I Heart Propaganda: In Time of Emergency

As you could probably tell from my previous post about separating trash from treasures, I own a lot of weird shit.  Most of the stuff came from my husband’s grandma’s long-time gentleman friend, known affectionately as Uncle Beanie.  After Uncle Beanie passed away, Chris and I went to his home to help my in-laws clean it out. Uncle Beanie was a brilliant man with a penchant for hoarding.  From newspapers from 1967 (with stock certificates wedged between pages) to beautiful pre-WWII Japanese prints to McDonald’s hamburger wrappers that were cleaned and used as file dividers, he meticulously stored a variety of items in every available corner of his house.  As we sifted through piles and piles of papers, magazines and boxes, I kept a few fascinating things slated to be thrown away.  One of my favorite items is a cold war-era booklet from the Department of Defense, Office of Civil Defense called “In Time of Emergency, A Citizen’s Handbook on: …Nuclear Attack …Natural Disasters.”  With a title like that, how could I resist?

In this day and age of body scans, shoe removals, and patting down old ladies at the airport, we live through procedures and protocols designed to give us a sense of security.  We want to feel like there is something we can do to prevent an act of terrorism from happening, so we comply with these rules, no matter how ineffective they are or how inconsistent their application.  In “A Citizen’s Handbook,”  we see this concept is nothing new – the booklet is filled with checklists to follow so you and your family can survive a nuclear attack.  Considering what the government knew about nuclear bombs and radiation at the time, the brochure is nothing short of fascinating propaganda.  Here are some of my favorite passages:

Got Particles?
There is a particular emphasis on fallout particles throughout the booklet.  It’s kind of like, “nuclear burns and being atomized are no big deal; but fallout particles? Now those are a bugger!”

“After a nuclear attack, food and water would be available to most people, and it would be usable. If any fallout particles have collected, they could be removed before the food is eaten or the water is drunk.”

…So you know how when a bug gets in your chocolate milk, and you’re like, “I’m not letting this ruin my day!” and you try and get the bug out with your finger, but it keeps scooting away from you and you’re tempted to just say “fuck it” and drink the bug? Well, it’s just like that! Except your finger will melt off the second it touches the milk.

“From many studies, the Federal Government has determined that enough food and water would be available after an attack to sustain our surviving citizens. However, temporary food shortages might occur in some areas, until food was shipped there from other areas.”

…Katrina pretty much showed how good the Federal Government is at these “many [un-cited] studies.”  Which is to say, about as good as they are at doing water drops and keeping victims from Human Fallout Particle Geraldo Rivera.

“Most of the Nation’s remaining food supplies would be usable after an attack. Since radiation passing through food does not contaminate it, the only danger would be the actual swallowing of fallout particles that happened to be on the food itself (or on the can or package containing the food), and these could be wiped or washed off.”

…”I find the particles to provide a nice, piquant aftertaste.”   – My favorite scene from A Fallout Christmas Story.

“Practically all of the particles that dropped into open reservoirs, lakes, and streams (or into open containers or wells) would settle to the bottom. Any that didn’t would be removed when the water was filtered before being pumped to consumers. A small amount of radioactive material might dissolve in the water, but at most this would be of concern for only a few weeks.”


If you see a nuclear fireball…DUCK!
Another aspect of the book is how they spend a few pages on preparing the reader for ideal scenarios, but then close the section with, “if you don’t feel like doing these things, DON’T WORRY! You’ll still live through a nuclear blast if you remember to stop, drop and roll!”

“It is possible–but extremely unlikely–that your first warning of an enemy attack might be the flash of a nuclear explosion in the sky some distance away. Or there might be a flash after warning had been given, possibly while you were on your way to shelter.

“TAKE COVER INSTANTLY. If there should be a nuclear flash–especially if you are outdoors and feel warmth at the same time–take cover instantly in the best place you can find. By getting inside or under something within a few seconds, you might avoid being seriously burned by the heat or injured by the blast wave of the nuclear explosion. If the explosion were some distance away, you might have 5 to 15 seconds before being seriously injured by the heat, and perhaps 30 to 60 seconds before the blast wave arrived. Getting under cover within these time limits might save your life or avoid serious injury. Also, to avoid injuring your eyes, never look at the flash of an explosion or the nuclear fireball.

… In all seriousness, I find the vagueness of the booklet really interesting.  Take, for example this very scientific diagram of the area of mass destruction versus the “okie-dokie-ish” area:

And here – if the explosion were “some distance away.”  Like, what kind of distance? You can guess that I am no nuclear physicist, but I suspect that if you see the…what is it? Ah yes – flash of an explosion or the nuclear fireball, or feel the warmth of said fireball, you’re kind of fucked.

Umm…This Improvisational Shelter Sounds Kind of Like a Grave.

“If your home has no basement, no storm cellar and no protected crawl space, here are two ways of improvising fallout protection in your yard:

“- Dig an L-shaped trench, about 4 feet deep and 3 feet wide. One side of the L, which will be the shelter area, should be long enough to accommodate all family members. The other side of the L can be shorter, since its purpose is to serve as an entrance-way and to reduce the amount of radiation getting into the shelter area.

“Cover the entire trench with lumber (or with house doors that have been taken off their hinges), except for about 2 feet on the short side of the L, to provide access and ventilation.

“On top of the lumber or doors, pile earth 1 to 2 feet high, or cover them with other shielding material.
If necessary, support or “shore up” the walls of the trench, as well as the lumber or doors, so they will not collapse.

“2) Dig a shallow ditch, 6 inches deep and 6 inches wide, parallel to and 4 feet from the outside wall of your house.
Remove the heaviest doors from the house. Place the bottoms of the doors in the ditch (so they won’t slip), and lean the doors against the wall of the house.

“On the doors, pile 12 to 18 inches of earth or sand. Stack or pile other shielding material at the sides of the doors, and also on the other side of the house wall (to protect you against radiation coming from that direction).
If possible, make the shelter area deeper by digging out more earth inside it. Also dig some other shallow ditches, to allow rain water to drain away.”

…In other words, please dig a hole in the earth for you and your family, and bury yourself in it.  Perfect! We thank you for your assistance in making the government post-nuclear cleanup as efficient as possible…

My husband finds certain aspects of history slightly depressing.  Me? I find them comforting, because it shows we’ve always been fucked up.  Billy Joel was right.

There are a ton of passages from this book that I don’t have the time to even get to on this post, but lucky for you, it’s all available online!
Read the booklet online in its entirety at: