Back in the lost age of innocence known as the “pre-9/11” era, the idea that America could face a devastating attack from some far-off enemy seemed like a quaint relic of the Cold War. After all, there was no longer an Evil Empire to worry about–so who could possibly want to destroy us? That carefree sensibility is probably gone for good as our old fears of mass destruction have returned to haunt us every time we board a plane or ride a subway. Worse, nuclear attacks are suddenly much more plausible now.
Just as in the ’50s and ’60s, the U.S. government must now try to brace its citizens for sudden, unexpected death on a massive scale. Copywriters of government public service announcements are again facing the challenge of trying to politely tell us that we may all die soon–while simultaneously encouraging us to take precautions. Whether urging us to “be prepared” will do much to curb the effects of a nuclear or biological attack is debatable, but we nevertheless expect our government to do something to reassure us.
While early Civil Defense propaganda efforts are typically remembered for their kitsch value–mostly due to Bert the Turtle’s insufficient advice in the 1952 educational short “Duck and Cover“–the brochures issued in the early ’60s by the new administration of President John F. Kennedy were determinedly grim. Fallout shelters may still have been the recommendation of choice, but the booklets issued by Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara were candid about the devastation that would result from nuclear attack. “In a major attack upon our country, millions of people would be killed. There appears to be no practical program that would avoid large-scale loss of life…The experience would be terrible beyond imagination and description. But there is much that can be done to assure that it would not mean the end of the life of our Nation.” (“Fallout Protection,” 1961)
We live now in a time when such words have a new resonance. Reading brochures from the height of the Cold War reminds of us just how deep the nation’s fears of annihilation were–far beyond the tensions revealed by the popular culture of the day. The end of the world was a concept that was no longer fictional or abstract for people of that time; it was quantified in Civil Defense brochures as something that must be planned for…just like today.