"A very British apocalypse was being prepared for us."

I’ve had this kind of sick fascination with civil defense for quite some time now. What drives this, I think, is my general paranoia and distrust of any kind of “official” government advice when it comes to dealing with things that are manifestly hard to deal with. Given my previously expressed (both professionally and otherwise) stances on emergency preparedness, particularly in this part of the world with regards to earthquakes, this might seem kind of weird, but you have to draw the line somewhere; the line seems to be whether you’re likely to survive the event you’re trying to deal with (nuclear bomb no, earthquake yes) and whether the measures you’re trying to enact would actually be useful (sealing off room to protect from chemical weapon no, stockpiling food and water for a week after an earthquake, yes). Beyond that, fatalism more or less requires me to take the view that we’re all dead, so what difference does it make? “Why prolong it?!”

Still, my fascination with these futile attempts at pacification of the populace remains unchanged. Duck and Cover amuses the hell out of me, and there are a whole host of really good movies from the bad old days that presented this hilariously optimistic view of how to stay alive when the Russians decided to blow the world all to hell. (We’ll ignore, for the moment, the fact that the Americans were vastly more likely to shoot first and the Russians retaliate than the other way around.) Atomic Alert is a great example that most people haven’t seen, and there’s a comment on the site that sorta covers it all:

Reviewer: BWCarver – 5 out of 5 stars – December 10, 2002
Subject: Liars

What strikes me about this video and the others like it (e.g., Duck and Cover) is that they are all made AFTER the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The U.S. government KNEW what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and they had the gall to tell people to cover themselves with a coat!?

It’s baffling. If the U.S. had ever been hit by an atomic bomb, people would have learned what a pack of lies they had been told about its likely effects. So, these films express a contradiction. On the one hand the film purports to have the desire of educating people as to the likely effects of an atomic blast, but on the other hand, the film-makers must know that everything they are suggesting is absolutely false and worthless advice.

Recognizing this leads us to look for another motivation for these films. Appeasement? Controlling the fear of a populus with leaders who figure they cannot bear the truth? Something else?

The consensus answer, according to the cynics (hiya!), is that it was probably appeasement. If a majority of people thought they’d survive, they’d be less inclined to support policies that were actually increasing the risk of getting everyone killed. Obviously this didn’t happen, though, and so now we’re left with a collection of material, of varying degrees of creepy, that address many of the more important aspects of emergency preparedness during the Cold War.

One of the creepier public information artifacts was Protect and Survive, the British version of Duck and Cover. And boy, is it ever creepy. It gave people nightmares for a long time and, had I been a kid and seen this stuff, it would have freaked me right out too. We joke about the stupid graphics DHS put together that looked like something out of a particularly stupid aircraft safety card, but the graphics here have no such polish; they’re sparse, to the point, and eerily effective. The film version of Protect and Survive – Action After Warnings is about a thousand times worse; this BBC writeup doesn’t really do it justice — you have to see it for yourself. And then there’s Casualties which, at 1:25, is quite possibly one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen come out of Britain. These were part of a series of 20 films that would have been shown on TV and broadcast over the radio if the UK government ever felt there was a serious risk of an attack — busy work for the people in a crisis, I guess, and the reality is that it probably wouldn’t have worked worth a damn.

(Apparently you can get all 20 films on DVD along with a bunch of other civil defense stuf and part of me really wants to order it. Another part of me, however, thinks that I’ll be up for a month if do.)

But something is better than nothing. And so you got official instructions on how to build a fallout shelter out of books and doors, to help your neighbors in time of war, to listen to the radio, and wait for official instructions. You know, assuming there were official instructions to be issued. It’s roughly the same advice the Americans gave their citizens around the same time and I normally wouldn’t have thought anything of it except that two weeks ago I was in Porthcurno reading a leaflet, “If The Invader Comes,” that the War Office had printed out during WWII encouraging people to stand firm and carry on with their daily lives, even if there were German soldiers traipsing around the countryside and tank battles down the road. And after having been exposed to Protect and Survive in London at the Imperial War Museum, I was primed to notice the similarities between the two plans — both were grim, stiff-upper-lip pieces of work that we would normally associate with British people, and both ultimately downplayed the seriousness of what might happen. Being told to carry on with your normal life would be more or less impossible, whether there was a panzer division in your backyard or a bunch of highly irradiated dust… but that’s what the government wanted British citizens to do. As for what would have happened, that’s anybody’s guess. The UK could be thankful that at least it didn’t have a whole bunch of guns lying around.

It’s easy to picture a scene out of When The Wind Blows where Britons go merrily about preparing for the end of the world and spend most of the time complaining about it. Protect and Survive is frightening to us now because of how effectively it blends optimism and pessimism into one work, but parts of me wonder whether everyone would have seen it that way at the time. Certainly some people did, but is the sequence from When The Wind Blows linked above that hard to imagine? How many people went and built bomb shelters on this continent believing they’d survive? Did they do it with the nagging sense they wouldn’t? Or was there that blind faith in the state that tells us everything’s going to be ok on the theory we won’t be around later to complain it wasn’t? I’m not old enough to remember how those instructions (lies) were received, mostly because I wasn’t alive then.

There’s a scene in Atomic Alert that drives this point home clearly. An attack warning has been issued and the kids go into the fallout shelter in the basement. Boom! Bomb falls on the waterfront, and we cut to a cartoon mushroom cloud blowing up maybe a couple of blocks, and an announcer says that radioactive rain is falling in some places, and that it might be a good idea to avoid radioactive mist. (I’ll get right on that, thanks.) Did people really believe this was how it was going to be?

Ultimately I guess the reason I’m fascinated by this stuff is because it feels like it was part of a huge disinformation campaign by various governments to lie to their citizens about how bad it would really be. Kevin Hall argues, quite persuasively, that Protect and Survive was really about the protection and the survival of the state rather than of the population:

Protect and Survive became a public admission of the change of policy since the abolition of the Civil Defence Corps in 1968. A major change in thinking had taken place and these can be summarised as:

  • Exercises such as Square Leg foresaw a 200mt attack
  • Large scale civil defence efforts were seen as unnecessarily provocative
  • Government policy regarded national survival and survival of the population to be entirely distinct
  • There was little enthusiasm for spending on civil defence
  • Governmental survival was seen as a key priority
  • The Control of internal dissent was seen as a major priority in the run-up to war

That’s.. about par for the course, actually. But there’s more:

Protect and Survive does not state why these preparations were so necessary, particularly in the regard to food. Numerous Home Office Circulars at the time indicated it was government policy not to begin any mass feeding of survivors until at least 14 days had passed since the attack. Officially the reason was that levels of radiation would still be too dangerous. However in civil defence exercises organised by the Home Office one common problem kept repeating itself: during the simulation of the aftermath of nuclear attack not enough people had died. The numbers of survivors meant that the supplies of food available were hopelessly inadequate to feed the population. In fact the best most people could look forward to was a “stew-type meal” per day which provided 800 calories, this would lead to slow starvation of the survivors. …

As far as protection of the public is concerned, the official government line in Protect and Survive was that you would be just as safe in your own home as anywhere else. This has been proven not to be true in any meaningful sense of the word. What Protect and Survive was in fact demonstrating was government was not prepared to maximise the numbers of survivors for a variety of reasons. Firstly was the problem noted above of too many survivors. Second was government policy expressly ruled out a large public bomb shelter plan. Most likely thirdly was looking at the problem of diminishing returns where the implications of saving each life could have been evaluated, possibly leading to the conclusion that small number of survivors press-ganged into forced labour schemes after the attack would have been enough to ensure national survival -— national survival clearly being stated as the Raison d’être of the Protect and Survive policy.

The Protect and Survive policy stood in unique contrast from what was offered in other nations. For example both the USA and USSR had, at the time, a policy of evacuation from major cities. Other nations such as Sweden and Switzerland had regulations which compelled all new homes to have fall-out shelters inside. Britain was put in the position of having neither an evacuation or shelter building programme.

Emphasis his. I encourage you to, as they say, read the whole thing. And it sounds like there’s a book out there I really need to read (Duncan Campbell’s War Plan UK, sadly out of print and now fetching huuuuge $$$ on the used book markets — it’s as bad as Ignition! it’s worse than Ingition!.

Hall’s article digs at the core of the issue: “The U.S. government knew what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and they had the gall to tell people to cover themselves with a coat!?” They, the people in charge, couldn’t have believed it it would work — their bunker-building and continuity of government plans (link goes to a BBC story with audio of a creepy nuclear war broadcast from 1970) certainly seem to say so, and Hall and his sources have it pretty meticulously documented — so why would we? And if we didn’t, why’d we keep re-electing the bastards who kept lying to us? Are we as a society capable of deluding ourselves to that degree? Or are we just that gullible?

Either way, the answer depresses the hell out of me. It was a cynical attempt to pacify a populace and convince them to, ahem, “Remain calm! All is well!” There’s some evidence, though, that we didn’t believe it, in the UK at least, and by the time a majority of people stopped believing it was possible to live through something like that (around the time of Reagan and Thatcher) we were well into the 1980s and Cold War paranoia only had a few more years left to run, so ultimately the governments were off the hook. But the lies went on, and I don’t think anyone has ever officially acknowledged how full of shit the civil defense planners were. Then again, when has the government ever acknowledged how full of shit it is?

That depresses the hell out of me, too.