History Lesson

Fallout Can Be Fun

How the Cold War civil-defense programs became farce.

Ducking to safety

Within days, if not moments, the Homeland Security Department’s duct-tape-and-sheeting advisory went from frightening to farcical. The government summons was met almost instantly with comparisons to those Cold War civil-defense programs that now strike us as relics of an hysterical age. “Duct and Cover,” the headlines gibed. Cartoons like this one appeared.

It takes a leap of historical imagination to conceive how the Cold War’s nuclear attack drills, dog tags for school kids, and backyard bomb shelters could ever have been taken seriously. But the story of their transformation from grave national concern to joke helps explain why the Bushies face an uphill battle in getting us to heed their orange terror alerts today.

The dropping of the atom bomb in 1945—and the Soviet Union’s attainment of nuclear capability in 1949—transformed the meaning of civil defense. During World War II, the government drafted citizens to make tangible contributions to the war effort: scrimping on scarce supplies such as meat and nylons; growing Victory Gardens; joining scrap metal drives. Although officials urged these gestures mainly to foster a feeling of patriotic engagement, their secondary purpose—materially aiding America’s military goals—was also legitimate.

During the Cold War, however, there was little for citizens to do. Preparedness became the watchword. (The forging of national spirit was again an unstated but undeniable aim.) In January 1951 President Truman created the Federal Civil Defense Administration, the Homeland Security Department of its day. A pedagogical propaganda agency, FCDA developed curricula for public schools and distributed brochures, films, and radio segments. Home-economics classes taught girls how to furnish bomb shelters. Advertising firms lent their experts to the mission, newspapers offered free placement of FCDA ads, and celebrities from Orson Welles to Ozzie and Harriet signed up to help pitch the cause.

Most famously, the FCDA popularized the cartoon figure Bert the Turtle, star of comic-book pamphlets and short classroom films such as Duck and Cover. The amiable Bert demonstrated to kids how, in the event of an attack, “you DUCK to avoid the things flying through the air …” (here the panel shows a frightened Bert, with a Richie Rich-like human sidekick, diving to the ground) “… and COVER to keep from getting cut or even badly burned.” (In the next panel, Bert withdraws his head into his shell while his friend throws on the hood of his jacket.) In the movie version, sing-songy music accompanied the instruction.

Even before the advent of the FCDA, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other major cities were undertaking biweekly or monthly atomic air raid drills. Teachers, at a random moment, would order their students to “Drop!” and the children would crouch and bury their faces. New York City also spent $159,000 on 2.5 million identification bracelets, or dog tags, for students to wear at all times—with the unspoken purpose being that they would help distinguish children who were lost or killed in a nuclear explosion. Other cities followed.

Then there was the bomb shelter craze—or crazes, since the epidemic of “bombshelteritis” that the New York Times reported in 1951 subsided after roughly eight months but returned during moments of heightened peril. Off and on until the early ‘60s, Americans built underground rooms that promised to protect them from a nuclear attack. Playing on traditional imagery of women as domestic caretakers, the FCDA pitched housewives advertisements for “Grandma’s Pantry,” a home shelter that women should stock with canned goods, first-aid kits, and flashlights. Commercial firms marketed a range of safehouses, that ranged from a “$13.50 foxhole shelter” to a $5,000 “deluxe” model that included a phone, beds, toilets, and even a Geiger counter. Life magazine even ran a story on a young newlywed couple who spent their honeymoon in a steel-and-concrete room 12 feet underground. “Fallout can be fun,” the article said.

It’s hard today to do anything but laugh at these Cold War inanities, but at the time Americans mostly reacted with enthusiasm or, rarely, with cautionary efforts to ratchet down the hysteria. A handful of educators, for example, questioned the schools’ approach to nuclear preparedness, suggesting that fear-struck grade-schoolers gazing out classroom windows for Soviet jets hardly constituted an ideal learning environment. Some proposed channeling efforts into the academic study of the USSR and other Communist countries, to little avail.

Into the early ‘60s, U.S. News & World Report and Life were still running cover stories with headlines such as “If Bombs Do Fall—What Happens to Your Investments,” and “How You Can Survive Fallout.” But after the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, the Cold War’s nadir, and the historic 1963 nuclear test-ban treaty between the United States and Russia, superpower relations finally began to thaw. The warming progressed, albeit fitfully, until the Soviet Union’s breakup.

Kennedy’s mastery of brinksmanship and his subsequent embrace of detente contributed to a thaw at home as well. The dire measures and everyday anxieties of the Truman and Eisenhower years quickly subsided in 1963. In 1959, 64 percent of Americans surveyed by Gallup listed nuclear war as the most dire problem facing the country; by 1965 the number dropped to 16 percent.

It wasn’t just Kennedy’s shift to a less hawkish foreign policy that finally retired the civil-defense nuttiness. Anti-nuclear groups, notably the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (known as SANE), raised public awareness of the dangers of nuclear testing, fallout, and the arms race. Less salubriously, the Vietnam War diverted attention from the distant theoretical possibility of a nuclear face-off between the superpowers to the all-too-concrete reality of old-fashioned on-the-ground warfare in a proxy battlefield.

Perhaps most important, subversive cultural currents helped undermine the Cold War consensus and exposed the absurdities of its civil-defense rituals. From Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 to the so-called “sick humor” of Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, critiques of Cold War orthodoxy found their most effective expression in satire.

Above all, Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic Dr. Strangelove laid bare the absurdity of the whole culture of nuclear gamesmanship—the coterie of influential intellectuals based at RAND and university labs; the use of game theory; the chillingly rational designs for nuclear “eventualities”—that had come to dominate government policy planning. With Kubrick, America learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. The film not only pointed up the absurdities of the nation’s nuclear policy but also showed that laughter constituted a saner reaction than panic. If being able to laugh at oneself is a sign of mental health, then Americans gained a healthy ironic distance from the excesses of the ‘50s. More effective than the earnest admonitions of disarmament celebrities Bertrand Russell and Benjamin Spock, Strangelove and its cultural kin showed Americans a response to nuclear danger that went beyond credulous fear.

Do like the turtle

In less than a generation, Duck and Cover and other civil-defense relics fell into the category of harmless, amusing nostalgia, like today’s retro ‘50s diners. The historian JoAnne Brown has recounted how during the height of Cold War hysteria, one Newton, Mass., kindergarten teacher put her pupils to work adorning the school’s bomb shelter with their artwork and turning it into a “reading den” so they wouldn’t be afraid to go there if and when the bombs came. By the time I was a Newton schoolchild in the ‘70s, we looked quizzically on the school’s yellow-and-black shelter signs, so unconnected to anything we learned in class that no teacher or parent ever bothered to explain what they meant.

Whether it betokens healthy perspective or dangerous “psychic numbing” (as Robert Jay Lifton has called it), our adjustment to the half-century old specter of nuclear Armageddon has to be considered when preparing Americans for a potential terrorist attack. In our post-Strangelove era, strident insistences that Americans must trust the government’s invocations of national security cut no ice.

It’s possible, even likely, that al-Qaida will attempt another assault. Properly bracing the public for such an attack means tending to unsexy, difficult policy details such as shoring up port security and devising a long-term nuclear nonproliferation strategy. Stoking hysteria with pulsing orange lights and talk of panic rooms will, in today’s jaded, ironical age, invite only mockery.