Civil Defense: More Than Duck and Cover

Bert the Turtle starred in "Duck and Cover" which aired in 1950 across the United States. (U.S. Civil Defense Administration photo)
Bert the Turtle starred in "Duck and Cover," which aired in 1950 across the United States. (U.S. Civil Defense Administration photo)

The best way to survive the hazards of radioactive fallout, or any other threat an enemy may use against us, is to be prepared -- know the facts -- learn what to do, now!

-- a civil defense poster from the 1950s

In 1950, an animated turtle named Bert taught American children to "duck and cover" in case of atomic attack.

Comic yet terrifying, Bert's lessons reflected an abiding national concern with civil defense that reached back to the Minutemen, spread nationwide during World War II, and rose and fell with the tensions of the Cold War.

The modern era of civil defense began in World War I. The "Great War" taught people to protect secrets, plant victory gardens and to keep vigilant. Industry had become America's greatest asset; work itself was a civic duty and a form of national defense.

Between the world wars, American civil defense initiatives spawned a scattering of air-raid shelters -- some purpose-built, most improvised in basements and subways. Pearl Harbor galvanized the country's home-defense efforts. Blackouts became the norm in coastal areas, where streetlights were doused to hide cities from enemy pilots. The federal government established the Office of Civilian Defense, which trained citizens to fight fires, rescue people and administer first aid, and the Civil Air Patrol, which taught them to keep their "eyes on the sky."

War's end brought atomic weapons and an eerie peacetime preoccupation with enemy attacks on American soil. The Soviet threat gave civil defense a new prominence. In 1950, Congress created the Civil Defense Administration, which in turn brought America public fallout shelters, the Emergency Broadcast System, food stockpiles -- and Bert the Turtle's "duck and cover."

Civil defense classes became standard in public schools. Students learned about radiation and basic survival techniques. "Do you know exactly what your family would do if an attack came?" began a typical lesson.

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 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 an 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.

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