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Dee Garrison on: Civil Defense Portrayal of Nuclear War
Q: The Federal Government, in the 1950s, makes an effort to downplay the horror of nuclear war in all its civil defense literature, doesn't it?

DG: It's not too much different from ordinary bombs. That was the message that the Atomic Energy Commission particularly, and assisted by officials in the Federal Civil Defense Administration, that was the message. Yes...

The thing about civil defense history is-- that you have to recognize at once, is that nobody believed in it. The Presidents didn't believe in it (Truman, Eisenhower). They made public pronouncements, but in fact it was almost all entirely rhetoric. Congress did not believe in it. Even during the early sixties, during the Kennedy hype for civil defense, that was the only time that Congress ever even gave the money that was requested by the Federal Civil Defense Administration. Through Truman's years and even more so during Eisenhower's years as President, Congress habitually cut anywhere from 50 to 80 or 90 percent of the Federal Civil Defense Administration request for money. What little money they received mostly went to the production of propaganda, to instruct the American people about, um, the real purpose of civil defense, which was, I believe, to legitimate the deterrence policy.

In other words, the U.S. had to convince the Soviets, if deterrence was to work, that we would risk nuclear war. And the people had to support that idea. They had to be willing to risk nuclear war if deterrence was to survive as a policy. And civil defense was designed to teach Americans that they could survive. That, of course, was not true, particularly after the hydrogen bomb in the mid-fifties. But during Truman's Administration and the first term of Eisenhower, that was a very predominant message of civil defense authorities: that you can survive nuclear war because it's not so different really from ordinary weapons.

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