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        The United States government used civil defense theater as a means to distract the U.S. public from the dangers of atomic weapons and the build up and testing of its nuclear stockpile. When defense theater failed, the government sought out other events as a means to continue the distraction.



Nuclear Tests in Nevada ensured public safety.

Tomorrow under Communism

Anti-Communist propoganda encouraged patriotism.


      Civil Defense propaganda in the 1950s evolved over a decade of testing and learning about a new and exciting field of study. Federal agencies such as the Civil Defense Administration and Atomic Energy Commission were used to promote public awareness and preperation.

       Propaganda films and booklets helped prepare the public prepare against a Soviet nuclear attack. The information provided to the public was not extensive. This dusting of information was intended to prepare people for an attack without revealing the true severity of such an event. The excitement of new technology coupled with anticommunist propaganda fueled a culture of a prepared society. Many civil defense films such as Bert the Turtle were aimed at helping children prepare for an attack. This simple, comical cartoon taught survival to the younger population without detailing the brutality of nuclear weapons. Bert the Turtle used the phrase "Duck and Cover" to teach children how to fall to the ground when the flash of a nuclear explosion was seen to best survive a nuclear blast. Children were told to cover their head and neck to protect them from broken glass or other debris.[1]


      Adult education also told a simplified and half true story of the dangers associated with nuclear weapons. Enough was told to the general public to emphasize the need for preparedness, but the unfiltered truth of the horrors of nuclear war would shock the public and lead to public outcry. Government agencies such as Atomic Energy Commission and Civil Defense Administration encouraged people to be ready without clarifying the threat to prepare for.[1]  The Civil Defense Administration also used patriotism and the Russian scare to gain public support of further nuclear testing.[2]  

 Some propaganda, such as a pamphlet distributed to the residents of southern Nevada in 1957 directly lied to citizens by telling them radiation was contained to the bombing range and that safety was the first priority in such tests.[3] 

[1] (Library, 2016), [2] (Library, 2016), [3] (Commission, 1957)

Atoms for peace stamp

Stamps encouraging support for Atoms for Peace.

Energy for peace

Artist rendition of a nuclear power plant.


      Under Eisenhower's civil defense, the general public initially was encouraged to flee large cities and run to the country in the event of a nuclear attack. The theory was centered on the idea that major cities would be targets whereas the country would be left untouched.  Rural agriculturalists were seen as self-reliant and able to take them in and teach the refugees how to survive on their own. Farms were also essential for food production, so locating large groups of people around food production sources seemed advantageous.  This theory had many flaws, such as transportation and fallout issues as well as the sheer number of people fleeing major cities.[1]

     The resolution for such an issue was to encouraged people to keep a home shelter and emergency supplies for their family in the event of a nuclear attack. People of all walks of life in all areas could construct a shelter sufficient to protect their family at a relatively low cost. Shelter plans were available through the Civil Defense and were simple and economical. Many were built in basements or crawl spaces and were furnished with Civil Defense emergency supplies. This allowed the general public to have the peace of mind brought by a fallout shelter at a relatively low cost.[2]

      On December 8, 1953 President Eisenhower addressed the United Nations General Assembly and introduced Atoms for Peace, an initiative designed to harness “the miraculous inventiveness of man”[3] for the benefit of the free world. Eisenhower warned about the large caches of nuclear weapons across the earth and warned “You must, however, bear in mind that no area of the world, no matter how remote, could consider itself completely immune to some of the results where atomic warfare to occur on our planet. The United States knows that if the fearful trend of atomic military build-up can be reversed, this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind”.[4] He called upon all world leaders, not just those in the west, but those in the east as well to “devise methods whereby this fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind”.[5]

      Using nuclear energy to product electricity to power starved countries across the globe would help increase the quality of life for people all over the world. This token of good will would “allow all peoples of all nations to see that, in this enlightened age, the
great powers of the earth, both of the East and of the West, are interested in human aspirations first, rather than in building up the armaments of war; and open up a new channel for peaceful discussion, and initiate at least a new approach to the many difficult problems that must be solved in both private and public conversations, if the world is to shake off the inertia imposed by fear, and is to make positive progress toward peace.”[6]

      Power plants were designed and proposed, but never came to fruition because of political red tape between leaders within the United Nations, but the research on nuclear power is still used to fuel nuclear power plants across the world.[7] 

[1] (Eisenhower, 2016), [2] (Library, 2016), [3] (Davis, 2016),

[4] (Eisenhower, 2016), [5] (Eisenhower, 2016), [6] (Eisenhower, 2016), [7] (Davis, 2016)

 Commission, A. E. (1957). Atomic Tests in Nevada. United States: Atomic Energy Commission.

Davis, W. (2016, 04 04). American Nuclear Society. Retrieved from Eisenhower’s Atomic Power for Peace – The Civilian Application Program Atomic power for peace-the civilian application program: http://ansnuclearcafe.org/2013/12/19/atomic-power-for-peace-the-civilian-application-program-and-power-demonstration-reactor/#sthash.RFPKxJFj.zwXwcUAX.dpbs

Eisenhower, D. D. (2016, 04 04). Atoms for Peace. Retrieved from Eisenhower lPresidential Library: https://www.eisenhower.archives.gov/research/online_documents/atoms_for_peace/Atoms_for_Peace_Draft.pdf

Library, N. S. (2016, 04 01). red scare. Retrieved from atomicarchive.com: http://www.atomicarchive.com/History/hbomb/page_15.shtml

Rizzo, A. (Director). (1951). Duck and Cover [Motion Picture].


Fallout resized

Predictions of fallout spread after an attack on the U.S. 

supplies resize

Sells display of supplies for fallout bunkers, these suppiles were sold by the government.

The last years of the shelter craze

        Civil defense of the 1960s had moved away from the secrecy of the 1950s in regards to fallout and atomic power, instead it tended to be very open about the potential side effects of said fallout. Along with a booklet that explained in detail the effects of radiation on the body, maps of the United States which showed the potential spread of fallout across the nation in the event of an attack were produced by the government for the public.

        At the same time the early 1960s continued and enforced many of the 1950’s other civil defense policies, chief of which was the spreading of half-truths about the effectiveness and potential survivability of homemade shelters. Shelters which had replaced the evacuating of whole cities in late 1950s, had its heyday in the early 1960s “shelter craze”. Civil defense programs had fully shifted their focus to making Americans believe that a shelter would save them. Even if they built said shelters themselves, at a reasonable price, in their basement or backyard and stocked them with supplies supplied by the government. The 1960s no longer framed atomic weapons as secrets that the government hid for our safety. But instead as just mankind’s newest weapon and like all of our weapons if you took the time to prepare, you too would have no problem surviving.[1]

[1] William J. Broad, “U.S. Rethinks Strategy for the Unthinkable,” New York Times, DEC. 15, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/science/16terror.html?_r=1.

cuba resized

Map of weapon ranges if based in Cuba.

Cuban missile crisis and America's wake up call

        The Cuban missile crisis, which nearly started the third world war and the signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which started the first thaw in Cold War relations, made Americans rethink their beliefs on civil defense. In only the span of a few years Americans began to look back at their “shelter craze” as just that, crazy.  Discontent began to build and spread, as more and more Americans came to the realization that the likely hood of surviving an atomic attack were very small. This discontent manifested as the rise in popularity for protests against both at home atomic testing and the buildup of atomic weapons or the “Arms Race”.[1]

[1] Stephen Rosskamm Shalom, “The Cuban Missile Crisis and Liberal Foreign Policy,” Z magazine, June 1988, 69-80.

peace resized

Peace protest that has a large "peace symbol", which was oringally the semaphore of the letters D and N. Oringally made for the  Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

The Vietnam War

        With the onset of the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s, the United States government had a new tool to distract the American public from the buildup of nuclear weapons and the ever rising and falling of cold war tensions. At the onset of the war, the American public for the most part supported it, as many believed it would be a repeat of the Korean War. A fast easy victory in which America could once again claim it was supporting the freedom of a far off people from the oppressions of communism. The war at first serviced as a more positive and patriotic distraction then the shelter and preparedness propaganda of the 1960s earlier years. As the Vietnam War dragged on, former protests against nuclear stockpiling and testing slowly shifted to peace and anti-war protests. While not being exactly what the United States government wanted, this shift in the protests none-the-less serviced the government’s interests. The Vietnam War popular or not remained a major distraction for the public from all things nuclear.[1]

[1] Mark Moyar, “Vietnam: Historians at War,” National Association of Scholars, Mar. 24, 2008, https://www.nas.org/articles/Vietnam_Historians_at_War.

race resized

A foot race to the moon, used to grab U.S public attention and support for the space race.

The Space Race

        From the mid to the late 1960s, the United States government also used the “Space Race” part of the cold war as a positive means of distraction from both nuclear build-up and the now failing proxy wars against communism. The American public was spurred into action as many felt fear and shame that the Soviet Union had beat the United States into space. The United States government used the early defeats in the space race as a means to force though massive changes in the American education system. These changes which focused on science and engineering helped to shift many American’s thoughts away from atomics as Americans became convinced that they had to better themselves and the nation’s science industry. The United States doubly benefited from this new mind set, as most Americans were not paying attention to atomic affair. But at the same time that Americans were helping to create many advances for the space race, the United States government also used said advancements to further the effectiveness of its atomic weapons. From the first American in space to the moon landing near the end of the decade, Americans cared less for Cold War politic then they did the space race.[1] 

[1] Matthew Wills, “Space is the Place: The US, USSR, and Space Exploration,” Jstor Daily, Sep. 25, 2014,  http://daily.jstor.org/space-is-the-place/.

        All summed up 1960s civil defense was less about actually defending the United States from a nuclear attack and more the distracting of the American public from anything and everything atomic.



Courtesy of USU Special Collections Archive


Courtesy of USU Special Collections Archive


Courtesy of USU Special Collections Archive

Sweeping it Under the Rug

Prepared by the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency in 1972, Your Chance to Live was an informational campaign geared towards preparing the public for various disasters and emergencies. When it came to addressing the potential of nuclear warfare, the Civil Preparedness Agency listed “Nuclear Disaster” as the last emergency in the book, behind even “Technological Failures,” shoving it to the backseat of public concerns.  


Once “Nuclear Disaster” has been put on the table, the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency calmly compares fallout to volcanic ash and pumice, equating them. Furthermore, it discusses the sun as being radioactive. Both of these commonplace comparisons serve to put the public at ease by convincing them they are being exposed to nuclear symptoms constantly. The introduction to Nuclear Disaster plays heavily on the idea of radioactivity being energy and fallout being about as disastrous as a sunburn.


Johanna Kohler, a student at the University of London in 2011, wrote an essay titled “Civil defense planning in the 1960s & 1970s: A propaganda exercise?” that sums up the aim of government propaganda in first-world countries as a distraction technique. “This essay argues that civil defense in the nuclear age has never been more than a political tool for governments used for emotions management and as a political tool for winning public consent on key Cold War issues,” Kohler writes. She goes on to argue that information that the government in the United States put out information with the intention of misleading the public to disguise their political agenda of waging a nuclear war against the communists.


Indeed, declassified documents showed that President Richard Nixon (in office from 1969 to 1974) suggests that nuclear weapons were always on the president’s table. The article “Nixon White House Considered Nuclear Options Against North Vietnam, Declassified Documents Reveal” details Nixon’s consideration of nuclear weapons in a war already publicly unpopular, to say the least, exemplifying the reasons nuclear technology and advances would need to be put in a safe light as far as anyone could see. According to the article, Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson had considered nuclear weapons before him.


Your Chance to Live gives the truth of the matter away in itself. After successfully uninforming the public on the dangers of nuclear weaponry and potential war by comparing damage to sunburns, the Civil Defense pamphlet moves into brief sections on building shelters and having plans, indicating that the possible dangers are real. From there, the pamphlet moves without transitional heading into x-rays and the benefits of nuclear technology, conveniently sandwiching what matters between babbling propaganda so the government can claim the public properly warned even when consciously they weren’t.




1 Kohler, Johanna. “Civil defense planning in the 1960s & 1970s: A propaganda exercise?”


 2 Burr, William and Kimball, Jeffrey. “Nixon White House Considered Nuclear Options Against North Vietnam, Declassified Documents Reveal”



Honesty is the Best Policy

A pamphlet distributed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided recommendations for civil preparedness in case of a nuclear attack. At the time, there were two standard warning signals to alert the general public of a nuclear attack. The first, called “The Attention Signal” or “The Alert Signal," was a three to five minute steady blast of sirens. This signal signified that it was advised to go to a television or radio and follow instructions. The second signal was, “The Attack Warning Signal”, a three to five minute wavering of sirens that signaled for people to go to their fallout shelter or basement and then to turn on a radio or television for further instructions.[1]


According to FEMA, the best way to protect yourself against fallout is with three variables: distance, mass, and time.[2] With distance, the further away you are from the initial blast, the less radiation you’ll be exposed to. Constructing your fallout shelter or home with denser materials will protect you from exposure to fallout. Lastly, the more time that has occurred since the initial blast, the less potent the radiation will be, because of its decay. The decay of fallout is easily explained by the “seven-ten” rule. Essentially, for every increase of time by sevenfold the amount of fallout has decreased by a factor of ten.


The language in the pamphlet is not deceiving and honest to the general public. Fallout is accurately described as “dangerous” and toxic to the body. It is advised to immediately remove any particles from skin, hair and clothing.[3] Also they advise to disconnect some electronics from power lines to protect them from an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). By advising this it shows the government knew that nuclear attack was a possibility and they felt it would be best that the general public was well informed.

[1] U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, “What You Should Know About Nuclear Preparedness,” (Washington DC: GPO, 1983).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

IfYeArePrepared019.tif IfYeArePrepared023.tif
Advised precautions based on outside radiation levels. 
Expected effects based on radiation exposure. Anything above 300 is extremely dangerous and likely lethal. This is the threshold that is recommend you not exceed. 

Local Involvement

Locally, in Brigham City a booklet was put together by the Brigham City Utah North Stake, a branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Realistically, they were only expecting to potentially deal with fallout from a blast that had hit either Ogden or Salt Lake City; however, if a nuclear blast missed its target they felt they should be prepared for all aspects of a nuclear attack.[1]

The members who wrote this recommend, like the government, to find shelter in case of nuclear attack. After the blast, they advise to assess the damage of your home but to limit your time outside as you’re exposing yourself to the radiation. If you do not have a nuclear radiation detector and are unsure if it safe to be outside or not they recommended placing a white piece of paper outside. If the paper darkens then you would be exposing yourself to dangerous fallout.[2]

The major difference between the recommendations made between FEMA and the members of the LDS church is what to do in case of long term effects. FEMA advises to tune in to either a radio or television in order to receive further instructions but also to have a sufficient nuclear shelter as well as a supply of uncontaminated food and water. The LDS members from Brigham City also advised to take these precautions but also to pray to God that he would lead them out of nuclear winter. Based on the limited advice from both FEMA and the members from Brigham City regarding long term survival in nuclear warfare its clear that both parties expected extremely high mortality rates regardless of preparation.[3]


Civil preparedness was at an all-time high for nuclear attack during the 1980s, proven by members of the general public making similar recommendations for the preparation of nuclear attack as the government. However, due to the continued increase of number and potency of nuclear weapons civil preparedness had reached a breaking point where no additional advice could be offered.


[1] Robert Watson, “Nuclear Attack,” in If Ye Are Prepared Ye Shall Not Fear..., ed. Bruce Keyes (Brigham City: Brigham City Utah North Stake, 1984), 19-20.

[2] Ibid., 21-22.

[3] Ibid., 25.