now is that the history of those drills has been a cultural joke for decades. Historian Spencer Weart writes that the black-humor comedy-documentary The Atomic Café, “regularly screened in classrooms” since it came out in 1982, set the stage for an ironic and detached perception of 1950s civil defense. So one of the first things to understand about duck and cover is that it might have worked—sort of, for some students. “[The Atomic Café] taught many to see ‘duck and cover’ training as a strange aberration,” Weart writes. “In fact, the training was a rational deployment of Second World War sheltering techniques, appropriate to the dangers of an attack with the few atomic bombs that existed in the early 1950s.”

Historian Alex Wellerstein reminded me that in the duck-and-cover era, the Soviet Union “only had a handful of bombs, only the size of the Nagasaki bomb.” So, in the event of a war, “your big cities are probably toast,” but, with some education and planning, some portion of the rest of the population might have been able to recover. For students at their desks on the outskirts of cities, it might actually have been helpful to crouch under their desks to avoid getting shredded by shards of glass from classroom windows when a bomb’s blast wave struck.

What we now remember as the classic duck-and-cover years of school civil defense—the 1950s and early 1960s—fell in an acute period of Cold War nuclear anxiety, after the first Soviet atomic test in 1949. President Truman started the Federal Civil Defense Administration in January 1951. Congress refused to give the FCDA any funding to create a civil defense infrastructure (to build public shelters, for example—a project that would have been prohibitively expensive if the shelters were going to help every American citizen survive). Instead, the FCDA was supposed to help state and local governments with their own civil defense programs. And so the organization turned to the creation of educational materials that could be termed “propaganda” (depending who you ask!) in order to fulfill its mission.

Nuclear-age air-raid drills began in schools in some “target cities” (New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, and a few others) in the school year of 1950–51. In these first “cover” drills, which began without warning to the students, the teacher would suddenly yell “Drop!” and the students would kneel, “hands clasped behind necks and faces covered,” writes historian JoAnne Brown. Other piecemeal school-focused civil defense efforts came along with the drills. In 1951, the schools in some cities began to distribute student dog tags. New York City’s school budget allocated $87,000 for them in 1951.

The point of the dog tags was to help workers digging through rubble to identify children’s bodies—a stark and horrifying reality. Yet Brown points out that advocates of dog tags “spoke of the dog tag as a talisman—a sort of secularized St. Christopher’s medal—with the power to protect children.” Advertisements depicted students wearing dog tags proudly shaking hands with soldiers, and a company took out ads in educational journals to sell school districts on special neck chains they could buy for students to string their tags.

The FCDA saw schools as the perfect place to reach large masses of children and, through the children, their parents. As Brown argues, teachers and administrators welcomed the idea that schools might be important participants in the project of civil defense. Educators needed a bump in professional status, at a time when conservative critics had begun attacking public education as overly progressive, “soft,” and communistic. Sputnik’s flight in October 1957 is often remembered as the event that prompted the passage of the National Defense Education Act, which increased federal funding for K-12 schools so they could enhance national competitiveness during the Cold War. But Brown argues that educators had been laying the groundwork for this coup for years by advocating for their essential role in the national project of civil defense. Some of them may have been ambivalent (Brown quotes a few), but many felt happy for the opportunity to “partake of a political culture increasingly defined by ‘national security.’ ”

In 1951, with a small pot of funding from the FCDA, the New York advertising agency Archer Productions created the unsettlingly cute animated film that gives the duck-and-cover era its name. Interviewed recently by the blog CONELRAD, the vice president of Archer at the time of the film’s production, Leo M. Langlois, said that the government remit for the movie was vague. The ad agency was told the film should cover “civil defense for the schools and how the kids could protect themselves … What to do when you see the big flash … Eliminate any panic possibilities.” This account confirms an impression that Wellerstein, who’s working on a project to study the possibility of the revival of nuclear civil defense, shared with me—namely, that the FCDA had very little idea what it was doing when it put together its educational materials. “They did almost no testing on whether these things worked,” he told me. And so Duck and Cover, which would be seen by thousands of schoolchildren and later become one of the most telling artifacts of the nuclear age, seems to have come together with very little forethought.

Duck and Cover was filmed at P.S. 152 in Astoria, Queens, using teachers and students as actors. After the film came out, Archer tried to make Bert the Turtle, the animated animal “star” of the movie, into a household name; the company employed a public relations person, Milt Mohr, to make sure Bert and his movie got their due. “What makes this motion picture singular from previous treatment on the atomic subject is the fact that the film warns, but does not frighten … teaches, but does not alarm,” Mohr wrote in a February 1952 pressbook promoting the film.

“Warn, but don’t frighten” was the educational establishment’s official line on how the entire enterprise of school civil defense should be conducted. In appraising the worth of Duck and Cover, educators approved of its light tone, which seems so off to us today. On Jan. 24, 1952, educators in New York saw the film at a special screening. CONRELRAD reports that John C. Cocks of the board of education, interviewed after the screening, “noted the importance of the film’s ‘mental hygiene approach, its underlying qualities of cheerfulness and optimism.’ ”

Cocks’ positive review echoes the advice JoAnne Brown found in educational journals, in which writers directing advice to teachers argued that civil defense drills could help students avoid panic, if those drills were conducted by educators who had refused to get panicky. The adults in the situation must have complete emotional control. If that was the case, one educator wrote, “Action, and plans for action, make for the release of tension and a greater feeling of safety.” Brown writes that educators “eliminated fearsome vocabulary from their discussions of atomic warfare,” using words and phrases like “any emergency which may occur,” “disaster,” or “crisis” instead of “war, death, bombing, attack, battle, atomic warfare, atom bomb, and air raid.”

Although few spoke out against the schools’ civil defense efforts early on, some did. In 1950, Mary Jane Melish, described as a “minister’s wife” in a New York Times headline reporting on her protest, tried to organize against what was then called “atom bomb air raid drills” in the schools. Melish sent a “Dear Parent” letter to parent-teacher associations in the city that read, in part, “Were you shocked when your children came home and reported that they had A Bomb Air Raid Drills? Is your child one of those who is waking up in terror because of these drills?” “Women connected with mothers’ clubs and parent-teacher associations either ridiculed it or denounced it,” the Times reported, adding, reassuringly, “The Board of Education has warned teachers to avoid tension in connection with the drills. They are instructed to smile when they announce the drill, to treat it as a game and to provide songs, dances, and other entertainments for the children while actually in the shelters.”

There was a reason why critics of school civil defense tended to invoke damage to children’s psychology, rather than mounting an argument against the very politics of the Cold War. Even those critics who focused on children’s fears faced accusations that they might harbor communist sympathies. After the Levittown Educational Association in New York spoke out against the schools’ showings of Duck and Cover, Forrest Corson, a civil defense spokesman for Nassau County on Long Island, red-baited in response: “It is the Communist policy to deride Civil Defense whenever possible, to question and ridicule its necessity, and to ‘abhor’ the effect of ‘air raid drills’ on tender impressionable young minds.”

What did those “young minds” learn, over the years of being led through duck-and-cover drills by studiously cheerful teachers? And what did school civil defense teach their parents? We don’t have systematic studies on the subject; we do have plenty of telling anecdote and conjecture. Historian Dee Garrison has argued that protests against civil defense were central in the creation of the anti-nuclear movement and that civil defense in schools was particularly radicalizing. Garrison writes that some mothers of young children (like Mary Jane Melish) responded to school civil defense programs with horror and that, in the 1960s, some transmuted this horror into action. Garrison points out that in 1960 and 1961, women came with their children to anti–civil defense protests in New York City dressed in “heels, hose, hat, and earrings.” The protesters “refused to take cover during the federally mandated air raid drills, confident that the police would not arrest the well-groomed mother protestors along with their children and all their trikes, playpens, toy trucks, and dolls.”

Some of those children ended up participating in the social movements of the late 1960s through the early 1980s. A number of activists have pinpointed school civil defense efforts as their radicalizing moment. Garrison collects some examples: Joan Baez recalled that she refused to participate in a school air-raid drill in the mid-1950s and got on the front page of the local paper for doing so. Todd Gitlin remembered school bomb drills as a moment of existential fear: “Whether or not we believed that hiding under a school desk or in a hallway was going to protect us from the furies of an atomic blast, we could never quite take it for granted that the world we had been born into was destined to endure.” Robert K. Musil, an anti-nuclear activist, wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1982 that a childhood filled with media coverage of atomic tests and duck-and-cover drills left him numb and preoccupied. “I particularly recall the early atomic tests on television, that showed a model house erected by the Army crumbling and disintegrating in the blast,” he wrote (he’s probably talking about this).

As Alex Wellerstein wrote to me in an email: “The argument I would make is that hiding under your desks from the nuclear threat makes it real and ‘embodied’ in a way that pretty much no other approach can do. It’s not like being lectured or even looking at a pretty map with circles drawn on it. It’s you. It’s your body. It’s your threat.” For this reason, Wellerstein thinks we should practice some nuclear civil defense in 2018. Earthquake and fire drills keep those threats in our minds. Perhaps, if we were confronted with the possibility of nuclear war more often, we might be able to calibrate our current relationship with nuclear threats, which swings wildly between forgetfulness and terror.

Could the same principle of embodied understanding work to change our minds on gun control? James Hamblin writes in the Atlantic that we have only anecdotal evidence to evaluate the long-term psychological effects of active shooter drills in the post-Columbine era. Certainly, reports from parents boggling at the prospect of their kids participating in lockdown drills show that the drills don’t feel ordinary. Yes, you can find trolls on Twitter who disdain the fears of the snowflake children who can’t bear to do the very thing the baby boomers did with no apparent problem. (Somebody connect @FastEagle101 with Todd Gitlin, stat.) But even our president—with his acute ability to sense the direction of public opinion—recently called active shooter drills “a very negative thing.” Drills seem to create toxic PR. Will enough students who have to practice active shooter drills in their schools feel the threat, in the way that changes minds and provokes action? Will enough parents be horrified enough? We will have to wait and see.