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Laura McEnaney on: America's Response to the Civil Defense Message
Laura McEnaney Q: Civil defense in a way turns domestic life into a sort of military life. It brings the Cold War right into people's homes.

LM: Right, right. Well essentially what the FCDA was doing was popularizing the idea that the home was the site of military readiness, that families, that American families would fight the Cold War from their homes, from their living rooms, from their basement or backyard shelters...It really reconstituted the family as a kind of paramilitary unit that readied itself to fight whatever kind of Cold War was going to come their way. And it asked American families to think about themselves not just as friends, neighborhoods, family members, but as warriors of a Cold War. And this really introduced a military purpose and practice into American family life.

Q: What do we know about how Americans responded to the Federal government's civil defense message?

LM: This is a difficult question because the statistics on this are hard to find because the practice of self-help meant that you did it yourself, and so there was no formal reporting of who was building a shelter, who was stocking the basement with extra supplies, who was keeping their house clean to prevent nuclear firestorm.

With the lack of adequate reporting, the best figures suggest about four million people participated formally as volunteers in local civil defense programs across the country. More Americans probably read and paid attention to the information, stocked a few supplies here and there, had the air raid shelter instruction card taped to the inside of their kitchen cabinet. But it's very hard to give specifics on numbers of participants.

But in general, it is safe to say that most Americans accepted the premise of civil defense, that is, the home front had to be ready. And they accepted the premise that the Soviet threat had to be met with a strong nuclear threat on the part of the United States, but they rejected the kind of home front militarization that the FCDA was really asking of them. Reconstituting their homes as paramilitary defense units, or recreating the living room into a military space, or converting the basement into a bunker. Most Americans rejected that. Most Americans did not build fallout shelters in their basements or their backyards. Numbers on those who did vary from two thousand to over one hundred thousand. Again, that's a reporting problem, but most Americans supported the idea of civil defense and the idea of nuclear readiness as taxpayers, but refused to reorganize themselves into the kind of preparedness units that the government was asking them.

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