Saturday, April 20, 2024

Duck and Cover and DIE!: Rehearsing for the Nuclear Holocaust

by G. Jack Urso

From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.

Produced in 1952 by Archer Productions for the Federal Civil Defense Administration and in consultation with the Safety Commission of the National Education Association, Duck and Cover is a 9-minute animated film aimed at school-age children to teach them practical life-saving tips on how to survive a nuclear blast. While Duck and Cover was generally regarded as the height of Cold War paranoia it has in recent years received a more favorable treatment with supporters pointing out that the techniques taught by “Duck and Cover” actually can improve survivability depending on the distance from the blast epicenter.

They’re out of their tiny little minds.

Widely shown throughout public and private schools in America during the 1950s and 1960s, Duck and Cover drills, along with other Civil Defense measures, created a paranoia and mistrust of government that contributed to the creation of the counter-cultural movements of the era — exactly opposite of what the film hoped to accomplish.

As a late Baby Boomer born in 1964, I’m just old enough to remember the Duck and Cover drills at St. Teresa’s elementary school on New Scotland Avenue in Albany, NY, which took place as late as 1971 and 1972. I remember looking out the windows and imagining the horrific blast as the nun instructed us how to crawl under the desks to protect ourselves. Another drill had us shuffle out into the hallway to crouch low against the inside walls. We were all of 7 and 8 years old.

Just an average day of rehearsing for the holocaust in Post-War American schools.
Another feature of the post-war Duck and Cover generation were the civil defense loudspeakers which, usually in the summer, would be tested by blaring a loud warning. Mounted on wooden telephone or green metal utility poles, these loudspeakers were scattered throughout the city. There were a couple in Pine Hills where I grew up, one at the nearby Little League ball parks on Woodlawn Avenue, and another about a half-mile away near the corner of Mercer Street and Ryckman Avenue. Much to my surprise, both were still around when I graduated college and moved back into the area in 1990. Still there about 2000, they were removed not long afterwards. Ghostly relics of a near-apocalyptic past, they served no purpose after the Soviet Union broke apart.

A next-door neighbor was a Civil Defense warden and his home had a cache of CD supplies, including the lemon and cherry-flavored high-caloric candies meant as a dietary and energy supplement. My complete collection of Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines from the 1940s to the 1980s (an inheritance from by Uncle Frank) are filled with plans for bomb shelters, mainly during the 1950s and 1960s issues. My grandfather, a WWII Italian army veteran, built a bomb-shelter as a sub-cellar off the basement. My dad tried to ease my nuclear anxiety by pointing out if a bomb dropped near us, it would probably be in Schenectady, where the General Electric facilities were, about 30 miles away, not in Albany itself.

Oddly, it gave me little comfort.
Picture Parade, 1953.
While an entire generation grew up under the threat of nuclear annihilation at any time, our popular entertainment become more and more — well, just plain weird and outrageous. TV series such as Batman, The Addams Family, The Munsters, Laugh-In, Mad Magazine, and many comic books, movies, and music, reflected our anxiety over an imminent holocaust and rightfully questioned the credibility of the world order that brought us to this point. We consumed more, we partied more, we used more drugs, we had more sex, we found religion, and we lost religion. Of course there were consequences, such as having to endure the fundraising moralistic preaching about our behavior from the older generation who gave us a world where death is always around the corner.

As an adult, I ended up as a weapon systems profiler for a military database in Washington DC for 25 years. It actually was a result of an interest in tracking weapon sales I developed while a member of Amnesty International. What I learned is that the dirty little secret about the doctrine of Mutually-Assured Destruction (MAD), which promised peace because both sides knew that launching any nuclear weapon would result in an immediate full-response — literally destroying the world — is that it worked. We came close several times but survived the Cold War. Would Russia have invaded Ukraine had it kept the nuclear weapons it gave up in the early 1990s?  It’s a question for which I’m not sure I really want the answer.

Duck and Cover theatrical release poster.
Perhaps MAD worked when there were just three nations with nuclear weapons, but now there are at least eight nations with nuclear weapons, possibly nine. If a nuclear weapon were to be used now, it likely would not result in a global thermonuclear war, but a very localized event such as at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Nevertheless, I'm not inclined to consider that progress.

The complete Duck and Cover film is available above from the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.
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1 comment:

  1. Yes, for what it's worth, MAD works. Limited antagonists does help, yet, ratio wise, MAD works on our streets and highways with our vehicles we drive. Still, it works because we are still beastly, and beasts respond peacefully when the next guy can hit you over the head as well. Interesting retro lookback.