The False Promise of Survival:
Civil Defense in America during the Cold War
The advent of nuclear weapons dawned a new and terrifying era in human history. The destructive power of the atomic bomb, demonstrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ushered in a global climate of fear. Emerging from the rubble of the Second World War, the U.S. and Soviet Union became the two most dominant economic, political, and military superpowers in the global arena. Upholding fundamental ideological differences, the U.S. and Soviet Union became entrenched in their respective camps of capitalism and communism. Having acquired nuclear weapons, and illustrated their ability to use them, the U.S challenged the Soviet Union’s military might. The Soviet Union promptly accepted this challenge by successfully acquiring nuclear capabilities on par with the U.S. In effect, a nuclear arms race ensued and the Cold War began. Fear of nuclear annihilation ultimately swept across the globe and into the homes of American citizens. Life in America during the Cold War’s climate of fear is exemplified in the 1955 Library of Congress photograph entitled “H-Bomb hideaway”, which portrays a family living in the confined space of their “Kidde Kokoon” fallout shelter in Garden City, Long Island. This photograph incited the idea for this paper to examine the civil defense measures taken by the U.S. federal government during the Cold War. First, the task of civil defense in the nuclear age will be addressed. Second, the major federal institution tasked with civil defense during the Cold War will be examined. Third, the federal government’s priority over the public when concerning civil defense will be critiqued. Fourth, the implications of the civil defense measures taken will be addressed. Finally, a summation of civil defense during the Cold War will be presented. In doing so, it will become apparent that U.S. federal leaders failed to provide adequate and realistic civil defense for the American people and left the task of survival mainly up to the citizen. Upon learning of the Soviet Union’s nuclear capabilities, civil defense became a leading political issue that the federal government had to address to ease and prevent social unrest. Chet Holifield examines the idealistic task of civil defense in America during the nuclear age from a profoundly realistic perspective in the composition, Fallout: A Study of Superbombs, Strontium 90, and Survival (1960). Writing in the midst of the Cold War, Holifield accurately acknowledges that the problem of civil defense during the nuclear age was “not one of saving everybody in the event of attack” but “to determine what can be done to minimize the effects” and effectively create a program to achieve this goal. The task of providing adequate protection against the effects of a nuclear attack was undoubtedly daunting and seemingly hopeless. Yet, as Kenneth D. Rose claims in his historical analysis of the fallout shelter, One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture (2001), “making some preparations, however inadequate in the face of nuclear war, was preferable to the feeling of helplessness and despair that was the alternative.” This is noteworthy, as Rose claims that “nuclear survival and restoration was official Cold War doctrine” and the federal government would encourage the American public to hold the same view. Andrew D. Grossman analyzes the most prominent federal institution tasked with civil defense in Neither Dead nor Red: Civilian Defense and American Political Development during the Early Cold War (2001). Grossman claims that the disturbing images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki painted a vivid picture of future war in the minds of foreign and domestic policy makers in the Truman administration. Acknowledging this serious threat, the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) was established in 1956 by virtue of the Civil...
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