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Duck and Cover

In August 1945, the first (and still only) use of nuclear weapons occurred in Japan, when the United States’ Army Air Corps dropped one atomic bomb each on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Within a week, the Empire of Japan had surrendered, guns fell silent in the Pacific Theater, and peace broke out all over the whole world forever.  Well, maybe not forever, but the United States did stand astride the world like a colossus.  It was a large, resource-rich, industrialized nation, and it had seen remarkably little destruction on its home soil.  While cities in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia, Japan and China had seen millions of civilians killed and much infrastructure demolished by bombs, the only significant attack was on the unindustrialized American island of Oahu, in Hawaii, where a good portion of its Pacific Fleet had been stationed when the Japanese attacked it in 1941.  But now, besides enjoying a healthy industrial base and being free of the burden of rebuilding demolished cities, the United States also enjoyed the status as the world’s only nuclear power.

This changed in 1949, when the Soviet Union conducted its first successful test of a nuclear weapon in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan.  This was called First Lightning, the culmination of six years of tests and research.  The USSR’s nuclear weapons research enjoyed a boost from captured German scientists during World War II (as did the United States’ nuclear weapons program), and it was bearing fruit.  Josef Stalin was already seen by Western countries as a threat to peace, order and democracy, and he had, as they used to say, The Bomb.

A 2004 Russian stamp commemorating Yulii Borisovich Khariton, chief developer of the first Soviet atomic bomb.

You didn’t have to specify what kind of bomb it was when you said “The Bomb”.  There were many kinds, but everyone knew you could only be talking atomic.  After a few years, you could also mean the more powerful H-Bomb, or hydrogen bomb, but the unease brought by those new, super-potent bombs didn’t differentiate.  The existential threat was far broader and far less personal than the one that Nazi Germany had posed to the world roughly two decades earlier.  These new weapons promised a new kind of war, one that could kill many more people and destroy much more property in much less time than we’d ever managed before.  Four years after the Second World War drew to a close, the Cold War was on.

It’s easy to forget what the threat of nuclear weapons was like when it was still new.  Often we think of civilians living in fear of nuclear missiles streaking over the North Pole and obliterating cities on three continents, wiping out civilization and possibly all life.  But in the early days, this wasn’t on most people’s minds.  Scientists and military experts believed a nuclear missile was possible.  As American General Hap Arnold put it in 1943, “Someday, not too distant, there can come streaking out of somewhere—we won’t be able to hear it, it will come so fast—some kind of gadget with an explosive so powerful that one projectile will be able to wipe out completely this city of Washington.”  Scientists had been working on rockets for both travel and for long-range military assaults for decades, so General Arnold’s thought wasn’t exactly unusual.  It was coming, the nuclear missile.  Indeed, the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was completed in 1957.  But in the early 1950s, if you wanted to nuke someone, you still had to drop a bomb out of a plane, like we did in 1945.

Could we survive another war that used nuclear weapons?  Well, if it was a war with the kind of weapons the Americans and the Soviets had in the early 1950s, sure.  Cities would be blown up, but we were still a few years away from achieving nuclear stockpiles that could potentially wipe out all of civilization.  Still, the thought of having a nuke dropped on them made a lot of people nervous.  It was obvious that you weren’t safe just because you didn’t live right on the front lines of battle.  If the governments of the world were going to keep building these weapons, what could the average citizen do?

US Marines taking in America’s first nuclear test in Yucca Flats, Nevada.  Was this safe?  That’s classified.

In the early days, President Truman’s administration’s policy was to evacuate first, and then sort out what to do later.  Evacuation routes were planned from major metropolitan areas where nuclear weapons were thought likely to hit, and the Federal Civil Defense Administration attended to the details, hoping never to have to actually use their plans.  In 1952, the FCDA came up with a plan to help soothe civilians’ nerves.  It was a nine-minute film to be released in movie theaters, shown before the feature film.  This was the Civil Defense classic “Duck and Cover”.

“Duck and Cover” opened with a cartoon character called Bert the Turtle, strolling along while an upbeat chorus sang a song:

There once was a turtle by the name of Bert,
And Bert the Turtle was very alert.
When danger threatened him, he never got hurt:
He knew just what to do.
He’d duck and cover!
Duck!  And cover!
He did what we all must learn to do,
You and you and you and you.
Duck!  And cover!

The famous "Duck and Cover" Civil Defense film featuring Bert the Turtle

The “danger” in the short cartoon intro showed Bert walking past a tree.  In the tree, a monkey held a stick with a firecracker tied to it with a string.  At the last second, Bert retreats into his turtle shell, avoiding the dangerous firecracker.  See, kids?  It works!

After the cartoon, the rest of the film was live action.  Some professional actors were used, as were many schoolchildren from public schools in New York.  A narrator talked about how dangerous things are these days, somehow managing to avoid talking about geopolitics.  The purpose of the film was to teach children (and adults) what to do if they’re caught in a nuclear attack.  When the bomb goes off, there will be a flash, followed by a shockwave.  You can avoid getting hurt, the message went, if you’d just get down on the ground and scrunch yourself up like a turtle in a shell.  Cover your head with your arms, fold your knees under your stomach, and you’ll be safe.  “Duck and Cover” showed people reacting to the flash while walking down the street, or in a school building, or at a picnic, or anywhere you might be when a nuclear bomb might hit.