Forum — From the December 2017 issue

Destroyer of Worlds

Taking stock of our nuclear present

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What We Lost When We Lost Bert the Turtle

By Alex Wellerstein

You may be in your schoolyard playing when the signal comes. That signal means to stop whatever you are doing and get to the nearest safe place fast. Always remember: the flash of an atomic bomb can come at any time, no matter where you may be. . . . Sundays, holidays, vacation time, we must be ready, every day, all the time, to do the right thing if the atomic bomb explodes.

Such was the message given to American schoolchildren in the 1950s, an introduction to a new world in which the United States no longer had a monopoly over nuclear weapons. It was a message that aimed to prepare, not frighten, though it spoke of nuclear war not only as an if but as a when. The name given to this educational effort was Civil Defense, and its mission was to reduce the mortality rate in the event of a nuclear war and prepare the survivors for a swift recovery.

The Federal Civil Defense Administration, established in 1950, took on a range of tasks, coordinating efforts to identify spaces that could be repurposed as fallout shelters and persuading suburban homeowners to construct their own bunkers. The goal in all cases was to save lives downwind of the hundreds of anticipated ground zeros.

But the FCDA is now remembered mostly for drills in which elementary school students took cover under desks. Other simple rules of thumb included backing away from windows if one saw the blinding light of a mushroom cloud on the horizon, to prevent injuries from shattered glass.

The best known of these efforts may be Duck and Cover, a nine-minute film released in 1951. Its star was an animated turtle named Bert. The film was aimed at schoolchildren, and its message was simple: nuclear war could erupt at any time, and if it did, survival might depend on whether students could rapidly find shelter — from hunkering down in public blast shelters to hiding under tables, in doorways, or in gutters. (Or, in Bert’s case, retreating into his own shell.)

Could hiding under a desk really save one from a nuclear attack? Depending on the type of attack, the type of shelter, and the distance of the detonation, it could indeed make a difference. But the ostensible futility of the survival techniques was enough to make the FCDA a subject of derision by the late Cold War, especially as the quantity and megatonnage of the Soviet arsenal grew to apocalyptic proportions. For the antinuclear crowd, it was at best a reassuring sideshow, an attempt to fool people into thinking nuclear war was survivable. At worst, it was warmongering: if you think you can live through nuclear war, maybe you will wage it.

The Civil Defense critics won out; Duck and Cover and city evacuation plans were just too easy to take potshots at. Faced with rapidly diminishing support, the drills stopped in the late 1980s. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the successor to the FCDA, concentrated its efforts on natural disasters. When the Obama Administration looked into creating nuclear-terrorism guidelines for civilians in 2010, they were met with skepticism and snarky references to Bert the Turtle’s smug paternalism. And so schoolchildren still train for earthquakes, tornadoes, and active shooters, while nuclear matters have dropped off the radar.

But perhaps we’ve underappreciated the value of the Cold War mind-set nurtured by Civil Defense. Throughout much of the period, Americans felt that the risk of nuclear war was, as political psychologists would say, salient. This means that even if we can’t see a risk directly and with our own eyes, we believe in the danger intuitively and allow that belief to drive both our everyday behavior and our political positions. In the case of nuclear weapons, the actual, physical bombs were generally out of sight, hidden by military secrecy, but they were never out of mind. Nuclear war could happen at any moment, and many felt that it would happen, potentially in their lifetime. In 1983, some 24 percent of Americans identified, without being prompted, nuclear war as the most important problem facing the country — more important than the economy, unemployment, crime, or morality. The generation that Bert taught to hide from the bomb was a generation that took nuclear risks seriously.

Stills from Duck and Cover. Courtesy Prelinger Archives/

Today, it is hard to imagine a world in which Americans thought nuclear war was more pressing than crime, despite the fact that the crime rate has been steadily declining and the risks of nuclear war seem to be rising. Brinkmanship on the Korean Peninsula brings these issues to the front pages and induces momentary concern, but it is quickly subsumed by other controversies and fears in our ever-changing news cycle of horrors.

Consequently, we no longer have any sense of nuclear salience — no sense of nuclear risks being real. The message of Duck and Cover, after all, was only partially about hiding under a desk: most of it was about orienting one’s mind to the idea that nuclear detonations are a part of the world in which we live, like car accidents, influenza, and muggings.

It’s worth wondering, then, what we could get out of a reinvention of Civil Defense in the twenty-first century. If the American public had a sustained and realistic sense of nuclear risks, and the policies and choices that could exacerbate or ameliorate them, what might be possible? The proposal is one that Americans of all political stripes, and all positions on nuclear weapons, would be able to embrace. If you think sensible Civil Defense measures could save lives in the event of a nuclear attack, then that prospect alone might make it seem worth pursuing. If, on the other hand, you think Civil Defense is worthless as a safety measure, you might still value a renewed focus on nuclear threats, which could revitalize efforts to reduce their risk.

The trick, as always, would be in the doing. How would such a strategy avoid polarization, partisanship, and the evils of alarmism and complacency? How, when trust in government has been waning for decades, should such messaging be handled, and through what media? The goal, in the end, must be to banish the apparent absurdity of Bert the Turtle while restoring the sense of lingering existential danger that lurked just outside his shell.

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