Civil Defense, 1946–Present

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Even before they fully understood the devastation wrought at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Americans began to imagine what nuclear attacks on their own cities would be like. Images of great American cities in ruins moved individual citizens and officials at all levels of government to action. Convinced that preparations made in advance would reduce loss of life during an attack and speed recovery afterward, they made elaborate plans designed to mitigate the effects of nuclear war. The yellow civil defense signs posted in every major building and school were a constant reminder to Americans that they were engaged in a new kind of war—the Cold War (1946– 1991). The fear and threat of nuclear devastation—although

it never happened—profoundly affected American thought and culture.

Early civil defense plans, shaped by memories of World War II, focused on building bomb shelters in urban areas. Structures capable of withstanding the blast of a nuclear bomb proved, however, to be prohibitively expensive. After President Harry Truman quietly rejected (in 1951) a five-year, $16 billion program to begin building public bomb shelters in major cities, the new Federal Civil Defense Administration shifted its focus to teaching the public to "shelter in place." Pamphlets, traveling exhibits, movies, and a five-part television series urged adult audiences to "duck and cover" at the sound of a warning siren or the sight of a nuclear bomb's flash. School-age children received the same message through comic books and a short animated film, both featuring a character named Bert the Turtle.

Any hope of sheltering urban populations in place faded in the mid-1950s, with the introduction of thermonuclear weapons (H-bombs). Federal civil defense policy therefore shifted again, this time to evacuation. The interstate highway system, approved by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, was designed to speed everyday travel, but also to allow the rapid emptying of major cities if a nuclear attack was imminent. "Operation Alert," a series of annual three-day exercises begun in 1955, simulated the problems of relocating government services and caring for displaced city dwellers after an attack. The mid-to-late 1950s were also the golden age of home fallout shelters. More than a million families, nearly all middle-class suburbanites, paid an average of $1,500 to install basement or backyard shelters where they would live off stockpiled food and water until post-attack radiation levels had dropped.

Interest in civil defense reached a high point during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 but diminished soon after. Improving U.S.-Soviet relations made nuclear war seem less likely, and the advent of ballistic missiles cut advance warning from hours to minutes. Funding for civil defense programs was cut or diverted to natural-disaster relief. Makeshift shelters in the basements of public buildings fell into disuse or were reclaimed as storerooms. Stories about ingenious heroes surviving nuclear war, such as Pat Frank's novel Alas, Babylon (1959) and the film Panic in the Year Zero! (1962), gave way to grim tales where death was inevitable (the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove) or survival was possible only through utter ruthlessness (Harlan Ellison's 1969 short story "A Boy and His Dog").

During his first administration, President Ronald Reagan, as part of a hard-line approach to dealing with the Soviet Union, declared in 1981 that nuclear war was not only survivable but winnable. Over the objections of senior military officers and budget analysts, Reagan earmarked billions of dollars for civil defense programs. Deputy Secretary of Defense T. K. Jones promoted makeshift shelters created by digging a hole, covering it with two doors, and piling three feet of dirt atop the doors. "If there are enough shovels to go around," Jones told a Los Angeles Times reporter in 1981, "everybody's going to make it." A few politically conservative writers such as Dean Ing (Pulling Through, 1983) echoed those sentiments in fiction, but their readership was dwarfed by the audience that watched the made-for-television film The Day After in 1983. Set in Lawrence, Kansas, after a nuclear attack, the film's images of crumbled buildings, poisoned farmland, and radiation-scarred survivors suggested that no amount of federal spending or stockpiled food could mitigate the effects of nuclear war.

The end of the Cold War sent civil defense into its second period of eclipse since 1945. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, ended that eclipse, but also changed the nature of civil defense. Earlier programs and techniques, geared to an overt attack by a known enemy armed with nuclear bombs and missiles, had limited value against stealthy attacks by terrorists armed with unconventional weapons. The new civil defense had its own unconventional elements: heating unopened mail in an oven, for example, to kill anthrax spores it might contain. Ultimately, however, it was based on decades-old principles: prepare in advance, stockpile supplies, and look to the government for guidance.


Brown, JoAnne. "'A is for Atom, B is for Bomb': Civil Defense in American Public Education, 1948–1963." Journal of American History 75 (1988): 68–90.

MacEnany, Laura. Civil Defense Begins at Home. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Oakes, Guy. The Imaginary War: Civil Defense and American Cold War Culture. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Rose, Kenneth D. One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

A. Bowdoin Van Riper

See also:Arms Control Debate; Cold War Novels and Movies; Containment and Détente; Eisenhower, Dwight D.; H-Bomb, Decision to Build; Hiroshima Guilt; 9-11; Popular Culture and Cold War .

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Civil Defense, 1946–Present

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