Protection in the Nuclear Age

Sunday, July 8th, 2018

Jesse Walker of Reason mocks an old civil defense film that I think I remember:

If I said I was about to show you a government film about how to survive a nuclear war, you’d probably guess that it came from the 1950s, that golden age of absurdly optimistic civil defense films. But Protection in the Nuclear Age was released in 1978, and it was made with an aesthetic that those of us who were in school in that era will recognize quickly. Some moments in these animations of pre- and post-apocalyptic life aren’t that different, in form if not content, from a 1970s guidance counselor’s collection of posters about emotions.

Like that guidance counselor, the movie strains hard to stay positive. “Defense Department studies show that even under the heaviest possible attack, less than five percent of our entire land mass would be affected by blast and heat from nuclear weapons,” the narrator claims at one point. “Of course,” he adds mildly, “that five percent contains a large percentage of our population.” But those people just might have time to flee to the rest of the country, which “would escape untouched — except possibly by radioactive fallout.” Oh, you and your little caveats.

In the early 1980s, it was hip to be extremely pessimistic about these things.


  1. Graham says:

    I don’t know what factors make up the cynicism of Gen X [that's me] but I never quite had the full measure of it myself.

    Millennials think I’m cynical when not wholly a Dark Sider. [But that's them, and they don't believe me when I try to call out what to me is the dark side of their utopianism. That can't compute for them. They also can't compute when I say the worst stuff in history is concocted by idealists, not cynics. I am starting to think their standard of measure is perfection, as they see it, and anything short of that or any expression of lack of desire for it is cynical where not actually evil.]

    I’m not actually all that cynical. Certainly not up to the level claimed for my generation by its writers and pop culture figures.

    But it could be stuff like this that made Xers this way. I can’t think of anything else that was especially hard about living in those times as a youth. Even for Americans. No draft, no more Vietnam, peace, prosperity. Yes crime peaked in our youths in every city, but how many of us were ever really affected by it? Our teachers put a bit of scare into us about AIDS, as did the media, but even so. The nuclear threat is the only thing.

    Funny thing, I was more aware than most of my peers about such things as a teen, even to having some idea that the amount of nukes available to be thrown around was far worse than in 1962. I watched The Day After, Threads, and Testament. Yet somehow it never scarred me. Every so often it comes to mind and I ask others of my era. Reactions vary, some were more worried than me, but no one yet claims to have been terrorized or driven to cynicism by nuclear tension.

    It may just be that I was born in 1970, so Canada had stopped bothering with this sort of thing by the time I would have been aware of it. But if it had still been producing some, I suppose I would at least have appreciated someone had the job of trying to ensure something survived. That’s still a more serious attitude than the one Walker is pushing.

    One also sees all sorts of retrospective Gen X sneering at the earlier generations’ “duck and cover”. Even a quick perusal of Wikipedia suggests that this advice was pretty useful in the early, bomber age of the Cold War. At least better than standing around jeering.

  2. Graham says:

    I mean, I get where Walker must be coming from on another level. I remember cheesy public service posters, tv ads, very special episodes of sitcoms, after school specials, the whole apparatus of helpful education on every subject that was by then so camp that it almost seems to have been intentionally tongue in cheek. The educational messages tacked onto the ends of GI Joe cartoons, the whole works.

    I’ve seen Canadian nuclear awareness posters from the 1950s and 1960s featuring silly characters like Bea Alert. I sometimes wonder if boomers and their parents laughed at such things or took them as earnestly as intended. WW2 propaganda too, or some of it.

    Were we raised just at the point where no one could any longer take such vehicles seriously? Were we boldly breaking through the fog of nonsense to see clearly? I don’t know. Millennials seem to have invented camp goodness all over again.

  3. Harry Jones says:

    The super rich are building underground bunkers to survive the coming global warming robot overlords economic Trumpocalypse. They’ve got enough angst for everybody.

    The disasters everyone predicts rarely come to pass. The disasters that come to pass few predict. The world is ruled by black swans.

  4. Felix says:

    You are about to enter another dimension. A dimension not only of space and time, but of mind as well. … That video screams for the TZ theme song.

  5. Kirk says:

    Somewhere in the Mitrokin stuff I read, or elsewhere in my readings about Soviet agitprop efforts here in the West, I distinctly remember reading about how they’d helped finance and encourage all the “end of the world” crap about nuclear warfare–And, a good deal of that went to discrediting the Civil Defense work here in the US and Europe.

    Without going into the whole fairy-tale End of the World As We Know It(tm) bullshit surrounding this crap, the discrediting and devaluing of Civil Defense has been a major loss to the body politic’s resilience and confidence. Most of what Civil Defense should be would not necessarily be aimed even at wartime issues, but those of the more prosaic sort. Disaster planning and recovery are an afterthought for most of the US, and it’s going to bite us in the ass once we have a major regional disaster on our hands, one that Katrina should have been a dress-rehearsal for. We’ve got vulnerable populations stuck out on the end of logistics chains that are simply not robust or survivable enough, like LA and most of the Pacific Northwest. Shut down land communications to LA, and the whole urban conglomeration down there is going to turn into a charnel house in relatively short order–And, surprise, surprise, surprise, ain’t nobody down there got a freakin’ clue about things like “Where’s the food stored…? How much is there…? How long will it last…?”. There isn’t a single organization or government body in the LA basin that even tracks that stuff, let alone is prepared to take control of it and make sure it isn’t wasted.

    Likewise, there are only a few communities in the coastal PNW that are taking measures to cope with being cut off from everything for the several months that are anticipated if the “Big One” lets go. Odds are very good that the entire road network from Eugene, OR to Vancouver, BC will be turned into mush, as every single hillside above the cuts we’ve made to build those roads collapse. Results? Well, picture the Oso slide of 2014, on a regional scale.

    We aren’t prepared the way we should be, and a large part of that is due to the smarmy smartasses who’ve been making mock of the Civil Defense programs since the 1960s. Personally, given what I know about the accuracy and lethality of most of our nuclear missiles, my guess is that the biggest shock of a nuclear war would have been the dud rate, and how badly we all missed our targets… At any rate, the Civil Defense programs never should have been de-emphasized, and should have been beefed up considerably. Little things, like pre-organizing local militias to keep order, and training them in things like building assessments and urban rescue… If you look at Japanese efforts for earthquake and other disaster preparation, we look like a pack of fools.

  6. Graham says:

    When we get disaster advice up here, it always strikes me as a little basic.

    I am not especially fit, healthy, skilled, or prepared. But I’ve got enough water stocked to get through the usually mandated three days and have just demonstrated I can survive in a 30 degree 75% humidity apartment. So the sort of mundane stuff they really expect to hit Ottawa in the age of climate change isn’t going to kill me as long as it isn’t winter. Now if I have no heat in winter on the other hand, I’m out. True story. plotted in advance.

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