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Laura McEnaney on: The Message of Self-Help
Laura McEnaney Q: Can you describe how the civil defense films conveyed this message of "self-help"?

LM: The films always portrayed families huddling together, gearing up their homes or their shelters for the kind of attack that the government described could happen. And there are a number of films that display families busily preparing themselves. Each family member had a particular job. The mother had a job to ready the shelter with food, cleaning supplies, and other kinds of things. The father was usually the person who built the shelter. The children would stock it with games and things that would occupy them during the few days that they would be in their bunker. And there are, there are myriad brochures that went along with those films that also give visual depictions of family readiness. But the message was, your fate in the atomic age depends on what you do, not what the government does for you, but what you do. And that was the central message of every film, every brochure. Self-help will save you, not government assistance.

Q: The other thing that comes across in the films is it's not going to be as bad as you think it's going to be.

LM: Right, right, right. There were several films made based on tests they did in the early 1950s. In 1953 and 1954, there were several tests done on typical American family homes, frame homes that you would see in any suburb in Anytown, U.S.A., and one of the things that they did was they placed mannequin families, the called them mannequin families and they dressed them up in JC Penney clothing and they positioned them in various rooms of the house. And in one room there was a child taking a nap, in another room there was a family dinner party, and they equipped each of these homes with refrigerators, typical appliances one would find in a home, the kinds of food one would eat, from baby food to adult food, and they exposed them to blast.

And afterwards, they would reenter the home and the family would still be sitting in the dining room, of course in different kinds of pieces scattered all over the room. The picture would be slightly crooked, the roof would be off, but that would not really be displayed very much. The child would maybe have a torso in one area of the room, a leg in another area of the room, maybe a chip in its face. And the captions underneath these pictures incredibly said, this shows that with adequate shelter a family can survive. The lesson here is, don't be caught unprepared on any day during any typical family activity, this could happen to you. ...

Each film, each brochure, was a morality tale. If you didn't prepare, you have only yourself to blame for being wounded or killed. And this was, this was consistently the message of every piece of public relations material that was disseminated in the early 1950s.

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