by John Moroney
It was another ordinary day inside grade schools across the country. The school bell rang throughout the halls and the day started with history, then science class comes and goes, followed by English. As the teacher wrapped up her lesson, the students played in the school yard for recess. Once they returned to class, they were greeted with the daily routine of hiding under their desks from potential bombs dropped in the distance. Once complete, the students moved on to Art and then Math, then returned to their homes to carry out the rest of the day.
Atomic power was fresh in the minds of many people in post-WWII America. It was especially on the mind of President Eisenhower, who knew the destruction an atomic bomb could deliver all too well, leading him to approve National Civil Defense Week, which took place from September 9th to 15th in 1956. It was to be a week dedicated to Civil Defense, or in other words, trying to prepare for atomic bombs being dropped on American soil.
Eisenhower’s main message was to inform the American people that a country whose citizens were able to last through an atomic attack would be the country that would prevail. One problem, however, is that many American people had no idea what atomic bombs were capable of, or what the long term effects of fallout could be, as they had not seen the sheer destruction it has caused upon two Japanese cities, due to the government not fully releasing film and descriptions of what the cities looked like. What was released, however, was documents of some of the aftermath and effects of the explosion, which many people in the nation shrugged off and paid no attention to.
What the American public knew is that two bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered, and there were celebrations when the U.S. troops returned. They did not understand that both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were completely destroyed. They did not see the miles of wreckage from buildings scattered all over the ground, the bodies that were instantly incinerated, or the people trapped inside burning buildings struggling to survive. Regardless—the parade-like atmosphere rolled into a week dedicated to protecting the country from almost certain death.
The citizens of the United States tuned into their television sets, radios, and newspapers throughout the week learning all about the power and capabilities of an atomic bomb—or, at least, all the information the administration allowed the public to consume. All around towns, fliers for local fallout shelters lined the streets urging people to know where they were located in case of an attack. What the fliers did not say was to hope the bombs dropped a minimum of 10 miles away. People within those 10 miles, even those who decided to seek shelter, would have met their fate. The people hiding in shelters within the blast radius would be subject to hiding in an oven. The people who were so fortunate enough not to be incinerated by these ovens would surely be crushed by the falling debris from the explosion. If, by some fortunate (unfortunate), circumstance those seeking shelter were not crushed or burned alive, they would have to deal with years of pain and/or slow death due to the radiation poisoning that would eventually reach them. That type of news was not what people wanted to hear. What they wanted to hear was that their government, who cares so deeply about each individual’s well-being, was going to protect them. So to whatever fallout shelter they desire!
Some reports were put out stating that some, if not most, people would brush off the week and not fully pay attention. Besides, why pay attention to what the government was trying to say about safety when Elvis is appearing on the Ed Sullivan show September 9th?
What the mayor of San Francisco did to try to get the public interested was stress the importance of the week, to keep making it known that this was of great importance. Televisions and newspapers would amp up their segments and articles about civil defense trying to reach the average American. It mostly fell on deaf ears because people didn’t see this as an important broadcast. This did not slow down the broadcasts, however. This was called “The San Francisco Plan.”
Other cities like New York, which had a high risk of attack, also amped up their public service announcements. Whether or not the announcements inspired the public is a completely different story. The government’s job was to issue a warning to the public, not inform the public. If they wanted to actually inform the public of the dangers the week wouldn’t have been saturated with catchy jingles and ads to simply “duck and cover.” The radio waves and papers would be filled with a much more serious tone—a tone much darker than most people could imagine. But once again, that was not what the public wanted to hear, was not meant to hear. We were the country of victory and freedom. We would not be forced into the ground by threats that are not completely certain and inconvenient.
Major U.S. cities seemed to be the ones who were “fully” prepared. The only problem—the inevitability that a majority of the people in a major city would not make it through the explosion alive. The suburban areas, which should have been focusing on shelters due to the distance they were from high targets, brushed it off as well.
Some cities did realize the hole in this plan. Representative comments in the Jacksonville, Florida, Times Union stated, “fully nine-tenths of the populace will shrug the week-long program of events as meaningless and empty.”
Another city that took to the newspapers to convince the public Civil Defense week was worth the importance was Knoxville, Tennessee, which stressed that the week could shine a light of importance on the nation’s Civil Defense program.
Eventually September 16th came and the week was over, marking the end of National Civil Defense Week. The American people went back to their lives—no more being bombarded by fallout shelter fliers, and President Eisenhower’s face on the TV, not that they were really paying attention anyway. The next time they were able to be graced with the President’s face on their television sets, it would be about a speech about freedom, financial stability, or foreign affairs. No more of this “duck and cover” nonsense from lights flashing in the distance.
Now that the worry was over American citizens could continue their lives and not worry about Russians, or anyone else for that matter, pointing bombs at them since the government was no longer pushing articles in their daily newspapers. Perhaps the next Civil Defense week would focus on using counter radiation to combat the radiation that atomic weapons give off, instead of only focusing on hiding, since we had the power to create these bombs ourselves.
Perhaps there wouldn’t even be a Civil Defense Week again. Maybe the administration realized what they should be actually doing, instead sugar-coating information and leaving things to the imagination, is fight for atomic disarmament.
There never was another Civil Defense Week. Most Americans knew that if any of those bombs went off, there’d be no saving themselves from mutually assured destruction.