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Duck and Cover and the Nuclear Scare


While the 1950s were a time of prosperity in America, they were also a time of unprecedented anxiety. In Russia, hydrogen bomb testing contributed to a nerve-wracking arms race while the success of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in space set off a frantic space race.

American school children were being taught to "duck and cover" in case of nuclear attack. Sirens would wail as schoolchildren marched dutifully to basements or climbed under their desks with the false impression that this would help them in the event of a nuclear attack. For effective drills, there was no indication that the sirens were anything less than an actual attack.

Nationally, an Alert America campaign sought to reassure people that simple civil defense procedures would protect them. Booklets and films offered suggestions on how to survive an atomic attack. The Federal Civil Defense Administration worked to familiarize people with images of the catastrophic effects of the atomic bomb in the hope that this would forestall panic. Millions of comic books were distributed to school children featuring a cartoon turtle called Bert that urged them to "duck and cover" in the event of an atomic strike. Spotters were assigned to watch the skies for anything that looked suspicious or out of the ordinary.

As the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union escalated, the fear of a nuclear war drove many Americans to dig or contract for bomb shelters. For some, eventual attack seemed inevitable and conversations were held about keeping the neighbors out of shelters to conserve food and water supplies. Bomb shelters costing from $100 to as much as $5,000 for an underground suite with phone and toilet sold like hotcakes and Wall Street investors said the bomb shelter business could gross up to $20 billion in the coming years if the nuclear war could be forestalled long enough.

Survival stores around the nation sold air blowers, filters, flashlights, fallout protection suits, first aid kits and water. General Foods and General Mills sold dry-packaged meals as underground rations. Civil defense films assured the public that simple precautions like walled-off basement corners stocked with two weeks rations and a radio tuned to Conelrad, the new emergency network, would help them survive a nuclear attack.

Some newspapers carried radiation readings beside daily weather reports and the magazine Popular Mechanics published a fallout shelter blueprint for the do-it-yourselfer. While Congress debated the merits of evacuating large cities versus massive community shelters, homeowners improvised shelters from septic tanks, concrete tubing, steel sheds and discarded lumber. Major airlines, Detroit automakers, IBM, the phone company and Wall Street planned employee shelters.

Public buildings with deep basements lined with thick underground concrete were designated as shelters in case of an attack by the Soviet Union. Throughout the sixties public buildings and subway entrances displayed the civil defense sign consisting of a circle divided into six equal sections, three of these sections are black and three yellow. The civil defense people originally wanted to use the radiation warning symbol with the circle in the center and the three radiating magenta propeller blades but this was objected to because a fallout shelter represented safety where the radiation warning symbol represented a hazard.

Hollywood contributed to the mood and produced nuclear war doomsday films like "On The Beach," "The Last Man On Earth," "The Day the World Ended," "Atomic Kid," and "Dr. Strangelove."

In 1960, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev tested the mettle of the new and youthful President John F. Kennedy, demanded that NATO troops leave Berlin. He emphasized his words with one of his shoes banging on the podium.

Kennedy recommended a course of action to his fellow Americans. "A fallout shelter for everybody," he said, "as rapidly as possible." He called the situation in Berlin "the great testing place of Western courage and will," and promised to let every citizen know what steps he could take without delay to protect his family in case of attack.

The Russians ended a three-year moratorium on nuclear testing with a blast over central Russia and warned the west that "It would take really very few multi-megaton nuclear bombs to wipe out your small and densely populated countries and kill you instantly in your lairs."

A year later, the Cuban Missile Crisis would shove the world to the brink for 13 agonizing days. Newspaper headlines blared warnings of impending annihilation. "Highest Urgency, Kennedy Reports," "Invasion Possible, Air, Sea and Ground Forces Ordered Out for Maneuvers," they cried.

As we all know, the bombs never dropped and thankfully, the fear began to fade. Backyard bomb shelters became wine cellars, fruit cellars, or empty relics and schoolchildren were no longer taught to duck and cover.


Published in sections: The Fifties ::

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