The nation's civil defense posture became part of the Cold War calculations of victory and survival. It was widely reported that the Soviet Union ran its citizens through a comprehensive civil defense regimen: compulsory public training, drills, alerts.
Even the Cuban Missile Crisis, however, could not keep the American public's attention on civil defense.
Apathy set in, and some peace organizations actively opposed the CDA and its programs. They were futile, the thinking went, and encouraged the idea that war was inevitable. By the early 1970s, civil defense almost disappeared from the national consciousness.
It returned with vim in Ronald Reagan's first term as president. The Committee on the Present Danger spoke prominently of the Soviet threat, while the anti-nuclear movement and the reheating Cold War seemed poised to upset the delicate balance of détente. Civil defense initiatives once again captured the American attention.
But years of science and television had made the American public more sophisticated and skeptical. In 1981, T.K. Jones told citizens to dig a hole, cover it with a couple of doors and then throw three feet of dirt on top. "It's the dirt that does it . if there are enough shovels to go around, everybody's going to make it," said the undersecretary of defense for strategic and theater nuclear forces. More public ire than inspiration greeted these Pentagon pronouncements and appeals for grass-roots survival techniques. The kids who followed Bert weren't buying T.K. Jones.
Although Americans' volunteerism and sense of civic duty still ran high, attempts to rally the public for the struggle and sacrifice of atomic war could not succeed.
As the Berlin Wall fell and the U.S.S.R. disappeared, civil defense receded into memory. The theories of evacuation, survival, and rebuilding never faced the ultimate test. Still, the lessons and infrastructure of the American civil defense experience are constantly used during hurricanes, floods, fires, and other catastrophes.
And even as the spectre of nuclear annihilation recedes, new threats arise. The idea that chemical and biological weapons may be released through accident or terrorist act is rejuvenating the nation's civil defense organizations. The rise-and-fall cycle of American civil defense may not yet be complete.