From the moment the mushroom cloud erupted at Hiroshima, leaving rubble and disfigured bodies in its wake, humans came to fear a peril of their own making. Then after the Cold War was decreed, fears of an atomic attack escalated. Citizens who could hardly understand the lethal power of the weapon were forced to live with the daily threat of a nuclear event. In 1950, President Harry Truman authorized the Federal Civil Defense Administration, which undertook a campaign to help Americans feel safer living with that risk.
The agency put out educational literature and most famously, the Duck and Cover video that millions of school children watched as part of their “survival training.” Youngsters drilled to assure they would be ready for the looming attack that they were warned could come at any moment. In the movie, children were depicted seeking shelter riding a bike or walking down a street, when on a playground, and in their classroom. The message for the young audience was that they were never free from a threat — even at their most playful moments.
Ostensibly, the purpose of this material was to make people — and especially kids — feel safer. The government intended to give the public confidence that they could survive a bomb blast, even if it was a false hope. The information and drill instruction offered action to combat the fear that the new reality of nuclear war engendered. But, the effort became less of a balm than an accelerant.
A generation of schoolchildren were regularly subjected to reminders that a horrible attack could be imminent. That awareness served as a constant anxiety absorbed into the background of everyday life, along with the other marvels of technology that shaped post-war culture. The Bomb was a looming peril belying the security of suburbia, and the regular school preparedness drills hammered that reality into impressionable young minds.
The fear of their fear and the need to remedy that fear created its own hysteria — a new Red Scare and atomic anxiety. A generation raised on bomb warnings and drills naturally responded to the angst about a nuclear attack that never came. That fear helped define them and shape their choices. They were markedly different than the generation that followed the War to End All Wars — no less hedonistic, perhaps, but more expectant that they would be protected.
Preparedness drills and civil defense materials probably fed the illusion that they could be kept safe, even as it made them afraid. The government stepped in to reassure them — but not to act to de-escalate the Cold War and reduce the likelihood of a nuclear war. In essence, the political leadership was more concerned about pacifying the public than averting the threat. Fear of the people’s fear motivated them rather than the reality of their enemies’ power, and it took some time to acknowledge the insanity of that position.
Bizarrely, then, the nuclear age spawned government-as-protector even as it was the cause, also, of the dread. That the state would develop and employ these weapons is not surprising, but its efforts to serve as public comforter while doing so certainly is. Thus, even as it fueled anti-communistic hysteria, it tried to assuage (poorly and with the opposite effect) the fears of citizens about the nuclear menace. Which, then, was the political leadership’s real fear and what did they do to us?