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ROOM OF TOMORROW"
Jon Timothy Kelly, Ph.D.
not cite without author’s written permission.
image of bomb shelters during the early years of the Cold War reminds us today
of the naivetè of those Americans who believed that with proper preparation,
protection from a nuclear war was possible.
Civil defense in the 1950s embodied this innocence as the Boy Scouts of
America passed out millions of pamphlets on how to survive a nuclear attack,
newsreels and periodicals exhorted Americans to spend a weekend building that
backyard fallout shelter, and Bert the Turtle told school children all across
the country how to duck and cover should they suddenly see a flash of light.
The postwar decade was the golden age of civil defense - or so it
appears. In reality, Americans
were largely passive to official efforts to promote civil defense as both a
means to protect the homefront from an attack and a civic duty to fight the
Cold War. Policymakers were well
aware that a civil defense program without civilians was no program at all,
and they tried to confront the public's apathy head on through a number of
promotions to encourage citizen involvement.
news of the second Russian atom bomb test reached the White House press corps
in the Fall of 1951 there was hardly the excitement that had accompanied the
momentous announcement two years earlier.
Reporters took a break from the televised baseball game they were
watching in the press room to file their reports, then went back to watching
the game. That the Russians
possessed bombs and might use them was an idea Americans had already become
accustomed to. Even the initial
fears of an atomic attack spurred by the outbreak of the Korean War had
largely subsided within the public by 1951.
The challenge the Federal Civil Defense Agency (FCDA) faced, then, was
not just implementing a civil defense program, but motivating the public to
initial reaction to the Truman Administration's civil defense initiative was
positive. A 1950-51
there was also growing concern among FCDA officials that the American public
may have been putting too much faith in the American military to defend the
homefront in case of attack. The
FCDA sought to "sell" the concept of civil defense to the public in
a way that would rouse both civilians and their legislative representatives
from apathetic states.
This advertising strategy consisted of focusing on "independent
self-contained" units, among which the FCDA targeted industry and the
home. By concentrating on these
units, it was hoped that the community which they comprised would come to
support a vigorous civil defense effort regardless of politics.
"Advertising on a planned basis can do this," read an Agency
memorandum. Rather than being
dependent on the whims of an editorial mind, advertising had the advantage of
planned consistency, the end result being that the public and their leaders
could be stirred into action.
Advertising agencies such as Johnson and Johnson and The Advertising
Council were recruited to help publicize the FCDA's message that the time to
prepare for nuclear war was now. Copywriters,
artists, and layout and production men had been used to great effect to
motivate Americans on the home front during World War II, and FCDA officials
hoped to recreate that motivation through a newly designed advertising
campaign to encourage Americans to help win the Cold War.
In search of a "gimmick," FCDA officials arranged to
publicize their message through motion pictures, television, radio, pamphlets,
comic books, and posters. One FCDA
panel even suggested using pinball machines to further awareness of the
importance of civil defense.
Leaders in industry and the media were briefed to familiarize them with
the government's objectives and to seek their help.
Officials from publications such as Vogue, Good Housekeeping,
Life, Time, Redbook and Parade Magazine were all
consulted, as well as executives from the ABC, CBS, and NBC networks.
Corporate sponsorships were sought with Tide, Lipton Tea, and Hearst
publications, while public personalities such as Arthur Godfrey and Edward
Murrow were enlisted to support the FCDA's efforts.
Theater operators and television producers were linked throughout the
country to host "closed circuit" civil defense training shows in
which viewers could address a television screen with questions and receive an
immediate and direct answer. These
films could then be rebroadcast on television stations and supplemented with
FCDA films such as "Survival Under Atomic Attack," "Duck and
Cover," and "Our Cities Must Fight."
early promotional event sponsored by the FCDA was the Alert America Convoy,
which traveled to over 60 principal target cities in 1951 and 1952 in order to
drive home the threat that Americans faced in the nuclear age.
Exhibits within the 10 truck convoy provided information on both the
peaceful uses of atomic energy and its horrors in war, and included a film
strip of an actual atomic explosion and a diorama of what one bomb could do to
a city. Hands-on displays
featuring push button machinery, radiological devices, and fire-fighting
equipment were also included to allow viewers a measure of participation.
Finally, everyone who passed through the convoy was asked in the
"pay-off" room to pledge to do something positive - such as
volunteering in the local civil defense organization or teaching members of
their family how to protect themselves. Local
media was saturated with advertisements announcing the coming and arrival of
the convoy, and usually a "Civil Defense Week" was declared by the
hosting city to heighten awareness.
advertising could not carry the full load of the FCDA's campaign on behalf of
civil defense. Though initially
excited in 1951 at the prospect of creating a nationwide ad campaign, both the
Advertising Council and Johnson and Johnson were discouraged a year later with
the public's lack of response to Congressional opposition to fully funding
FCDA requests. While they believed
that an ad campaign which urged concrete and simple protective measures could
yield positive results, they were also persuaded that a campaign in which the
sole objective was the changing of public assumptions would fail.
These advertising agencies simply found it untimely and inappropriate
"to ask the public to become actively serious or advertising to give its
time and space when the Government itself appears to indicate a lack of
Civil defense proponents needed a more coherent strategy to achieve
their goals of a citizenry ready to participate in its own protection.
related endeavor of civil defense authorities was to integrate their ideas
into American culture itself by enlisting as their storm-troopers cultural
professionals throughout society. To
achieve this, the FCDA offered short courses in civil defense preparation
during the 1950s to thousands of clergy, educators, doctors, nurses, police
and fire-fighters at its
crucial element of this cultural strategy was to bring in religious
institutions as an advocate for the FCDA's civil defense plans.
"Certainly no greater single force than religion exists to sustain
that intangible portion of man - his spirit - with the courage necessary for
survival in these trying times," FCDA Director Millard Caldwell told a
conference of religious leaders in 1951. Clergy
would be indispensable at a time of attack to tell survivors that there was no
price too high to pay to keep fighting for
strategy of the FCDA's cultural campaign was to use the family as the focal
point of an effective civil defense program.
There were practical reasons for placing so much emphasis on the family
in civil defense planning since by law, the FCDA was limited in what it could
do. The Federal Civil Defense Act
of 1950 specified that the FCDA's role was one of "organizing" the
nation for the protection of life and property, and it specifically cautioned
the Agency from attempting to protect life and property itself.
Moreover, in any crisis situation, aid from state and local authorities
would be slow in coming. Thus the
family unit would have to be self-reliant in the immediate aftermath of any
was also, however, a practical angle to the promotion of civil defense as an
embodiment of values such as self-reliance, personal responsibility, and
volunteerism that the American family was believed to represent.
By infusing civil defense with what President Dwight Eisenhower
observed was the "moral structure" of the family and the
"spiritual strength" of American home life, a civil defense program
could be sold on the basis that it strengthened the moral foundations of the
Civil defense could be represented in the form of the family.
war was not a pretty subject, but civil defense officials encouraged parents
to be open and honest with their children about the bomb, and to devise tasks
for them should an attack occur. One
child could be put in charge of gathering blankets and games, while another's
duties could be keeping the radio and flashlight in working order.
Public schools were enlisted by teaching children how to "duck and
cover" should they see a flash of light.
The New York City Board of Education instructed teachers to avoid
frightening children during air raid drills by smiling when announcing the
drill. The exercise should be
treated as a game, accompanied with songs, dances and other entertainment for
the children during their time in the shelters.
"Schools are a prime channel of communication between the local
disaster program and the homes of the community," wrote the Safety
Journal in 1959 as it encouraged schools to devise a disaster preparedness
curriculum for the atomic age.
"People need to be sold on civil
defense, and many people have children in school.
Whether the children bring the disaster protection message home
verbally or as take-home material, the schools are an effective agent for its
children were central in civil defense thinking, the primary targets of this
cultural campaign were women. In
July 1950, officials at the National Security Resources Board felt it wise to
consider the potential role of women in civil defense operations and
encouraged the appointment of a consultant or assistant that represented the
women of the nation.
The 11 million member General Federation of Women's Clubs lobbied that
such a position be created, and offered any assistance it could to help set a
program in place that would involve its members.
Likewise, the New York City Federation of Women's Clubs and the
National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs urged that the
government take a leading role in devising a strong homefront security which
included the full participation of women.
One FCDA consultant in January 1951 encouraged the Agency to draw on
women's clubs in states where there was a problem with apathy.
were seen as a natural constituency by civil defense advocates because it was
thought that they embodied the traditional role of the homemaker.
Historian Elaine Tyler May has argued that a "major goal of these
civil defense strategies was to infuse the traditional role of women with new
meaning and importance, which would help fortify the home as a place of
security amid the cold war."
Thus the task of these homemakers was to learn the proper methods to
achieve home security in the nuclear age.
wives and as mothers, wrote correspondent Jeannie Willis in American Home,
women needed to take the initiative in learning about the effects of atomic
weapons and the measures needed to protect themselves and their families.
Using examples that she felt her readers could relate to, Willis
equated women's confusion about civil defense to "sort of like not
reading the instructions on labels, then complaining when the product doesn't
work." In regards to the
seeming contradiction between the FCDA's simultaneous promotion of shelters
and evacuation, Willis explained that both were integral parts of overall
planning. "You don't have
just one dress; you have different dresses for different occasions.
And so it is with these plans."
Women could also be the key to
Women were particularly encouraged to take on leadership responsibilities because, as Eisenhower argued, any man "married as long as I have doesn't underrate the persuasive powers of a lady." Jean Wood Fuller was a good example of persuasiveness. As director of women's activities for the FCDA, she wrote newsletters, spoke at women's clubs, and was proud to say that she participated in one nuclear test by crouching in a trench 3,500 yards away from the blast. "We suffered no ill effects from the blast," she told her readers, "because we had been thoroughly prepared with information on what to do and how to do it." Katherine Howard, Assistant Administrator for Educational Services in the FCDA, also took an active role in encouraging women to participate. She toured the country with two unbroken dishes and a cookbook she retrieved out of a home at a nuclear blast in order to illustrate that proper precautions could save a family. Howard spoke to woman's groups, and service clubs and appeared on radio and television, making an appearance on the popular Arthur Godfrey show.
The Problem of Secrecy
made such efforts to sell survival through public relations campaigns and
domesticate it through families and women, civil defense officials in the
mid-1950s were discouraged by the lack of interest on the part of most
Americans. They were particularly
disturbed by polls such as one of 1953 that found 72% of Americans believed
Russian planes incapable of penetrating American defenses, despite the
abundance of information to the contrary.
People needed to know more about the threat they faced, contended
former Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Chairman David Lilienthal.
Unless they were told what
course, secrecy concerning the American nuclear program was hardly unique to
the Eisenhower Administration. President
Harry Truman had strongly supported a policy of secrecy, insisting on it at
every opportunity with regard to the changing size and shape of the American
nuclear stockpile. Later
Eisenhower followed Truman's example, telling a press conference in October of
1953, "We do not intend to disclose the details of our strength in atomic
weapons...but it is large and increasing steadily."
Moreover, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles felt it prudent to
remain silent about the results of the BRAVO tests of thermonuclear weapons,
the Administration was forced to be more forthcoming about the danger of
fallout when Lapp published two articles in the Bulletin of the Atomic
Scientists detailing the dangers of nuclear fallout and the new challenge
it posed for civil defense planners. The
first one in November 1954 speculated that the BRAVO test's radioactive cloud
extended 4,000 square miles, and a second article in February 1955 revised the
estimate to 10,000 square miles - an area the size of
misinformation continued to be published by the AEC's press office, breeding
distrust in the public, the Congress, and particularly the scientific
community. When Senator Estes
Kefauver held hearings in 1955 following the release of the AEC's report on
radioactive fallout from the BRAVO tests, several scientists came before his
Armed Services Committee to complain that the Commission ignored potentially
deadly implications should a hydrogen bomb be detonated near a body of salt
water. "A bomb burst close to
sea water would produce vast quantities of radiosodium and radiochlorine,"
Lapp explained. "For example,
a bomb burst in the
FCDA had long supported a more open policy about the effects of nuclear
weapons, and, in an effort to shock the public into taking these weapons
seriously, it staged a test in conjunction with the military at the Yucca
intent of the FCDA was to alter the widespread conviction that no reasonable
precautions could save one from atomic attack.
However, a contradictory message was also generated since the army
moved its troops closer to Ground Zero than ever before - only two miles -
trying to show that atomic weapons were not as terrorizing as many had
portrayed. Indeed, Lt. General
John Hodge, Army Field Forces Chief, told reporters that foot soldiers with
proper precautions need not fear the bomb more than any other weapon.
Moreover, the FCDA's later discussion of the test in a publication
entitled Operation Doorway was, Time reported, less than frank.
The agency's conclusion was that dummies placed in wooden shelters
survived in good condition. What
the booklet did not make clear was that the houses were covered in a cloud of
radiation after the explosion which would certainly have killed anyone in the
basement shelter. Nor did it
explain that the test itself was unrealistic, having used a weapon only a
tenth of the size of other atomic weapons in the
a second attempt, the FCDA staged a much more elaborate test in 1955 to
analyze the effects of an atomic weapon on a typical American home.
The CBS and NBC television networks worked with the FCDA to give the
test the maximum amount of publicity, sharing the $200,000 cost to produce a 7
day series of episodes at the Yucca Flats site.
Special editions of "Youth Wants to Know" and
"Adventure" were filmed at the Flats, and "Today,"
"Home," and "The Morning Show" made regular visits to
acquaint their viewers with "
test did produce results that the FCDA could use to tout in its civil defense
mantra, however. Under the impact
of a 50 kiloton weapon (twice the combined size of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki
bombs), both brick and wooden homes 4,700 feet away from Ground Zero were
destroyed, but homes built to California earthquake specifications stood up
well. The AEC reported that of the
ten houses included in the test, "the condition of seven was such that
they could be made habitable for emergency occupancy by shoring and
repairs." Dogs that were
housed in shelters within the ruined buildings survived, and white mice
sheltered closer to the blast were also unharmed.
But the insides of the standing homes showed clearly the type of
horrors that human beings would face should they be caught above ground during
an attack. Venetian blinds had
been tossed around like bundles of spears, and furniture had been hurled
across rooms. In one home, a
refrigerator had exploded from the change in air pressure, while in another a
doorknob had been ripped from its door and thrown half through a wall.
A mannequin still sat at a kitchen table in one house, but her wig had
been stripped off and flung into the remains of the refrigerator.
In another, a dummy was skewered with jagged glass.
Despite criticisms that the device exploded was small compared to the
H-bomb, the FCDA considered the test and the information it gathered a
the public was apparently unmoved. Could
it be that despite its efforts to educate Americans, the FCDA was providing
information that was simply too mind numbing?
Americans read in magazine and newspaper stories about what would
in March 1955 a radioactive cloud from a new AEC Nevada test drifted across
defense was an opportunity for Americans to do their part in the Cold War
fight against communism by actively volunteering.
Yet if Operation Skywatch is any indication, public response was mixed
at best. In 1952, the Air Force
sought 500,000 volunteers to fill 19,400 observation posts around the country
to spot low flying planes that radar could not pick up.
"This vital flaw in the nation's defense," said Brig. Gen.
George F. Smith of the Eastern Air Defense Force, "can only be corrected
by the people themselves." Perhaps
the first warning of a Russian attack would come from a Protestant missionary
among the Eskimos of Alaska, or a high school kid in
civil defense program constructed on the principle of self-help could only be
effective if a majority of the population participated.
Yet despite periodic upswings of public interest when international
tensions increased, indifference throughout the 1950s was notable.
In fact, opinion polls suggested that the public felt less and less
there was a likelihood of war, from 53% in 1952, to 47% in 1954, and 38% in
Other surveys indicated that while civil defense remained a popular
program, most people essentially believed that it was a task to be performed
by the government - not the individual.
local civil defense director in Rochester, New York, attributed public apathy
to the fact that after countless hours of preparation for an enemy attack
during World War II that never materialized, many Americans in the 1950s
reasoned, "Once a sucker - never again."
Others were reluctant to put themselves up to ridicule by friends and
family. A "peculiar
difficulty" that civil defense volunteers had to overcome, Eisenhower
admitted to a woman's conference in 1954, was that "Americans have a very
great fear of being thought a little 'Boy Scoutie,' or maybe I should say
'Girl Scoutie;' that is being a little too naive, too childlike in their
There were, of course, those who took the government at its word.
When in 1960 the members of Full Gospel, Inc. of
the perception of eccentricity was a constant battle for civil defense
proponents since the popular press was filled with humorous stories of
Americans doing more than their part to "stand up" to nuclear war.
In 1951, Leo Pauwels of
ranged in price and quality. Mr.
and Mrs. Harry E. Thomason and their five children built a fallout shelter
under the porch. At $350, it was
pretty Spartan. For the
"ultimate" shelter experience, few could beat
such as these did little to create a positive image of civil defense, and
advocates were aware of the need to get respected community leaders involved
to set an example for others. "To
be frank about it," said one FCDA official, "civil defense needs
this element of 'respectability.' It
needs to be accepted as something which everybody with a reputation for
prudence and common sense works into his pattern of daily living, just as he
buys life insurance and teaches his children traffic safety."
The Chicago Daily News speculated that many people were
reluctant to talk about building a shelter for fear of "being thought
crackpots." Writing in Life,
William Bascom of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that "a
social atmosphere must be created in which a person can provide a shelter for
his family without being regarded as an idiot or an alarmist by his
official Leo Hoegh recommended a public information program that would portray
a person building a shelter for himself as a patriotic citizen rather than an
the lack of public attention was no doubt frustrating, civil defense planners
hoped that Americans could be motivated with a continuing process of education
to overcome their fears and their apathy.
What worried these planners was that there might be something more than
apathy at work in the public's mind: namely,
concern is best witnessed in the Eisenhower Administration's reaction to the
1959 release of the movie On the Beach.
Following closely the 1957 novel of the same name by Nevile Shute, the
film takes place in 1964 following a nuclear war in which all the earth's
inhabitants, save those in
aggravated and worried the Administration and civil defense proponents
because, thy argued, of its inaccuracies in dealing with the hazards of
radiation. Never in the film is
there any discussion of the types of preventive measures that could be taken
to protect individuals from fallout. Nor
is evidence offered to support the theory that a nuclear war in the northern
hemisphere based on hydrogen bombs would so poison the atmosphere as to kill
all life on the planet. One
for the public's reaction, New York Times media critic Bosley Crowther
noted that the film had an impact on its viewers who left the theaters sober
and contemplative. "For a few
hours, in 1960, one is vicariously taken to the edge of doom, then
reprieved." Crowther wondered
why any guardian of the public would quarrel with such a reaction on an
incredibly important subject? The
film, as well as the discussion surrounding it, he thought, could well fuel
the public's desire to take more initiative in civil defense.
Indeed, a 1960 Gallup Poll conducted on the eve of Premier Nikita
Khrushchev's announcement that the
The Case Against Civil Defense
its inception in the post-war years, civil defense had always garnered at
least limited opposition. The
Scientists' Movement of the late 1940s, for example, spoke extensively against
passive defense measures such as dispersal or shelters, arguing that the only
true defense against atomic weapons was a political one.
Within the halls of Congress, the Civil Defense Act of 1950 passed the
House by a 247 to 1 margin, but the measure was not enthusiastically
supported. Representative Dewey
Short (R-MO) of the House Armed Services Committee explained, "I do not
like castor oil but sometimes I am forced to take it," and he warned that
Congress must guard against "vicious boondoggling and waste" in
civil defense. When the FCDA first
debuted in 1951 with its shelter proposal, Congressional opponents such as
Representative Charles H. Elston (D-OH) argued that Americans would never have
enough time to get in them unless a city was "completely covered with
And Representative Clarence Cannon (D-MO), Chairman of the Armed
Services Committee, went so far as to say that no civil defense program, no
matter how elaborate, could respond to the catastrophe that
the general public, the historian is hard pressed to find criticism of civil
defense before the mid-1950s. In
fact, public opinion surveys, such as those conducted by the
another example, the FBI was called in to investigate a wave of anonymous
letters received by several hundred volunteer workers through the spring of
1951 in the cities of
civil defense grew more established, so too did criticism of the program.
In noting a 1951 air raid drill in
1955, one could discern a nascent opposition emerging within the public,
organizing around three general arguments:
first, that civil defense was a cruel deception of those it was
intended to protect; second, that, regardless of its effectiveness, the result
would militarize our society; and finally, that it psychologically conditioned
Americans to go to war. This was
not a unified movement, however, but a somewhat related miscellany of
reactions on the part of pacifists, religious leaders, politicians, educators,
and other professionals. Nor was
civil defense always the principle target.
Groups such as the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE)
and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (a religious pacifist organization for
radical Protestants), were more often focused on the larger picture of the
nuclear arms race. But civil
defense was perceived as an important link within the military structure that
they opposed. A.J. Muste of the
Catholic Workers of New York explained the situation:
"Civil defense, after all, is an integral part of the total preparation for nuclear war. We, on the other hand, are convinced that the only way to a secure defense is for people to refuse to participate in any way in the preparation for war."
defense personalized the dangers of war in a way that a lecture or pamphlet on
the arms race could not. Turning
on its head the government's argument that citizens could make a difference in
the Cold War by participating in civil defense, opponents argued that
Americans could make a difference by not participating.
the forefront of opposition against civil defense efforts were the Fellowship
of Reconciliation and the Catholic Workers, who, with the assistance of the
War Resisters League and other activists, carried demonstrations against the
Operation Alert Air Raid exercises which the Eisenhower Administration held
was an effective way for opponents to get the message across that civil
defense was inappropriate. In one
spoof, the New Republic put forward a special disaster plan,
"under government subsidy," to designate metropolitan taverns, bars,
and cocktail lounges as Disaster Comfort Stations where recipients could
consume as much special disaster reserves of bourbon whiskey as they had time
for. "Tipsification, leading
to euphoria, then complacency, and finally stupefaction are the avowed objects
of the Plan." When the bombs
fell, "No one, as they say, would know what hit him."
In an editorial criticizing the 1960 Operation Alert exercise, the Nation
expressed feigned awe that among the 3,935,490 hypothetical deaths in
critics of civil defense, such as New Jersey Democratic Governor Robert B.
Meyner, were more blunt in their assessments of the situation.
Civil defense, asserted Meyner in speeches and publications, by trying
to convince everyone that their salvation lay in underground shelters, was a
"cruel deception on the American people."
If an enemy was intent on destroying a city and its inhabitants,
shelters would not be a difficult obstacle to overcome.
Indeed, those who did survive in the shelters would re-emerge into a
world of desolation which promised their inevitable deaths.
"What would they use for air?
What would they use for food? What
would they use for hospitals...streets...people?"
There is but one defense against nuclear war, Meyner argued, "and
that is peace."
critics charged that regardless of the effectiveness of civil defense, America
ran the risk of turning itself into a garrison state should it follow through
on trying to seek absolute security. This
argument was put forward as early as 1946 when the executive director of the
Federation of American Scientists W.A. Higinbotham wrote in the New York
Times that defense measures such as dispersal or shelters "would
bring economic and personal regimentation approaching that of Nazi
supporters of civil defense were sensitive to the charges of regimentation.
Paul Larsen of the Office of Civilian Mobilization in the NSRB told
Congress in 1950 that "total" defense was impossible.
As for forced dispersal, "The social and political costs of such
decentralization might put an end to democracy as we know it.
To accomplish such a program of compulsory dispersion we would have to
be willing to become a garrison state."
Eisenhower, too, was aware of the dangers that civil defense entailed,
confessing to a group of mayors in 1953 that there was a limit to the
discipline that could be imposed upon civilians to prepare them for nuclear
attack. He suggested that, while
Americans must always retain a respectable posture of defense, everyone had to
use their best judgment as to how that defense would be maintained.
"We can't be an armed camp. We
are not going to transfer [sic] ourselves into militarists.
We are not going to be in uniform, going around yelling 'heil'
anything. We are simply going to
do our job, but do it intelligently."
other words, Americans had to be persuaded to do what was necessary to avoid
having to walk constantly in the shadow of fear.
it was precisely that fear of nuclear war that opponents of civil defense in
the 1950s, like the earlier Scientists' Movement, wanted to encourage.
What else would prevent Armageddon if not the fear of annihilation?
Activists charged that civil defense was psychologically preparing
Americans for war rather than peace. "If
war comes, if the bombs fall,"
argued Carl Soule of the Methodist sponsored Division of Peace and World
Order, "become when the war
comes, when the bombs fall."
The Executive Council of the Friends Committee on National Legislation
concurred, arguing that civil defense increased the chances of war by creating
the sort of climate that would produce it.
Stanley Meisler, writing in the Nation, contended that Americans
must not drive from their minds the unspeakable horrors of war - the
"writhing bodies and screaming flesh" - for then war becomes
thinkable. "In the nuclear
age, war must be unthinkable."
1960, opponents of civil defense had become more confident in their activism.
The annual protests against Operation Alert in
the protest movement of the 1950s make any difference?
Probably not, because its activism never reached beyond a small segment
of an overall population that continued to give wide support to civil defense
in public opinion polls. That
support, however, was contingent upon someone else making the effort.
Thus the greatest obstacle civil defense planners faced was not overt
opposition, but public apathy. Without
a crisis to motivate participants, a civil defense system dependent on
volunteerism was doomed to failure from its inception.
opposition to civil defense in the 1950s did serve a purpose - and would
continue to do so as it became more powerful in the early 1960s (and later in
the 1980s) - by providing an array of arguments against a program that went
largely unchallenged (if also ignored) by the public.
The possibility of nuclear war was
a danger that Americans needed to recognize - either by taking measures to
protect themselves against it through civil defense, or by trying to prevent
it by actively working for peace. By
arguing against the former, critics were establishing guideposts for thinking
about the latter. Doing nothing,
millions of Americans took the risk that nuclear bombs would not fall on their
homes - a risk that in the end paid off but had no guarantee of that outcome.
the American Institute of Decorators took up the task of making fallout
shelters less cold and frightening, it unveiled at a
the public's apathy was the most frustrating task for proponents of civil
defense. Of course, many
criticized the FCDA and its predecessor, the Office of Civil and Defense
Mobilization, for poor leadership in informing and motivating Americans; but
the public itself came in for much blame for its lack of interest.
In one 1959 editorial, Life Magazine ridiculed the public's
fatalism when it asked, "Since
when has survival been too dreadful to think about?"
The publication literally demanded that the public face up to the
reality of nuclear war. "We
won't all be dead, that's sure."
civil defense required a rather large leap of faith, particularly for urban
dwellers. Just how great was
indicated by one reporter from the New Yorker who disclosed that whenever
an air raid drill was conducted in his downtown Manhattan tower, he and his
workmates would descend from their nineteenth floor office to the corridors of
the tenth floor where they huddled with other baffled laymen.
Evidently, he conceded, someone had "figured out" that the
tenth floor was proof against explosions. "Everything
above this floor might be vaporized and everything below it smashed to
rubble," he wrote in 1960, "but the floor itself, and all its grateful
occupants, would waft gently down into the crater.
We find this a wonderful calculation.
We only wish we had more faith in it."
of what Americans did or did not do to protect themselves, advocates of civil
defense were well aware that the public would expect their elected
representatives to take prompt and effective action should an emergency arise.
They also knew that public attitudes were changeable, depending on civil
defense policy, scientific knowledge, and particularly the state of
international relations. For this
reason they would continue to call for strong leadership to educate the public
about the possibility of survival from nuclear attack; to prepare for today
rather than wait for the crisis of tomorrow.
In 1961, proponents finally found that leadership in President John F.
Kennedy who faced a series of international crises that raised public fears of
nuclear war to new heights. What
resulted was the most extensive civil defense effort yet of the Cold War era.
"False (?) Alarm," Haper's Magazine, November 1957,
"What Stalin's A-Bomb Means to the West and Its Defense," Newsweek,
15 October 1951, p. 24.
"A Preliminary Report on Public Attitudes Toward Civil
Defense," 1950-1951, HSTL, President's Secretary Files, Box 144,
Agencies - FCDA.
Letter from R.T. Scheffer, Acting Director Emergency Welfare Services
to the American Dietetic Association, 24 January 1951, NAII, Entry 31B, Box
16, Records Relating to Civil Defense, 1949-1953.
Memorandum to Robert A. Lovett from Millard Caldwell, undated, HSTL,
President's Secretary Files, Box 144, Agencies-FCDA.
Letter from The Advertising Council to Charles W. Jackson, 14 August
1951, HSTL, Quick Files, Box 5, CD Campaign Correspondence.
"An FCDA Mass Consumer Advertising Campaign," undated, HSTL,
Quick Files, Box 5, CD Campaign - Correspondence, 1952-1953.
Memorandum to John A. DeChant from Edward Lyman, 29 May 1951, HSTL,
Quick Files, Box 1, Civil Defense Program; Letter to Willard Pleuthner from
Edward Lyman, 4 June 1951, HSTL, Box 1, Civil Defense Program.
"Basic Problems for C.D. Information and Training," Panel
on Public Information and Training, 4 January 1952, HSTL, Psychological
Strategy Board Files, Box 34, 384.5, Project East River.
Memorandum to Charles Jackson from Spencer Quick, 15 April 1952, HSTL,
Spencer Quick Files, Box 5, Civil Defense Campaign Correspondence;
"The Federal Civil Defense Audio-Visual Program," undated,
HSTL, Spencer Quick Files, Box 5, "Civil Defense Campaign
Letter from Millard Caldwell to Matthew Connelly, 11 December 1951,
HSTL, Official File, Box 1743, Folder 2965, 1945-51.
For views on this by the ad agencies themselves, see the following:
Letter from Henry Wehde, Jr. to Spencer Quick, 31 July 1952, HSTL,
Spencer Quick Files, Box 5, CD Campaign Industrial; Letter from E.G. Gerbic
to Charles Jackson, undated, HSTL, Spencer Quick Files, Box 1, Civil Defense
Program. John A. DeChant,
Director of Public Affairs for the FCDA expressed the same thought as early
as 1951 in a letter to Edward Lyman, 29 May 1951, HSTL, Spencer Quick Files,
Box 1, Civil Defense Program.
"Clergy Urged to Take Part in Civil Defense Program," The
Civil Defense Alert, HSTL, Quick Files, Box 1, CD Program.
Because more than 60% of the American population belonged to a church
in the 1950s, FCDA officials argued, the church consistently touched more
people more intimately than any other agency in American society.
"The Church and Civil Defense," FCDA, HSTL, Papers of
Sidney Yates, Research Material, Box 75, CD#1; "Consider the Church in
Civil Defense," DDEL, Virgil Couch Papers, 1951-1980, Box 2, Church in
Civil Defense, 1956.
1956, Christian Century reported, the number of religious advisory
committees had fallen to no more than 10 state and 100 local committees.
There were perils to the FCDA in enlisting clergy.
While officials professed civil defense symbolized a commitment to
peace, many clergy felt exactly the opposite was true.
When in June 1956 the FCDA sponsored a series of courses in civil
defense preparation for several hundred clergy from around the country,
organizers realized the difficulties they faced in enlisting the churches.
The first course got off to a bad start when clergymen had to take a
loyalty oath, including the affirmation:
"I do not advocate, nor am I a member of any political party or
organization that advocates, the overthrow of the government of the United
States by force or violence." One
member refused on principle to take the oath.
When the ideological phases of civil defense were mentioned, the
course again bogged down. Clergy
were unimpressed with charts that sought to oversimplify the differences
between democracy and communism in their concepts of God, man and morality.
Nor were many converted to the cause when Lutheran chaplain and
Director of the Religious Affairs Office Fred Kern warned of the danger
America faced from the "500 million pinks" around the world, or
when he likened recent cuts in Russian armed forces to the "kiss of
Clergymen On Defense Role," Christian Century, 27 June 1956, pp.
Guy Oakes, The Imaginary War:
Civil Defense and American Cold War Culture (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 105-106.
For the efforts of American schools to prepare children for nuclear
attack, see JoAnne Brown, "'A Is for Atom, B Is for Bomb':
Civil Defense in American Public Education, 1948-1963," The
Journal of American History 75 (June 1988), pp. 68-90.
"Atom Raid Drills In Schools Scored," New York Times,
20 October 1950, p. 17; Safety Journal quote from Margot Henriksen, Dr.
Strangelove's America: Society
and Culture in the Atomic Age (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1997), pp. 108-109.
Memo to Paul Larsen from William A. Gill, 18 July 1950, NAII, Record
Group 304, Entry 31A, Box 1, Civil Defense, General.
Letter from Thalia S. Woods to W. Stuart Symington, 1 September 1950,
NAII, Records Group 304, Entry 31A, Box 2, Federal, State, Local
Relationships; "Civil Defense Plan Urged for Atom Attack," New
York Times, 6 May 1950, p. 18; Lawrence Davies, "Women Seek Role in
Mobilization," New York Times, 8 September 1950, p. 16.
Letter from Merle Huntington to James Wadsworth, 18 January 1951,
NAII, Record Group 304, Entry 31A, Box 1, Federal-State-Local Relationships.
Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound:
American Families in the Cold War Era (New York:
Basic Books, Inc., 1988), pp. 103, 105.
Jack Gould, "Margaret Arlen Presents Civilian Defense Guide for
Housewives in 'Course in Self-Preservation,'" New York Times, 28
February 1951, p. 37.
Newsletter from Jean Wood Fuller, "Grandma's Pantry Belongs in
Your Kitchen," DDEL, Couch Papers, Box 3, Operation You, Your Role in
Civil Defense, Information Kit, 1955.
Jeannie Willis, "Can You Survive This?
Yes!" American Home, August 1955, pp. 8-9.
Dr. Stafford Warren, "The Woman's Role in Atomic Warfare,"
DDEL, Couch Papers, Box 14, Washington Conference of National Women's
Advisory Committee, Report on, 1956.
Eisenhower Remarks, 26 October 1954, EPP: 1954, p. 962.
Newsletter "By, For, and About Women in Civil Defense, No.
5" from Jean Wood Fuller, DDEL, Couch Papers, Box 3, Operation You,
Your Role in Civil Defense, Information Kit, 1955.
Interview With Katherine Howard, 24 September 1968, DDEL, Oral
History, p. 191.
"The Sanguine People," Time, 24 August 1953 p. 12.
David Lilienthal, "The Case for Candor On National
Security," New York Times Magazine, 4 October 1953, p. 13; Dr.
Ralph Lapp, "Too Many Secrets Spoil the Atom," Collier's, 5
July 1952, p. 15.
Baldwin, "Atomic Secrecy - 1," New York Times, 1
March 1953, p. 6. Even FCDA
employees responsible for devising plans to protect Americans were limited
to what they could know about the numbers and types of weapons in America's
stockpiles, the estimated strength of Russia, the effectiveness of delivery,
and the full consequences of radiation.
FCDA Director Val Peterson testified before a Senate Committee in
March 1955 that the method of security classification "made it
extremely difficult for us to work in the area of preparation to take
effective steps to meet the threat of fallout."
One man in the Agency might have access to certain information while
another did not. Max Freedman,
"Washington in Focus," Nation, 9 April 1955, pp. 299-300.
For Truman, see McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival:
Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (New York:
Random House, 1988), p. 201. For
Eisenhower, see Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower:
The President (New York: Simon
and Schuster, 1984), p. 131, 132 "To
Live - or Die - With It," Newsweek, 28 February 1955, p. 19.
Eisenhower was not happy about keeping from the American people
information he felt important for them to know.
He considered a major address on the effects of the hydrogen bomb,
but deferred to his Secretary of State's position by putting the speech on
hold. The speech would
eventually develop into Eisenhower's "Atoms For Peace" address on
December 8, 1953 to the U.N. General Assembly.
"To Live - or Die - With It," Newsweek, 28 February
1955, p. 19; Robert Divine, Blowing On the Wind:
The Nuclear Test Ban Debate, 1954-1960 (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 36-37; Ralph Lapp, "Civil
Defense Faces New Peril," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,
November, 1954, pp. 349-351; Ralph Lapp, "Radioactive Fallout," Bulletin
of the Atomic Scientists, February 1955, pp. 45-51; William Blair,
"U.S. H-bomb Test Put Lethal Zone at 7,000 Square Miles," New
York Times, 16 February 1955, p. 1.
"The Atom: Even
Deadlier?", Newsweek 7 March 1955, pp. 23-24.
Charles Murphy, "Outcasts at Yucca Flats," Life, 30
March 1953, p. 24; "2 Dummy Families Await Atom Blast," New
York Times, 16 March 1953, p. 11; "William Laurence, "35th
U.S. Nuclear Blast Tests Tactical Weapon," New York Times, 18
March 1953, p. 1.
"Operation Doorway," Time, 6 July 1953, p. 67.
"It Better Be Good," Newsweek, 9 May 1955, pp.
84-85; "Mouse at Yucca Flat," Newsweek, 16 May 1955, p. 63.
"The Atom: What It
Will Do," Newsweek, 16 May 1955, p. 31; "Rehearsal for
Disaster," Time 16 May 1955, pp. 24-25; Gladwin Hill, "Atom
Blast Rocks A 'Capsule Town' and Tank Troops," New York Times,
Ronald Sawyer, "It's Up to You, Mr. President," Bulletin
of the Atomic Scientists, September 1953, p. 245; Letter from J.B.
Gabrielson, Newsweek, 4 April 1955, p. 8; "Atomic Light on the
Desert...And Answers to Fearful Questions People Ask," Newsweek
21 March 1955, pp. 30-31
Popular publications found the topic of Operation Skywatch
irresistible as it was rich in human interest stories.
Some of the most interesting are the following:
"Plane Spotters Fill Radar Gaps," Life, 22 January
1951, p. 30; "The Skywatch needs 350,000," Newsweek, 11
August 1952, p. 30-41; Sidney Shalett, "They Hope They're Wasting
Time," Saturday Evening Post, 26 September 1953, pp. 40-1+;
James Liston, "Scramble two...bogey at 40,000," Better Homes
and Gardens, November 1954, p. 66+; "The Long Skywatch," Newsweek,
18 July 1955, pp. 23-27.
Stephen B. Withey, The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan, 1962), p. 36.
Jiri Nehnevajsa, "The American Public and Civil Defense,"
in Survival and the Bomb: Methods
of Civil Defense, ed. Eugene Wigner (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1969), p. 35.
Louis B. Cartwright, "Fighting Civil-Defense Apathy," The
American City, July 1951, p. 163.
Eisenhower Remarks, 26 October 1954, EPP: 1954, p. 961.
"Sealed-Up Sect," Time, 8 August 1960, p. 63.
"Atomic Suit of Armor Contains 5 Lbs. of Lead," New York
Times, 27 December 1951, p. 10. Ralph
Mahoney, "Pair Survive a Survival Honeymoon," New York Journal
American, 28 July 1959, (found in an OCDM scrapbook, NAII, RG396, Entry
1022, Box 1, OCDM Publications, 1950-1960, Box 1.)
"For Fallout - A bottle and a Book," New York Times,
24 August 1959, p. 77.
For Thomason, Reichert, and Chicago S&L stories, see OCDM
Scrapbook Ibid.; Edmond Bartnett,
"A Shelter Can Be That Extra Room," 5 June 1960, New York Times,
§VIII, p. 1.
Virgil Couch, "The Role of Leadership Groups in Support of the
National Plan," DDEL, Couch Papers, 1951-1980, Box 23, National Plan
for Civil Defense, Role of National Organizations, 1960.
"Protection from Fallout A Family Responsibility," Chicago
Daily News, 27 July 1959, §1, p. 14.
William Bascom, "Difference Between Victory and Defeat," Life,
18 March 1957, p. 156. "Memorandum
of Discussion at the 351st Meeting of the National Security Council,"
16 January 1958, FRUS, 1958-1960, Volume III, National Security
Policy, p. 11.
"Atomic Light...", p. 31.
Peterson grew more fatalistic as his tenure as FCDA Administrator
dragged on. At the 1956
Holifield Congressional Hearings on civil defense, he said:
"I would like to just sum up what I said in one sentence.
That we are pitifully prepared and at the best we will be pitifully
prepared." He told the
Committee that he had been thinking about the vulnerability of the nation
for 3 to 3 1/2 years now, and that "if this kind of a war occurs, life
is going to be stark, elemental, brutal, filthy, and miserable.
I do not want to be a party in sitting here and discussing these
problems, to any make-believe, that by delegations and by planning and by
thinking, that by any stretch of the imagination can you get America fully
ready for this kind of an attack on a day-by-day peaceful existence
basis....I would say that it would be very questionable with the best
preparations whether in any sense that would be understood by the minds in
this room right now, with maybe a few exceptions, that we will ever be
prepared. We just are not going
to be prepared for that kind of a hell."
Simpson, "A Long Hard Look...", p. 346.
Stanley Kramer, dir., On the Beach, staring Gregory Peck and
Ava Gardner, United Artists, 1959; "INFOGUIDE 60-24," 4 December
1959, DDEL, WHO, OSANSA: Records,
1952-1961, Box 5, Nuclear Energy Matters (8), Sept 1959-Mar 1960.
The Administration was more worried about the impact that On the
Beach might have on disarmament, conceivably leading viewers "to
think in terms of radical solutions to the problem rather than in terms of
practical safeguarded disarmament measures."
"INFOGUIDE 60-24..." For
Hoegh's criticisms, see "Cabinet Meeting," 11 December 1959, DDEL,
Ann Whitman File, Cabinet Series, Box 15.
For press reactions, see Bosley Crowther, "Screen:
On the Beach," New York Times, 18 December 1959, p. 34;
"On the Beach: Scored by
Civil Defense Head," New York Times, 18 December 1959, p. 34;
"On the Beach Scored," New York Times, 6 January, 1960, p.
24; Bosley Crowther, "Liable to Fallout," New York Times,
17 January 1960, II, p. 1.
Crowther, "Liable to Fallout," p. 1.
George Gallup, The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion 1935-1971 (New
York: Random House, 1972), p.
See chapter 1 for a discussion of the Scientist Movement in the
immediate post-war years.
Thomas J. Kerr, Civil Defense in the U.S.: Bandaid for a
Holocaust? (Boulder: Westview
Press, 1983), p. 45.
Kerr, p. 55.
Civil defense had an average favorable rating of 71% at the beginning
of the decade. "A
Preliminary Report on Public Attitudes Toward Civil Defense,"
1950-1951, HSTL, President's Secretary Files, Box 144, Agencies - FCDA.
"Atom Raid Drills In Schools Scored," New York Times,
20 October 1950, p. 17.
"Anonymous Notes Jeer At Defense," New York Times,
29 June 1951, p. 8.
"Talk of the Town: Notes
and Comment," New Yorker, March 1951, p. 31.
Eric Larrabee, "On Running for Cover," Harper's Magazine,
October 1955, p. 24.
Quote from Lawrence S. Wittner, Rebels Against War:
The American Peace Movement, 1941-1960 (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1969), p. 265.
"Pacifists at War," Newsweek, 9 January 1956, pp.
62-63; "The Rights of Non-Conformity," Commonweal, 15 July
1955, pp. 363-264. The editorial
in Commonweal sparked a debate within the magazine through letters,
articles, and further editorials that lasted through September.
"None for the Road," New Republic, 11 March 1957, p.
20; "The Next Civil Defense Drill," Nation, 14 May 1960, p.
Robert B. Meyner, "the
Cruel Deception of Civilian Defense," Reprinted from The Progressive,
attachment to letter from Herman Will, Jr. to Sidney R. Yates, 25 April
1962, DDEL, Papers of Sidney Yates - Research Material, Box 75, Civil
W.A. Higinbotham, "There is No Defense Against Atomic
Bombs," New York Times Magazine, 3 November 1946, VI, pp. 11.
Cord Meyer, "What Price Preparedness?" Atlantic Monthly,
June 1947, pp. 27-33.
"Atom Security Set at $300,000,000,000," New York Times,
26 March 1950, p. 29.
Eisenhower remarks to Mayors, EPP: 1953, pp. 827-828.
Carl Soule, "Not Fear But a Sound Mind," 19 February 1959,
attachment to letter from Herman Will, Jr. to Sidney R. Yates, 25 April
1962, DDEL, Papers of Sidney Yates - Research Material, Box 75, Civil
"Civil Defense and Peace: A
Quaker View," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 1957, p.
Stanley Meisler, "Charade of Civil Defense," Nation,
11 June 1960, p. 510. OCDM
Director Leo Hoegh in a subsequent letter, chided Meisler's assertion that
nuclear war must be unthinkable by asking, "Unthinkable to whom - the
U.S.S.R., or only the U.S.? Not
thinking about the prospect of nuclear war won't make it go away...."
Leo Hoegh, "In Defense of Civil Defense," Letters,
Nation, 20 August 1960, inside cover.
Editorial, "Old Subject is Reopened," Life, 20 July
1959, p. 30.
"Talk of the Town: Notes
and Comment," New Yorker, 12 March 1960, p. 29.