After the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949, the American public was understandably nervous. They were aware of the destruction that individual atomic bombs did to the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the general public did not know a lot yet about the dangers of radiation and fallout.
So, a new Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) was set up in 1951 to educate – and reassure – the country that there were ways to survive an atomic attack from the Soviet Union. They commissioned a university study on how to achieve “emotion management” during the early days of the Cold War.
One of their approaches was to involve schools. Teachers in selected cities were encouraged to conduct air raid drills where they would suddenly yell, “Drop!” and students were expected to kneel down under their desks with their hands clutched around their heads and necks. Some schools even distributed metal “dog tags,” like those worn by World War II soldiers, so that the bodies of students could be identified after an attack.
The next logical step was to promote these “preparedness” measures around the country, and the FCDA decided the best way to do that was to commission an educational film that would appeal to children. In 1951, the agency awarded a contract for the production to a New York firm known as Archer Films.
Archer called in teachers to meet with them and got the endorsement of the National Education Association. An administrator at a private school in McLean, Virginia, mentioned that they had participated in the “duck and cover” drills. That was the first time the producers had heard the drills called that, and they thought the phrase would work as a title.
The producers went to work on a script that would combine live actors and an animated turtle to encourage kids to duck down to the ground and get under some form of cover – a desk, a table or next to a wall – if they ever saw a bright flash of light. The flash would presumably be produced by an atomic blast. The hero of the film was the animated Turtle named Bert who wore a pith helmet and quickly ducked his head into his shell when a monkey in a tree set off a firecracker nearby.
At the time, not that much was generally known about the effects of radiation sickness and radioactive fallout away from Ground Zero of a nuclear blast. In addition, the first atomic weapons were produced by a fission reaction. In the early bombs, uranium was compressed into a “critical mass,” where enough radioactive material came together to create a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. Millions of free neutrons would hit uranium or plutonium atoms and break them apart, releasing more neutrons. An explosion resulted.
The resulting explosion of this fission reaction was the equivalent of at least 15,000 tons of TNT – the most powerful conventional explosive. In the parlance of the time, the Hiroshima bomb was a 15-kiloton weapon. Most people were concerned with the tremendous heat and blast damage that atomic bombs produced, not with the relatively small amount of radiation produced.
So, when Duck and Cover was completed in January 1952, its admonition perhaps could have saved some lives in the event of an atomic-bomb attack. Civil Defense officials liked the animated turtle and his monkey tormentor so much that they included the film in the “Alert America Convoy.” The convoy had 10 trucks and trailers that toured he country for nine months in 1952. Each vehicle contained civil defense dioramas, posters, 3-D models and a film theatre showing Duck and Cover and other educational movies. The theme was practical ways individuals could “beat the bomb.” According to the FCDA, 1.1 million people eventually saw the convoy exhibits.
At the same time, Duck and Cover was premiered to educators at a gala screening at a Manhattan movie theatre. From there, it was distributed to schools around the country by one of the largest educational film distributors. It was shown on television stations around the country, and some educated guesses put the TV audience in the tens of millions.
Many baby boomers like Alex Martin (left) remember duck and cover drills in their schools. “It was a little bit like a fire drill except you don’t run outside,” Alex says. “So, the Cold War, that’s past now, and today people who were born in the last 20 years probably can’t appreciate that. But we were not on very friendly terms with Russia at the time, to say the least.”
JFK’s special counsel, Ted Sorensen (right), also remembers duck and cover drills, but admits that even fallout shelters probably wouldn’t have done much good. “If they were truly air tight, and if you could truly stay done there for weeks and weeks until the nuclear fallout had passed, some people might have survived that way. But, in the meantime they would have been fighting off their neighbors and maybe perishing from eating rotten food. Who knows?”
Then came the fusion- or hydrogen-bomb.
H-bombs are a lot more powerful than A-bombs. In fact, the H-bomb uses a smaller A-bomb just to ignite the fusion material. The Hiroshima bomb was the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT. The first H-bomb produced the equivalent of 10,400,000 tons of TNT. That’s 10.4 megatons of energy – over 450 times more power than the 15 kilotons of the Hiroshima bomb.
The second H-bomb was tested in February 1954 at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands (in the background of photo illustration above). It yielded 15 megatons of energy, and something else very unexpected – massive amounts of radioactive fallout that contaminated over 7,000 square miles. A Japanese fishing boat nearby wasn’t affected by the blast or the heat, but got a dusting of fallout in a snow-like mist. The boat, the “Fifth Lucky Dragon,” made it to port but members of the crew were suffering from skin burns and radiation sickness. One died. The fish they caught were contaminated.
Nearby islands in the Marshall chain were also contaminated and islanders had to be evacuated. Many islands are still uninhabitable.
The huge destructive power of hundreds of H-bombs along with the growing knowledge of the dangers of radioactive fallout made the simple “duck and cover” drills cruelly ironic. By the mid-60s at least, there were not many who believed they, or the world, could survive a nuclear war, and the film Duck and Cover became a sardonic icon of nuclear propaganda.
All of this is important to rural America because the nuclear arms race required the military to test hundreds of weapons, most in the rural desert of Nevada. Recently, the National Cancer institute produced a map (left, above) showing high levels of radiation exposure – in the form of Iodine-131 – from the Nevada nuclear tests concentrated in the Great Plains and farming regions of the Midwest.
In addition, FEMA recently produced a map (below) of where they would expect radioactive fallout to be deposited in the event of a large nuclear exchange. Again, the highest levels are concentrated in the Great Plains and upper Midwest.