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Elaine Tyler May on: Civil Defense
Q: Were the Federal Civil Defense programs really a good faith effort to save people?

ETM: They were definitely a good faith effort to save people. Frankly, government agencies didn't know how bad it might be...These were also times when there were practice evacuations of entire cities and communities, to see how quickly people could get out of a center of a city. The idea being, if you were far enough away and if you were living in a suburb (and the suburbs are expanding, of course, dramatically during these years), in part to avoid concentrating the population in one place that could be easily destroyed. So if you were far enough away, if you could get far enough away, if you weren't right exactly at ground zero, then maybe these efforts at training housewives and preparing families could lead to the possibility of surviving. And people took those ideas very seriously. And very soon, home bomb shelters and fallout shelters became available for purchase, and they were marketed in very much the same way: You can protect your family. The worst can happen, and you can still protect your family .

Q: But there was also, I think, growing public skepticism that the government was being candid and truthful about what these weapons meant.

ETM: All during the Cold War, there was a love-hate relationship going on with the bomb and with the people who had their fingers on the button, as it were. Is this a good thing? Is this a bad thing? Can we trust them to be careful with it? Can we trust them? We (the American people) trust them (our leaders) to be responsible, to protect us if need be, and not to be trigger happy when you have weapons of this kind of destruction.

And certainly, there are lots of .. popular cultural representations of that fear, you know, Fail Safe and stories like that, about the accidental unleashing of a nuclear holocaust; the spoofs that came out of that years later, Doctor Strangelove, and How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Great, hilarious comedy, but very dark humor, based on the real fears that people carried around with them about the atomic age. So you get these kinds of mixed reactions to this horrible news of the unleashing of such a weapon.

And authorities on one hand try to cast it as one more piece of important military artillery in the Cold War arsenal, and at the same time to reassure people that it would only be used if it was necessary to use it to protect the country. But it was increasingly difficult for Americans to understand and believe that their leaders were telling them the truth when they reassured them about how these weapons might be built and used, and that there wouldn't be any increasing danger to them as a result of their existence. Many people felt even more afraid when they saw this new weapon.

Q: What happens to civil defense in the mid-fifties, after these weapons get much bigger and more powerful, and there's increasing fear of fallout? What does civil defense do at this stage?

ETM: Much of the civil defense effort after the hydrogen bomb testing focused on fallout. And that's when you begin to see many more efforts to build shelters in people's houses. The private fallout shelter was never really a huge hit. It was much more evident in the advertising and in the popular attention that was given to these shelters. And of course, they were built. People did buy them and construct them. But there were not as many, nearly as many fallout shelters in people's basements and backyards, as there were advertisements about them, attention to them, stories about them...

In one case, in 1959, Life magazine featured a couple, a young couple who got married and spent their honeymoon in their shelter, built right in the yard of their modest suburban home. And Life magazine called it the "sheltered honeymoon" and talked about how this couple was going to have these two weeks of romantic togetherness, as they called it, in this little concrete box underneath the ground in front of their house. Now, obviously this was a publicity stunt. But it was very interesting, the way it was cast as something to celebrate, as something very playful, as fun. Life photographed the couple sitting in front of their house, in front of the shelter, and out in front of the house, with all the canned goods and supplies they're going to take down with them, the portable toilet (sort of one little unromantic item) sitting there amid all of the other things they were going to take with them. There's a photographs of them kissing each other as they're descending into this little tomb-like box. And then two weeks later, they emerge amid the cheers and cameras. You know. He's got a little scruffy beard, and she's looking a little wilted, but nonetheless, you know, two weeks of unbroken togetherness on their honeymoon.

And the imagery surrounding this -- that it's again the marriage, it's the family, it's the safety and security, it's the future, that this young couple is embarking on their adult life, and is a married couple starting a family in the privacy and comfort and security of the home. And in this case, the symbolic meaning of using the fallout shelter for a honeymoon seems to put together all of those elements of a mythic domestic fortress to protect people from the dangers that the Cold War has wrought in the era of massive bombs and dangerous fallout.

And increasingly, the culture began to associate all kinds of dangers of the age with the potential for a nuclear war with atomic weapons, and particularly with fallout itself. You could find this everywhere from the popular culture -- If you opened up a magazine, you could see the picture of a bathing beauty sprawled out next to a swimming pool, wearing a skimpy bathing suit, and she's labeled "the anatomic bomb". The bikini bathing suit was named right after the dropping -- four days after the dropping of the -- of the H-bomb on Bikini Island. And the designer of the swimsuit himself said, "I called it the bikini because of its explosive, dangerous potential." And you begin to get the notion that female sexuality is getting attached to images of atomic weaponry, as if they both carried this devastating, destructive, dangerous potential.

And much of the language used around both was quite similar, oddly enough. You would have descriptions of nuclear power as either so dangerous that it would destroy society and even kill many people, but if it was harnessed peacefully and used for good, it could make life better, happier, more healthy, more fulfilling. And similarly, there were arguments about female sexuality much the same way: that after World War II, a time when women had been liberated from female jobs, from the domestic hearth, they had gone out into the world, they had entered the army, they had taken over men's jobs. Rosie the Riveter could build a battleship as well as any man. Would women be tame after the war? Would they be willing to settle down and get married and live happily ever after, as submissive wives and mothers, after they had been emancipated both economically and sexually?

And you begin to see this language coming into the popular culture as well. So that you would have not only the bikini bathing suit and the "anatomic bomb", but even in civil defense pamphlets, remarkably enough, the American government in their own publications were making these connections. In a widely distributed civil defense pamphlet that was published as late as 1972, that was really a pamphlet all about fallout (how to understand it, how to protect against it, what it is), there was a discussion of fallout as the alpha, beta, gamma rays that could get -- that were invisible, that could get underneath your skin, make you sick, and even possibly kill you. But these were the very same rays that, if they were harnessed for peace and used for the good of humankind, that we would get clean energy, we would get safe medicines, we could cure people with incurable illnesses. And the illustrations in this pamphlet were remarkable. You couldn't really draw a picture of the alpha, beta, gamma rays. They were invisible. And they were personified as sort of sexy looking bathing beauties wearing swimsuits and sort of Miss America banners saying alpha, beta, gamma, with these kind of provocative smiles on their faces. And there you have it. There's the alpha, beta, gamma rays in all their titillating, inviting, sexy appeal, and their danger, with the explicit message in the pamphlet that if they're harnessed for peace, they can make for a better life. And on the very next page you see the images of the family in the fallout shelter, where alpha, beta, and gamma have been domesticated. There she is, as the good wife and mother in the shelter, next to her husband, with her children, surrounded by the consumer goods that are going to make it possible to survive throughout the nuclear devastation above, and survive the fallout, and come out safe and happy and whole, as a comfortable nuclear family where all of that potential has been contained in the home.

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