Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Radioactive Rest Stops: Cold War Billboard Planning


“Use [of billboards] during tactical warning, actual attack, and between attacks seems impractical.”

-- Civil Defense official Lewis E. Berry, 9/27/1960

The Dwight D. Eisenhower administration raised civil defense planning to a paranoid art form (the Operation Alert drills of the Fifties were nothing if not theatrical) and helped transform America into a nation of low-budget motorized tourists with the Interstate Highway System. It is fitting then that the Cold War contingency drones viewed the medium of billboards as an especially appropriate tool to convey pre and post-apocalyptic propaganda to a car crazy citizenry. Recently CONELRAD found evidence of this unique strategy buried in a box at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland and we are delighted to be able to share the material here.

CD Billboards-CU-1 
On September 28, 1960 Deputy Administrator of the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization Lewis E. Berry (1914-2005) sent a letter to his management detailing his efforts concerning billboard messaging with attached “Preattack” and “Postattack” sample text. Needless to say, the latter category is far more amusing (and frighteningly Orwellian).

CD Billboards-CU-6 
The previous day, September 27, 1960, Mr. Berry composed a longer draft of his memo that is noteworthy for its optimism (the CONELRAD emergency broadcasting system would not be needed after an attack, Berry reasons, because normal radio frequencies would return to the air) and the author’s mastery of the obvious: “Use [of billboards] during tactical warning, actual attack, and between attacks seems impractical.”

CD Billboards-CU-7 
The following is the entire document containing the billboard copy suggestions that Berry’s team came up with. Unfortunately, CONELRAD could find no paper trail to suggest that this concept ever materialized as proposed (although there are some examples of public service civil defense announcements via billboards that we have included in this post). We would have loved to have seen an artist rendering of the post-attack signage.

Prearranged Civil Defense Billboard Messages: 09-28-1960

Source: National Archives, College Park, Maryland: Record Group 396: Office of Emergency Preparedness A1 (P-95), Folder L-8, Lewis E. Berry Memorandum RE: Prearranged Emergency Billboard Messages, September 28, 1960.

CD Billboard-1955-Lo


Unknown said...

Don't be too harsh on them.

One thing you have to remember is that these plans were not conceived for a "Russians attack with every bomb and missile in their arsenal" style of attack, but rather for what may have been rather survivable events.

Pity is, today we could use similar planning as a dirty bomb attack would create much the same need for knowing which areas are radioactive, which are not, and a minimization of otherwise destructive panic.

Mr Thompson said...

True. It may seem excessive today, but at least they were prepared. If there were an attack today, not by the USSR but by Islamic terrorists, most Americans would be sitting ducks.

People depend on their cell phones and the 'net for information, but if an EMP puts us in the dark, it sure would be nice if someone remembered what an air raid siren meant...

oldsarge1706 said...

I could not believe it the other day when I saw a crew taking down an air raid siren that had been in our area ever since I moved there. When I stopped and talked to them I was told that the sirens were “no longer necessary” in this day of cell phones and reverse 911.

Have none of our current government planners ever heard of electromagnetic pulse?

I think former president Reagan had it right when he said the scariest words in the English language are, “I’m from the Government and I am here to help!”

I whole heartedly agree with Mr. Thompson’s comment that at least people back then were prepared!

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