Stages of Emergency: Cold War Nuclear Civil Defense

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In an era defined by the threat of nuclear annihilation, Western nations attempted to prepare civilian populations for atomic attack through staged drills, evacuations, and field exercises. In Stages of Emergency the distinguished performance historian Tracy C. Davis investigates the fundamentally theatrical nature of these Cold War civil defense exercises. Asking what it meant for civilians to be rehearsing nuclear war, she provides a comparative study of the civil defense maneuvers conducted by three NATO allies—the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom—during the 1950s and 1960s. Delving deep into the three countries’ archives, she analyzes public exercises involving private citizens—Boy Scouts serving as mock casualties, housewives arranging home protection, clergy training to be shelter managers—as well as covert exercises undertaken by civil servants.

Stages of Emergency covers public education campaigns and school programs—such as the ubiquitous “duck and cover” drills—meant to heighten awareness of the dangers of a possible attack, the occupancy tests in which people stayed sequestered for up to two weeks to simulate post-attack living conditions as well as the effects of confinement on interpersonal dynamics, and the British first-aid training in which participants acted out psychological and physical trauma requiring immediate treatment. Davis also brings to light unpublicized government exercises aimed at anticipating the global effects of nuclear war. Her comparative analysis shows how the differing priorities, contingencies, and social policies of the three countries influenced their rehearsals of nuclear catastrophe. When the Cold War ended, so did these exercises, but, as Davis points out in her perceptive afterword, they have been revived—with strikingly similar recommendations—in response to twenty-first-century fears of terrorists, dirty bombs, and rogue states.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Tracy C. Davis is a leading performance historian, and in Stages of Emergency she applies her considerable skills to a kind of ‘play’ that permeated the consciousness and determined much social reality in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom during the Cold War. The story she tells, and her analysis of it, goes to the very heart of what these societies were and are.”—Richard Schechner, author of Performance Studies: An Introduction

“Tracy C. Davis’s highly original cross-cultural study represents the most perceptive analysis of Cold War–era civil-defense theory and practice written to date. As a theater scholar, she focuses on the ‘rehearsal’ and performative aspects of civil-defense planning in a way that is brilliantly illuminating.”—Paul Boyer, author of By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822339700
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 6/28/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 432
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Tracy C. Davis is Barber Professor of Performing Arts and Professor of English and Theatre at Northwestern University. She is the author of The Economics of the British Stage 1800–1914; George Bernard Shaw and the Socialist Theatre; and Actresses as Working Women: Their Social Identity in Victorian Culture.

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Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3959-5

Chapter One


To rationally plan for mass nuclear war is an attempt to claim that after the routines of everyday life are gone they can still be had. The very existence of such planning constitutes a claim that adequate thought and hard work can allow adequate control over highly uncertain, unpredictable events. More broadly, it is a rhetorical claim that a meaningful knowledge base can be constructed: that the information can be gathered, that it will be valid and reliable, that it can be drawn upon. -Lee Clarke

Civil defense planning in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States hinges on a few key developments in science and politics that had direct consequences for policy and hence the exercises that rehearsed and tested policy. The use of A-bombs on Japan in 1945 and the unexpectedly early Soviet demonstration of nuclear weapons technology in 1949 are the first of these developments. In response, American schoolchildren were indoctrinated to answer the perspicacious Bert the turtle's interrogative "What are you supposed to do when you see the flash?" with a choral declamation "DUCK and COVER!" This hung in the collective imaginary long after the A-bomb's destructive power was dwarfed by the H-bomb which could destroy, not just harm, entire cities. Deployed en masse, the H-bomb could probably wipe out civilizations. As President Eisenhower put it: "In the old dispensation, the slogan was 'duck and cover.' Now it is 'beat it.'" The H-bomb awed even RAND scientists forecasting the "super" bomb's effects in 1951-52, for "nobody had ever killed 35 million people on a sheet of paper before." The director of the United States' Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) told Canadian civil defense officials about seeing a film documenting the first H-bomb test and being immediately convinced "that 'Duck and Cover' was dead. You don't duck from the explosion of a nuclear weapon, you die, that's all."

Nuclear Weapons and Civil Defense

American and Soviet testing of H-bombs in 1952 and 1953 resulted in NATO's "New Assumptions" doctrine of November 1954, which stipulated that henceforth any direct attack by the Soviets would receive a massive thermonuclear response. It took a few years for this military posture to transform civil defense policies, but this phase marks the period of greatest tension and most intense activity. Bomber delivery was superseded by missiles capable of greater and greater distance and accuracy in the 1960s. Rhetoric cooled after the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, and by 1970-due to the economic strains of the Vietnam War and public hostility toward civil defense-policy shifted to "dual-use" rationales explicitly folding preparations for wartime scenarios into agencies simultaneously geared toward any kind of civil disaster or natural calamity. As the number of nuclear warheads in the United States' arsenal peaked, civil defense spending tanked.

Although the majority of this book is devoted to the earlier phases of civil defense planning (the 1950s and 60s), it is relevant to round out the story with aspects of latter-day civil defense policy that could not be folded into dual-use planning. This is typified by the United States' new concept for mass evacuation in the 1970s (Crisis Relocation Planning, or CRP) and the Thatcher government's imperative that local authorities write nuclear war disaster plans in the 1980s. As NATO's forward nuclear base, Britain was extremely vulnerable to attack, especially following the decision to deploy medium range ballistic missiles (MRBMS) to Europe in 1979. For a while, Canada allowed the United States to deploy Bomarc-B nuclear missiles on its soil, but renounced a nuclear role in 1971. Though Canada was technically a non-nuclear power, its geographic position-literally between the Soviet Union and the United States-kept it keenly interested in the geopolitics of proliferation, the technology of delivery systems, and the prognostication of disaster. This did not, however, result in public rehearsals for civil defense after the late-1950s. The United Kingdom also abandoned public rehearsals in 1968. While the United Kingdom's density of population made civil defense measures seem hopeless and the United States' economic hubris made civil defense seem worth trying, Canada trusted that with so few people spread over so much land mass some would survive, but no crystal ball could predict where they might be.

It can be misleading to bundle together this forty-odd-year history. The exercises that tested and refined policies were in response to an evolving set of circumstances. As the weaponry changed, the scale of its consequences also changed. As new weaponry was tested, factors were newly discovered or more explicitly understood, effecting exactly what civil defense would need to take into account in order to preserve life and restore nations to recognizable form. The civil servants who wrote these policies responded to the data trickled down to them by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and related agencies investigating atomic and thermonuclear weapons, conscious of the need to project plans into a scenario of the near future but rarely able to do it. To many artists, however, thinking ahead was irresistable, envisioning not war as it had been or even war that could happen at any given moment, but the war of the future, attending to the ambitions of science in order to envision the strategies needed five or ten years into the future.

"Pilot Lights of the Apocalypse" (1946) is a particularly prophetic example of speculative fiction, written by the American physicist Louis N. Ridenour. Adapted as Open Secret, a one-act play produced by Stage for Action in 1947, it depicts the United States launching atomic bombs into permanent satellite orbit. The American scientists and generals are more than a little surprised and dismayed when the cameras sent up with the missiles discover that their 2,700 bombs joined 2,641 others of unknown origin already circling the earth. Proliferation on this scale is shocking, yet the scientists and military barely have time to absorb the fact that a balance of power is achieved when a technician's console lights up indicating that San Francisco has been hit. Who did this? Fascist Spain, with which the United States has trade disputes over uranium and oil? The console lights up again, recording the American retaliation on Madrid. Apparently, the Spanish assume they were hit by the Norwegians and so fire at Oslo. The Norwegians think France bombed them so retaliate on Paris. Someone fires on London. The British think they were hit by the Americans, and strikes are registered on New York, Boston, New Orleans, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Detroit, and Atlanta, as well as Moscow, Shanghai, Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. In a matter of seconds, the situation escalates into global war. It no longer matters who fired at whom: the world is engulfed in computer-activated trigger-finger warfare before anyone can even try to communicate. And when it is discovered that San Francisco was not hit by an atomic bomb but stricken by a massive earthquake, the whole chain of destruction becomes the epitome of human and technological folly. Secrecy, technical superiority, and belligerent posturing-once the ethics and strategies of supremacy-become the downfall of the North American and European defense alliance and, ultimately, the world. Ridenour, who received the Presidential Medal of Merit for wartime work on radar, depicts an orbiting nuclear shield protecting Fortress America and mutually assured destruction resulting in nuclear Armageddon. Imagining such radically new scenarios did not require an artistic career, and this combination of scientific knowledge and creative insight was frequently the hallmark of civil and military foresight and effective planning. Civil defense is what would happen in response to a scenario like this.

Though planners needed to be futuristic in thinking about weaponry, planning what to actually do for civil defense always involved examining historical precedents. Britain, the United States, and Canada were combatants in World War II but did not experience a ground war at home. They studied data on aerial bombing of Germany and Japan, reflected on Britons' ability to cope during the Blitz, and forecast new tactics. In the era of atomic weaponry, instead of bombers blanketing a city they could target an entire nation, each bomb multiplying the destructive factor, creating new challenges to military and civilian defense. Weapons were so much more destructive that the defense of civilian populations took on new urgency. Successive twentieth-century wars took successively heavier tolls on civilians, and yet nuclear war could cause as many deaths in a few moments as all the twentieth century's wars added together. As junior partners in the Manhattan Project, Canada and the United Kingdom joined with the United States in tackling a wide range of problems that the project's success had wrought.

Even in the brief a-bomb era, it was H-bombs that were the urgent (unmet) priority. In 1950, William L. Laurence, the New York Times journalist who had been "embedded" in wartime Los Alamos, where scientists toiled in secret on the bombs destined for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, revealed that something called the hydrogen bomb had been in the minds of Manhattan Project scientists all along and would soon be a reality for both the United States and Soviets. Such a weapon, he predicted, could revolutionize warfare by causing severe flash burns over a 1,250 square-mile territory and total destruction in an area over 300 square miles: "Had we possessed it at the Battle of the Bulge, just one could have wiped out the entire Bulge." Downplaying radioactivity, he warned that the explosive force of h-bombs could kill 50 million Americans in just a few minutes. Russia's comparative lack of urbanization gave it an immediate strategic advantage. This prospect, along with tension in Berlin and Korea, spurred Britain, Canada, and the United States to plan for civil defense. They never funded it extensively, but civil defense was in principle part of a layered defense that included conventional and nuclear weaponry.

Even before the first Soviet nuclear test-and long before it was thought possible-Britain, Canada, and the United States shared the scientific information that became the basis of their civil defense plans. In 1948, the Americans permitted British physicians to observe tests in the Pacific, contributing a report on medical aspects of the trials. Even though Britain pursued its own weapons research program, while waiting for this to materialize it made sense to share what data existed on the biological consequences of radiation and collaborate on the development of protective respirators and clothing. The British sought permission to let Canada's Department of National Defence (DND), with which they hoped to collaborate, into the information loop. Months before it was published, the British received draft and advance copies of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission's Effects of Atomic Weapons in order to offer comments and ensure its conformity with their own draft manual. This indicates significant scientific and tactical exchange on topics including the principles of fission bombs; consequences of air, ground, and water bursts (shock, thermal radiation, and residual radiation); decontamination; and effects on personnel. In 1951, Canada and the United States established eleven joint working groups on civil defense; most of these remained active into the mid-1960s (some into the 1970s), holding joint conferences, sending observers to each other's exercises, encouraging joint exercises in border regions, and negotiating reciprocal care agreements and a "no-border concept" for civilians in case of crisis-period migrations. Despite evidence of cooperation, the Americans were reticent to share even with their closest allies, which led to duplication of research efforts. This was counterproductive, and the Americans knew it, as the President of Purdue University reveals in a plea to the FCDA in 1952: "It is ... tragic from the point of view that our nation is spending literally billions in the attempt to strengthen, through the NATO organisation and the Mutual Security Agency, the free nations of Europe and then we turn around and refuse to collaborate with the British in matters involving the effect of atomic bombs on civilian structures. How foolish can we be?" In 1954, Britain put pressure on the Americans to share more information about the hydrogen bomb. Evidently they had some but not all of the data and pressed for release of information on fallout's contamination contours, radioactivity's penetration of buildings, effect on human health, biological effects on flora and fauna, and methods of predicting contaminated zones. In May 1955, the U.S. Senate agreed to the sharing of nuclear information (with some restrictions) between the United States and its NATO partners, and a tripartite conference on the topic was arranged in Ottawa in November 1955.

The Effects of Atomic Weapons received a major revision as The Effects of Nuclear Weapons (1957). Benefiting from a dozen years of empirical research, it offers physicists, engineers, and physicians guidance on the challenges facing them, while the key information for civil defense planners lay not so much in chronicling weapons damage as protecting people from it. Fallout was the new, openly acknowledged problem and distance, shielding, and time were the proffered panacea. With shorter attack warning times, it was less feasible to get people as faraway from ground zero (GZ) as possible, and fallout complicated evacuation, so population dispersal was a controversial strategy. Early detection systems provided more warning than before, but how far could urbanites get in two hours if caught in horrendous traffic jams? Evacuation was impractical because there would be so few places to go, even in the United States, and so little time to get there. As the governor of California quipped, "Los Angeles cannot even evacuate itself on a Friday afternoon." Shielding involved surrounding people with as much mass as possible, preferably in underground shelters, which would block gamma radiation. Most housing provided insufficient structural strength to be of much use against blast, but residential basements (beyond a specified distance from GZ) provided enough strength and could be modified to protect against radioactive fallout. The United States and Canada established guidelines from this data, developing shelter designs for home use, criteria for selecting public shelters in existing buildings, and recommendations for new construction. Coupled with advice on stocking food, water, and other survival supplies this became the backbone of civil defense policies. Planning in Britain strove for the same standards but, like parts of the United States, had to make adjustments for the absence of basements. Britain's estimates of the likely effectiveness of its housing stock were probably overstated. High-rise housing built of reinforced concrete could be expected to offer significant protection from fallout in the central areas of middle floors, but such structures could be vulnerable to over pressures from the blast's shock wave or become deathtraps if ignited. When fallout protection was the only concern, subterranean locations were always preferred.


Excerpted from STAGES of EMERGENCY by TRACY C. DAVIS Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     ix
Abbreviations     xiii
Introduction     1
Directing Apocalypse
Civil Defense Concepts and Planning     9
Rehearsals for Nuclear War     58
Act Your Part: The Private Citizen on the Public Stage
The Psychology of Vulnerability     105
Sheltering     127
Get Out of Town!     158
Communications     181
Acting Out Injury     198
Covert Stages: The "Public Sector" Rehearses in Private
Crisis Play     223
International Play     247
Disaster Welfare     261
Continuity of Government     287
Computer Play     312
Afterword: Dismantling Civil Defense     331
Cold War and Civil Defense Time Line     339
Notes     351
Works Cited     401
Index     429
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