The script for Protection in the Nuclear Age is both tragic and comic. Above all, the picture portrayed of nuclear war is catastrophically misleading to the American public, because it offers a best case scenario as the only case. The film is a prime example of overly optimistic estimates of survivability in a nuclear war.
-- Gary L. Guertner, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 1980
Survival Under an Atomic Attack, produced by Castle Films for the United States government in 1951, is one of the first official, post-war civil defense educational films issued. It, along with Duck and Cover and seven other movies ordered by the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) that same year, sought to sell the public on the notion of safety-through-preparedness. The common feature shared by all nine of these early Cold War films is a naïve and unwarranted optimism. There were, of course, many other civil defense movies that followed over the course of America’s long struggle with the Soviet Union.
One might assume that the last major movie produced for the U.S. government on the topic of surviving a nuclear war would be more realistic than one made in 1951 – an era before intercontinental ballistic missiles. Surprisingly, this is not the case. CONELRAD recently acquired a copy of Protection in the Nuclear Age, a 16mm motion picture produced in 1978 by Trio Productions, Inc. for the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency (the DCPA was one of the many successor organizations to the FCDA). It is, if anything, even more misleading than the first generation of official survival movies.
Note: Both of the films discussed in this article are embedded, in their entirety, at the bottom of this post.
Like Survival Under an Atomic Attack before it, Protection in the Nuclear Age began life as a government pamphlet. The 68-page booklet, published by the Government Printing Office in 1977, takes the reader on a heavily illustrated journey to a place called hope. Some of the helpful information imparted includes the following:
A twenty-five megaton nuclear blast is substantially worse than a one megaton explosion…
A cabin cruiser is a perfectly acceptable fallout shelter…
Don’t bring guns, booze or drugs to your civil defense relocation area…
Know where your public shelter is…
Don’t use the telephone during an attack!
The pamphlet does not concern itself with what life might be like after the nuclear war. Like a fine novel, it leaves the reader with something to ponder. Actually, the booklet ends rather abruptly—not with a closing dose of optimism, but with a page declaring that radiation sickness is not contagious.
The 23-minute movie adaptation of Protection in the Nuclear Age is an understated affair. Its narrator dispenses the “facts” of attack and survival in a subdued monotone that is complimented by a very minimalist music score. By contrast, Survival Under an Atomic Attack begins with the booming voice of Edward R. Murrow and music from what sounds like a World War II movie.
Certain segments of the animated Protection in the Nuclear Age are acted out by stick figures. In the early 1980s, an employee of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA is the agency that replaced DCPA in 1979) explained to author Edward Zuckerman that the decision to forgo live action was made, in part, to prolong the shelf-life of the film. Zuckerman quotes the spokesperson in his essential 1984 book, The Day After World War III, as saying simply: “Stick figures don’t get obsolete as fashion changes.”
Protection in the Nuclear Age begins with a view of the planet earth from space. The narrator intones:
“We live in a world of tension and conflict. And peace, even where it does exist, does so without guarantees for tomorrow. We must therefore face the hard reality that someday a nuclear attack against the United States might occur. And—equally important—we must also realize that horrifying as that prospect may seem, destructive as such an attack might be, we can survive. It would not mean the end of the world, the end of our nation. And you can greatly improve your chances of survival if you’ll remember these facts—about Protection in the Nuclear Age.”
Oddly enough, this introduction echoes the words scripted for Mr. Murrow more than a quarter century earlier for Survival Under an Atomic Attack:
“Let us face without panic, the reality of our time: The fact that atom bombs may someday be dropped on our cities. And let us prepare for survival by understanding the weapon that threatens us.”
Protection addresses many of the same points as its source material does, but for some reason, does not include a scene with stick figures seeking refuge from the A-bomb on a boat. It does, however, show plenty of them rushing into a public shelter marked with the familiar black and yellow sign. Left unsaid is that, while many of these shelters remain marked, they were last stocked in the 1960s.
The biggest howler in the film comes during a recitation of a government assessment of the worst case scenario of a nuclear war:
“Defense Department studies show that even under the heaviest possible attack, less than five percent of our entire land mass would be affected by blast and heat from nuclear weapons. Of course, that five percent contains a large percentage of our population. But, even in these high risk areas, if there’s sufficient time to permit evacuation, many millions of lives could be saved. The other ninety-five percent of our land would escape untouched. Except possibly by radioactive fallout.”
The movie ends as it began with words of encouragement delivered as the earth is seen from space:
“The greatest danger is hopelessness, the fear that nuclear attack would mean the end of our world. So why not just give up, lie down and die? That idea could bring senseless and useless death to many, for protection is possible. And your own chances of survival will be much greater if you remember these facts about Protection in the Nuclear Age.”
In a strange subtextual reminder that the government is looking after the viewer like some sort of guardian angel, the animated globe morphs into the DCPA seal as the narration comes to an end.
The thing that makes Protection in the Nuclear Age somewhat unsettling is that, according to Zuckerman, it was the “last movie” many Americans might have seen if the Cold War had not ended peacefully. During the course of his research for The Day After World War III, the author learned that copies of the film had been distributed to civil defense field offices and that some of these prints had, in turn, been given to local television stations. FEMA had also distributed fifteen informational articles to local civil defense officials to provide to local newspapers in the event of an escalating international crisis. In his book, Zuckerman captures the government’s intended strategy:
“The newspaper articles would be supplemented by the twenty-five-minute television film [Protection in the Nuclear Age]…” FEMA has explained. “The cost of such materials is very low, and we estimate that the emergency newspaper articles and television films could add survivors amounting to perhaps eight to twelve percent of the U.S. population.”
Thankfully, there never came a time when Protection in the Nuclear Age needed to be broadcast. It gathered dust on the shelves of television tape libraries. The only evidence that CONELRAD could find of the movie ever being publicly screened is from an item in the October 4, 1979 edition of the Iowa Democrat newspaper. The article mentions that it was to be shown at an open meeting of the Emmelsburg Junior Civil Defense group, The Pacers.
Now, while we wait to see what the A/V specialists at the Department of Homeland Security come up with, we can sit back and watch Protection in the Nuclear Age and Survival Under Atomic Attack on YouTube in a double feature.