Cold War Literature on Surviving an Atomic Attack is Stranger Than Science Fiction

With the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the final days of the Second World War, humanity was thrust into the Atomic Age. The Soviet Union’s detonation of its first nuclear device on 29 August 1949 helped further propel the world’s powers into an epoch that would be characterised by Cold War competition, paranoia and technology.

Mutually Assured Destruction

The peace that both the Soviet Union and the United States (mostly) experienced during the Cold War is often credited to the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), in which both sides built up massive arsenals of nuclear weapons. Any use of these weapons meant both sides would be destroyed so the natural course was that neither would launch any such attack.

Nuclear Science Fiction

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1952 US Cold War comic book

The backdrop of nuclear war and the Space Race fuelled the imagination on both sides of the newly formed Iron Curtain between US and Soviet-influenced states. In America, science fiction media was populated by nefarious aliens and robots, barely disguised metaphors for Soviet or Communist actors. Creative works made it easier to express and process our darkest fears and most desperate hopes.

On the silver screen radiation could literally transform life into something monstrous. In reality it transformed everyone’s psyche — and many suburban American’s back yards, which were fitted with shelters designed to see their occupants through the ravages of a nuclear attack.

Government Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

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The ideal nuclear family: Mom reads daughter a story while Dad cranks the ventilator

The language of the government was much more matter of fact than that of Hollywood.

From ‘You Can SURVIVE’, Executive Office of the President, National Security Resources Board, Civil Defense Office, NSRB Doc. 130:

Do not be misled by loose talk of imaginary weapons a hundred or a thousand times as powerful. All cause destruction by exactly the same means, yet one 20,000-ton bomb would not create nearly as much damage as a 10,000 two-ton bomb dropped a little distance apart.

(Well thank God for that.)

While fear and paranoia created a boom in far-out fictional media, literature published and distributed by the US Government reads just as bizarrely as any sci-fi comic book of the era.

The Department of Defense’s ‘Fallout Protection’ suggests that an urban shelter might fulfil the purpose of a peacetime community centre, giving the shelter a space-saving dual use:

Gregarious teenagers often have no after-school hangout where they can relax with sodas and play the jukebox. This shelter can serve such purposes admirably; here a Scout meeting is going on in one section while adults attend an illustrated lecture in another.

These were no fanciful musings — a nuclear attack was a real possibility, as the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis prove. Literature such as ‘Fallout Protection: What to Know and Do About a Nuclear Attack’ and ‘Survival Under Atomic Attack’ instruct with quite clear detail how to build your own shelter and what might be expected of you in a post-atomic attack clean-up effort.

They also explore the practical aspects of an extended stay in a below ground shelter like vermin control, maintaining proper sanitation and treating radiation sickness.

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The urban fallout shelter doubles as a youth centre and lecture hall.

What Are Today’s Cold War Equivalents?

While the nuclear threat has not evaporated from our collective consciousness, it has been largely replaced by other, similar fears and distractions, from terrorism-paranoia to ubiquitous smart phone and computer games to organised ‘zombie walks’. But the thread linking reality to fiction to fear to lifestyle is still present and the structures of corporate and political power use it to at least as great effect as they did during the Cold War.

It may be that the ‘What to do in the event of a terrorist attack’ websites of today become as quaint and curious with age as any Cold War era government pamphlet. Let’s hope even more so.

This article uses material from the book How to Survive an Atomic Attack: A Cold War Manual from Amberley Publishing.

Graham is an editor and contributor at Made From History. A London-based writer originally from Washington, DC, he holds a master's degree in Cultural History from Malmö University in Sweden. Graham also contributes environmental news articles to asiancorrespondent.com and latincorrespondent.com.

  • Russell Flowers

    “”What Are Today’s Cold War Equivalents?” … Climate change fears.

    • GrahamLand

      It certainly can be, for example if you’ve got a climate shelter in your garden, though most reactions to climate change are very different and have several side benefits, mainly pollution reduction. But I’d say terrorism is much closer. It’s actually designed to cause disproportionate paranoia and it’s also represented in both fictional and news media much more than climate change.