Duck and Cover in the Family Fallout Shelter: Civil Defense Preparedness in the Cold War Era

On September 23, 1949, President Harry S. Truman released a brief statement to the press stating that within recent weeks, an atomic explosion had been detected within the U.S.S.R, signaling the start of a new arms race. In order to ease Americans’ fears and coordinate civil defense strategies between the federal, state, and local governments, Truman signed Executive Order 10186 on December 1, 1950, creating the Federal Civil Defense Administration.  This agency, and its successor, the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization, created numerous educational materials for the public.  We will be viewing two of the films produced by the Office of Civil Defense to inform the public:   Duck and Cover and Walt Builds a Family Fallout Shelter.

Bert the Turtle
Burt the Turtle realizes the Danger he is in. (Still from Duck and Cover)

The first film we are highlighting, Duck and Cover, is actually fairly well-known, having been viewed by millions of schoolchildren during the early days of the Cold War.  By 1951, it had become evident that some sort of mass preparedness would be necessary after the Soviet Union developed nuclear weapons and the United States began a policy of “containing” communism in Southeast Asia.  The result was the duck and cover campaign, highlighted by the short film of the same name written by Raymond J. Mauer and produced by Archer Productions.  It features a helmet-wearing turtle named Bert and a catchy theme song combined with live-action examples of drills conducted by schoolchildren. The drills illustrate a number of different scenarios and how to adequately respond.

The second film we will be highlighting comes slightly later, after the detonation of the castle bravo hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll in 1954. The bomb was much more powerful than expected and the effect of the subsequent radioactive fallout on Marshall Islands residents, local wildlife populations, and a Japanese fishing ship in the area at the time,  shifted the government’s focus back to fallout shelters. Part of that response was the release of films such as Walt Builds a Family Fallout Shelter, produced with the help of the National Concrete Masonry Association.

Walt and his neighbors
Walt showing his newly completed fallout shelter to his neighbors. (Still from Walt Builds a Family Fallout Shelter)

The film provides step by step instructions presented by amiable family man Walt, from laying out the outline for the shelter space, mixing the mortar, the crucial step of moving any furniture and other large pieces before the final wall is put up, to the optional final step of painting it to please your significant other.  The film’s presenters highlight the multiple purposes that such a space may be used for, including as an extra bedroom, a room for grandchildren, a normal non-nuclear shelter against natural disasters, and even a photo darkroom!  

The instructional part begins with Walt promoting The Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization bulletin “The Family Fallout Shelter,” available at the local civil defense office.  Walt gives step-by-step instructions, punctuated by helpful tips to make the building easier and as safe as possible.  First, he begins by outlining where the shelter will be placed in the basement and creating an outline and pre-fitting the blocks to make sure that they will all fit. He also checks to make sure that the floor is level to ensure a level and snug fit for the concrete blocks.  He uses a wooden spacer to simulate the mortar and a 1”x2” pole to simulate each layer of cinder block and mortar to be absolutely sure that all his materials will fit.

After the structure is mostly built, he dispenses the handy piece of advice that before one puts up the final wall, known as the baffle wall, it would probably be a good idea to move any large pieces of furniture a person had planned to put in their fallout shelter to save themselves a hassle later.  Walt finishes his instructional demonstration by noting that while it was not necessary to paint the fallout shelter his wife felt it would be a nice touch.

Walt painting the finished fallout shelter. (Still from Walt Builds a Family Fallout Shelter)

After Walt had finished his fallout shelter,  the newly elected Kennedy administration began moving closer to a comprehensive national fallout shelter program.  After a meeting with Governor Nelson Rockefeller, chair of the civil defense committee for the Conference of Governors in early May 1961, Kennedy devoted a section of his special message to a joint session of Congress to this end on May 25, 1961, ahead of his first summit with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.  In October of that year, Kennedy asked Congress for $207 million for the first and only large scale federal program to identify, stock, and label fallout shelters in existing buildings.  This marked the high water mark for both public and private shelter construction, as critics and experts questioned the efficacy and ethics of fallout construction.  While the administration went ahead identifying and preparing shelters in existing public buildings, however, the program was beset with problems, with only one third stocked with the required two week supply of water, “survival biscuits,” medical kits, and radiation detection meters. Active surveying, stocking, and staffing of public fallout shelters would continue through 1970. By 1974, however, the program was allowed to lapse, ending the federal government’s attempts at large scale fallout shelter program.  

Additional Resources

Executive Order 10186—Establishing the Federal Civil Defense Administration in the Office for Emergency Management of the Executive Office of the President:

Civil Defense Through Eisenhower:

The Cold War:  

Special message to Congress on urgent national needs, 25 May 1961:

Kennedy, Rockefeller, and Civil Defense:

Papers of John F. Kennedy. Presidential Papers. President’s Office Files. Subjects. National Governors’ Conference