Civil Defense, Nuclear Strategy, and Popular Culture in Cold War America
Copyright 2000 by Jon Timothy Kelly

Do not cite without authorís written permission.


Prior to World War II, Americans had grown accustomed to their isolation.  Not since the British had burned the White House in the War of 1812 had American civilians dealt with the prospect of enemy assault on their continental shores.  For this reason, the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor served as a valuable lesson that the United States was not an invulnerable fortress, and officials schooled in the realities of war sought to instruct a complacent populace about the value of home defense. 

Modern warfare, argued strategists Walter Binger and Hilton Railey in a 1942 pamphlet on civil defense, had become "total warfare" in which there were no fronts.

"Everything within reach of the enemy's wings is a combat objective.  The hospital is not a haven and neither is the church.  Nothing is sacred, since nothing is inviolate.  All the supreme values are worthless."

Because the distinction between soldier and civilian had vanished, civil defense had become everyone's business and duty:  "man or woman, boy or girl, in whatever occupation, wherever plied."  With the vanishing of the front lines, the civilian had become that much more important.  "Totally attacked, his resistance must be total.  Discipline and training, knowledge and courage, and sacrifice without stint are required of him."[1]

In 1941 the war itself had served as the spur to public participation in civil defense and allowed civilians to feel they were making a valuable contribution to the war effort while at the same time securing the homeland from enemy assault.  A civil defense program was also a logical response to fears of a Japanese or German conventional attack on the United States.  James M. Landis, Dean of Harvard Law School and the director of the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) throughout most of the war promoted both home front protection against attack and mobilization of the population for the war effort as two sides of the same coin.  Civil defense was insurance, argued Landis, and by insuring the home front against possible air raids, communities would be allowed to "carry the fight to the enemy in a powerful mobilization program."[2]

Civilians were told that they had a role to play through civil defense.  Landis explained to audiences that they "must think war, sleep war and eat war" if they were to minimize the effects of possible air raids.[3]  Just as important, the agency's mobilization effort allowed the public to feel it had a direct effect on the war even if the front was thousands of miles away.  Patriotic songs praised the defense worker as "the man behind the man behind the gun," and activities such as victory gardens, war bond drives, salvage, rationing and conservation allowed the civilian to feel he was striking a blow against the Axis Powers just as surely as was the soldier in battle.  As the war drew to a close, President Truman in May 1945 abolished the Office of Civil Defense (OCD), citing the value of the millions of volunteers who gave freely of their time to serve as the "strength" of American democracy.[4]  Nevertheless, a year later, Miles Bell, chief property inspector for the District of Columbia, became the last of the OCD's 36,000 workers in the nation's capitol.  As far as Bell was concerned, the OCD would live on only until he could dispose of 33,206 armbands, 27,000 feet of hose, 9,469 helmets, 3,003 pumps, and 3,759 gas masks, in addition to first-aid kits and firemen's coats.  He had grown rather attached to his diverse inventory, he told a reporter.  "I feel like the man who always wore spurs on the grounds that he never knew when he might meet a horse."[5]

Bell's comments proved prophetic as fears generated by the nuclear age soon revived federal and state efforts to institute a civil defense system in response to the growing U.S.-Soviet conflict.  At the same time the rationale for such a program began to evolve from its traditional role as insurance against enemy attack to a more strategic role in deterring such an attack.  Policymakers also continued to stress the importance of public participation and mobilization to fight the Cold War, but Americans, in contrast to the public's efforts during World War II, were largely apathetic to the threat of nuclear war even as it expressed its fears of such a war commencing.  Despite the continuous efforts of Cold War presidential administrations to institute a credible civil defense program, such efforts languished due to public disinterest, lack of Congressional funding, and the impossibility of preparing for the unimaginable catastrophe that a nuclear war would be.

Civil defense during the Cold War was a method of escape on the part of officials and public advocates who were obsessed with thinking the unthinkable.  Political scientist Robert Jervis has argued that the history of nuclear strategy is littered with repeated attempts by policymakers to avoid coming to grips with the implications of the "nuclear revolution" and the reality that American safety depended on the Soviet Union's restraint from using nuclear weapons.  No matter what advantages the U.S. might hold in military capability, in a conflict between nuclear powers even the loser still has the ability to destroy the winner.  "The forces that inflict damage on the adversary," writes Jervis, "no longer protect the state as they did in the past."[6]  Unwilling to believe or admit that the U.S. was helpless in defending its population from Soviet nuclear attack, civil defense advocates encouraged Americans to "stand-up to the bomb" and communist aggression by preparing for nuclear war.  The task was a difficult one for these proponents.  Though consistently favoring the general concept of civil defense, the complexity of the problem led the vast majority of the American people unable to generate the initiative to insure their own survival in a nuclear war.  When it came to civil defense, most Americans, stricken by apathy or fatalism, simply didn't want to think about it.

This dissertation analyzes the support for and opposition to civil defense between 1945 and 1988 and it has four objectives in mind.  First, it tries to assess the role that civil defense played in the devising of nuclear strategic doctrine between 1945 and 1988 as a method of escaping the reality of nuclear war.  Second, it attempts to evaluate the extent to which civil defense, which ultimately depended on public support for its implementation, serves as a barometer of the public's perception of nuclear war, its attitude towards survival, and its support of nuclear deterrence.  Third, this project strives to measure the influence of cultural strategies used to promote civil defense, and the success or failure of such strategies within the public arena.  Finally, it seeks to define the lines of the debate over civil defense and gauge the effectiveness of the opposition, particularly in the form of grassroots activists.

The Purpose of Civil Defense in the Cold War

In general, civil defense during the Cold War served three purposes.  The first and most obvious purpose was to protect civilian lives against the threat of nuclear attack and the aftereffects of fallout.  Soon after the end of World War II, both American officials and the public recognized the potential destruction that an atomic attack would bring to the home front but were reluctant to take any real action as long as the United States remained in sole possession of the bomb.  This complacency largely evaporated after the Soviet Union exploded its own bomb in late 1949, followed by the onset of the Korean War in 1950.  State and Federal governments embarked upon a long-term education campaign that instructed Americans on how they could dramatically increase their chances of survival if they took the time to build a home shelter in their basement and stocked it with two weeks worth of supplies.  While Bert the Turtle instructed kids to "duck and cover" when they saw the bomb's flash, many urban dwellers were required by law to participate in citywide drills that conditioned them to take shelter when they heard the warning sirens.

Yet civil defense, according to some policymakers, could also serve a purpose that went beyond insurance measures against attack.  It could also be an element of America's nuclear strategic doctrine.  Through the institution of protective measures for American civilians and industry, this second purpose of civil defense was meant to deter an enemy attack by convincing any potential foe that America had both the will and means to use nuclear weapons should the need arise, even after suffering a first-strike.  Civil defense would thus strengthen America's nuclear capability.  Additionally, an American populace protected from nuclear disaster would allow flexibility in executing strategic counterforce options and could, some officials argued, mean the difference between defeat and victory in a nuclear war.

Civil defense as an element of deterrence, however, was a contentious issue among policymakers divided by the debate over counterforce and mutual vulnerability doctrines.  While proponents of a war-fighting strategy saw advantages in a civil defense program, critics argued that measures to protect the population in an age of assured destruction were futile and could perhaps breed a false sense of security that itself might initiate war if one side was convinced it could survive the conflict.  By 1971 both the Soviet Union and the U.S. agreed in the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that vulnerability would provide more stability than strategic defensive systems.  Thus civil defense, even justified as insurance, remained a low priority until the later years of the Carter Administration which sought to breath life into the program and the Reagan Administration which proposed a $4.2 billion program to reinforce its counterforce doctrine.

Morale building and mobilization of the population was the third purpose of civil defense during the Cold War years.  Advocates of home protection sought to create a Cold War home front in which civilians could feel that they were playing a part in the fight against communism.  Policymakers were well aware that a civil defense program based on self-help could only succeed with the active participation by those it was meant to protect.  Therefore, efforts were made to "sell" civil defense through advertising, pamphlets, television shows, and filmstrips.  Civil defense authorities enlisted the help of thousands of clergy, educators, doctors, nurses, and public safety officials to integrate self-protection into the very cultural fabric of America.  Civil defense was represented as the embodiment of the family through self-reliance and volunteerism.  Fathers were told to take responsibility for their loved ones by spending a few weekends building a fallout shelter, while mothers were encouraged to make it as homey as possible for its occupants.  Parents and teachers were expected to be open and honest with children about the dangers of nuclear war and to assign them tasks should an attack occur.

Yet there is a surreal quality about civil defense that became more and more noticeable as the Cold War progressed.  Planners were constantly at the disadvantage of advancing technology in weapons development as they sought to implement a civil defense plan that appeared less realistic in the face of the hydrogen bomb and inter-continental ballistic missiles.  Inexplicably, New York high-rise occupants were directed to take shelter in their building's most central floor, while Yankee fans enjoying a game were told to take cover under the stadium seats.  Even as major cities conducted evacuation drills and marked shelters that urban dwellers could take cover in, civil defense officials admitted that few in the target area would survive a direct hit.  Critics charged that such defense measures were deceptive to say the least, as were the government's assurances that those who might survive in their shelters would reemerge into a world that could somehow be put back together with just a broom and a shovel.  Little was said by officials about the expected conditions a post-attack America would face, such as the lack of safe drinking water and edible food, the collapse of a functional government, the long-term effects of radiation and plague conditions fostered by the millions of rotting corpses that lay unburied, or the environmental catastrophe that a nuclear war would inflict on the earth.

Regardless of the efforts of officials to promote civil defense as either a form of insurance or an element of deterrence, such a program would only be effective if civilians took an active role in its implementation.  The public mood, however, vacillated between fear and apathy.  While opinion polls consistently registered support among Americans for civil defense, they also showed by the late 1950s a growing skepticism - even fatalism - among the public that any safeguards could be taken against nuclear war.  The realization in the late 1960s and '70s that the world had entered an age of mutual assured destruction (MAD) further eroded any credibility of an effective civil defense.  The Carter Administration's tentative moves in its last year towards strengthening civil defense was roundly criticized in the media and by many strategists as an attempt to escape the reality of assured destruction.

Thus by the 1980s, there seemed little chance that the public would be any more receptive to civil defense than it was previously.  Reagan officials, who sought to offer an alternative to MAD by instituting a war-fighting doctrine, put renewed emphasis on civil defense to bolster their counterforce strategy.  It was a struggle, however, to convince Americans conditioned for over a decade to believe in assured destruction that not only could they survive a nuclear war but that America could win it!  A seeming exuberance on the part of some Reagan officials to fight such a war opened the Administration up to charges by critics such as the Peace Movement that it was out of touch with the destructive nature of nuclear weapons.  Throughout the country, cities and local communities risked their share of federal peacetime disaster aid by refusing to participate in evacuation planning for nuclear war.   The irony of the Reagan Administration's civil defense proposal is that rather than foster a home front of support in which Americans could play a part in contributing to the Cold War, it instead fueled an anti-nuclear activist movement that used civil defense as a concrete example of the futility of fighting a nuclear war.  With its civil defense campaign lagging by the mid-1980s, the Administration began to scale back its grandiose plans.  By the end of Reagan's second term, these plans were shelved altogether.

Yet the attempt to escape the nuclear revolution through the concept of population protection had not been wholly abandoned.  Ironically, Reagan officials undercut the rationale of its civil defense program when they asked Americans to embrace a totally different type of protective system:  the Strategic Defense Initiative.  X-ray laser beams, homing rockets, and particle beam accelerators could, President Reagan promised in 1983, protect the American homefront from nuclear attack.  The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was to become the ultimate civil defense project.  "The sky itself is to be converted into one vast schoolroom desk," historian Paul Boyer has written, "under which we will collectively huddle while teacher hurls erasers at the marauding invaders."[7]  The appeal of SDI to the public was that its operational ability did not require their participation.  In other words, something could be done to protect Americans without that "something" being done by themselves.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, few Americans (save some survivalists) would view civil defense today as anything more than a nostalgic memory from our Cold War past.  Yet the termination of the U.S.-Soviet confrontation has not necessarily brought the security Americans might have hoped.  The U.S. faces new vulnerabilities in the invisible threat of international terrorism.  Moreover, fears of a limited nuclear attack from a rogue state such as North Korea (should it achieve nuclear capability) have kept the debate over SDI alive, despite successful failures in developing such a system.  Republican demands for abrogating the ABM Treaty in order to deploy SDI, regardless of its feasibility, could pose greater threats should an arms race ensue between the U.S. and its former Cold War adversaries.  No doubt calls for civil defense would re-emerge in this more dangerous world as U.S. officials would once again ask Americans to think about the unthinkable.  If the last 50 years can serve as any guide to the public's response, however, civil defense advocates are likely to face further disappointment.

[1]Walter D. Binger and Hilton H. Railey, What the Citizen Should Know About Civilian Defense (New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1942), pp. 13, 14.

[2]National Military Establishment, Office of the Secretary of Defense, A Study of Civil Defense, February 1948, p. 8, National Archives, RG 304, Entry 3, Box 15, Folder:  Federal Civil Defense Administration.

[3]Article from unknown newspaper with title "Landis Tells 12,000:  'Sleep and Eat War'," NAII, RG 171, Entry 185, "Newspaper clippings, May 1942-June 1944," Box 6, Folder 7-A-1.

[4]Executive Order 9562, effective June 30, 1945, was the official termination.  Truman Presidential Papers:  1945, pp. 30-31.

[5]"OCD's Last Man," Newsweek, 30 September 1946, p. 25.

[6]Robert Jervis, The Illogic of American Nuclear Strategy (Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1984), p. 26.

[7]Paul Boyer, "How SDI Will Change Our Culture," Nation, 10 January 1987, p. 1.