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Laura McEnaney on: Helping People Manage Fear
Laura McEnaney Q: The head of the Federal Civil Defense Administration under President Eisenhower used to talk about useful fear. What did he mean?

LM: There was a kind of pop psychology approach to helping people through their fear. Civil defense wardens were supposed to go from house to house, and inventory what the family had done to protect themselves, but also to acknowledge family fear and to say some fear is good, in fact, it's natural to be afraid in the atomic age.

On the other hand, there are steps you can take to manage your panic. You can drill yourselves so that you instinctively move from A to B, that you instinctively move from living room during a dinner party to shelter. They talked about the fact that panic had one function, and that was to make people move, to do something. But too much panic was actually going to cause apathy, cynicism, perhaps even hostility to the whole nuclear program.

Of course. one of the reasons they wanted to manage panic was also to manage public opinion about the whole premise of nuclear deterrence. If people didn't have faith in civil defense, that meant that they didn't believe nuclear war was survivable, and that perhaps would lead to larger questions about the entire premise of atomic diplomacy.

Q: In some ways the civil defense program is counter productive. By making the population think about the possibility of nuclear war, it makes more and more Americans worry about nuclear weapons.

LM: Yes. Well when you, when you think about it, asking the entire population to think about daily life in different ways, to think not from a position of peace but from a position of war preparation, to practice peace through preparation for war is a paradox. And not everybody bought it. And various groups protested, some formally, some informally. Some people protested in groups in antinuclear peace groups. Other civilians, one could argue other civilians protested by simply not participating in these mass exercises.

And again, one of the things that the exercises confirmed over and over again was that this was not feasible, this being protection from the hydrogen bomb. It was not feasible. And so it had, sowed the seeds of its own demise by revealing the flaws and by suggesting that the problems were insurmountable. People began to realize that this was a ritual and nothing more.

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