Can We Survive Nuclear War? – The “Civil Defence Lie”

The Origins of Civil Defence.
Civil Defence is an effort by the State to protect its general population from the effects of disasters.

UK Civil Defence planning really began in 1924 with the creation of the ‘Air Raid Precautions Committee’, known throughout the Second World War as the ‘ARP’, which had the goal of protecting civilians in the event of air-raids (1). ARP personnel acted as wardens, checking that a nighttime blackout was maintained and coordinating actions around bombed areas. Messengers delivered updates to control centres, while First Aiders, Ambulance Drivers and Rescue Services tried to help survivors.

US Civil Defence preparations had started a bit earlier in 1916 (with the Council of National Defense). With little risk of its mainland being attacked, US plans had a broader remit than just responding to air raids (2). After the attack on Pearl Harbour (December 7th, 1941) US Civil Defence increased rapidly. The Civil Air Patrol (CAP) was created within days and saw civilian pilots patrolling the coast and borders, as well as supporting search and rescue missions. The Civil Defense Corps had around 10 million volunteers trained to fight fires, give first aid and provide decontamination in the event of a chemical weapon attack. A Ground Observer Corps looked out for enemy aircraft entering US airspace. Although some of these initiatives were scaled back as the war progressed and the threat of attacks diminished, many were continued afterwards, becoming a foundation for US civil defence in the Cold War.

Cold War Civil Defence
At the start of the Cold War the threats from air raids were magnified by the advent of nuclear weapons. Initially, many countries tried to use ARP principles to protect the public, including educating their civilians about how best to react if such an attack happened. These early public briefings were in the era of atomic weapons (Hiroshima, Nagasaki), when survival was possible for people beyond the immediate area that had been attacked.

The development of thermonuclear bombs quickly changed the Political-Military context for Civil Defence.

Some US estimates in the 1950s-60s suggested that proper civil defence could have saved around 27 million people in the event of a Soviet first-strike attack. But a political cost-benefit analysis determined that the cost of a full-scale civil defence programme would be less effective than having a more established Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system. As the Soviets continued to build their nuclear weapons stockpile, both civil defense schemes and BMD offered diminishing returns – so which projects should be prioritised?

The US had the advantage of a large territory that offered prospects for survival in the event of a nuclear attack, a strong financial position developed during the War, and a solid Military-Industrial-Complex that could deliver the Cold War technologies that it now needed.

The situation in the UK was very different.

In the years after World War 2 the UK was critically short of funds but successive governments (Attlee 1945, and Churchill 1951) determined that, if the country was to remain a major global power, it had to develop its own nuclear weapons (particularly as the US was then refusing to share that technology with its former ally). A proper programme of Civil Defence which aimed to protect the population from the effects of a nuclear attack was unaffordable, but how and why did a government decision to save the few while sacrificing the many arise?

The ‘H’ Bomb Threat.
By 1955 the sheer immediate destructive power and long-term damage from fall-out were fairly well understood in the political and military spheres. In January 1955, towards the end of Churchill’s second term as Prime Minister, the Joint Intelligence Committee reported that “… To render the UK useless as a base for any form of military operations the simplest and most effective form of attack would be by surface bursts effected in suitable meteorological conditions. These, besides causing local damage, would cause very considerable areas of the country to be affected by fall-out. We are advised that something like ten ‘H’ bombs, each of a yield of about 10 megatons, delivered on the western half of the UK or in the waters close in off the Western seaboard, with the normal prevailing winds, would effectively disrupt the life of the country and make normal activity completely impossible.” (3)

This JIC report had a terrifying addendum: “… We believe that the Russians will regard the UK as such a threat that they will aim to render it unusable for a long period, and will not hesitate to destroy great parts of the UK to achieve this aim.”

Just ten bombs were needed to effectively destroy the UK, and that could have been an overestimate.

The UK government quickly shifted towards funding deterrence over civil defence.

Around six years later, Sir Frank Roberts (the British Ambassador to Moscow) and Khrushchev met at the ballet in July 1961. It was reported that, in a rather dark conversation, Khrushchev had said that the UK would ‘perish’ on the first day of a global nuclear war and asked Roberts “… how many bombs would be needed to put the UK out of commission?” Roberts suggested six, perhaps wanting to undersize the Soviet arsenal. Khrushchev said that pessimists thought six would be enough, optimists ten, but in any case the Soviet Union had targeted scores of bombs against the UK. (4)

By this time the government was already working on ensuring some form of continuity of government after an attack, a situation that Frank Allaun MP questioned with massive understatement in Parliament in December 1962 (5):

“… the Home Secretary admitted for the first time that there will be protected regional headquarters for key personnel. Can the Under-Secretary say whether this means special underground shelters? Can the hon. Gentleman assure the House that V.I.P.s and others unconnected with civil defence will be provided with these facilities? … if there is something in this, as some of us suspect, it will cause tremendous resentment among the whole population…”

The truth was out: there were no bunkers for the majority of the population, but ‘key personnel, VIPs and certain other civilians were being provided with the means to survive.

In the US, for forty Cold War years the basic approach to civil defence was described in the National Security Resources Board’s ‘Blue Book’ – but politicians never fully invested the resources needed to properly implement it.

There was general agreement that civil defence was important but funding by Congress never met the budgets requested by federal civil defence agencies. Investment was erratic and lacked coordination as requests passed through a maze of agencies. Projects were discarded or promoted alongside disorganised investments in BMD systems, to which they were seen as being complementary. The focus on BMD was to return in President Reagan’s “Strategic Defense Initiative” (‘Star Wars’), an ill-advised unilateral shift in the balance of power that contributed to a nearly fatal misunderstanding between the Soviet Union and NATO during Operation Able Archer that same year.

How many times did the US government decide to forgo fully-funded civil defence investments for increases in military power?

Cold War Nuclear Deterrence
Once the UK decided to become a nuclear-armed state, the depleted public purse could either fund a massive programme of Civil Defence or the continual development of nuclear weapon systems, but not both. Following the US lead, the chosen doctrine of ‘deterrence’ placed the entire nation’s survival on the hope that safety would come from keeping your nuclear-tipped boot on your enemy’s throat while they did the same to you.

Deterrence involved each side showing their readiness to use nuclear weapons, perhaps in the form of “massive retaliation”, if the situation demanded – but what rational person could ever envisage a situation that ‘demanded’ the use of these devastating weapons?

Would it ever have been rational to choose to destroy huge swathes of the populated world, with the subsequent risks of perhaps triggering a nuclear winter and global omnicide? Nick McCamley makes this point very well (6):

“… while one group of Pentagon planners plotted a war to defend… capitalism…,

“… others were planning the early warning systems that would monitor… the approach of Soviet missiles… that guaranteed their own destruction…,

“… others were designing the bunkers that would hide the few who would survive and later re-emerge to rule a world so utterly destroyed that the concept of democtratic capitalism would be an irrelevancy for generations.”

Each side possessed thousands of thermonuclear weapons aimed at cities and key enemy infrastructure.

If surviving the use of those weapons was essentially impossible, how did the Political-Military Establishment manage to convince the public to maintain these nuclear arsenals?

An important question arises:

Was a ‘Civil Defense Lie’ used to ensure that the general populations did not use their voting rights to force nuclear disarmament?

Why bunkers?
  …. and why didn’t the public reject policies that could lead to their own extermination?

A policy of deterrence needs the ongoing development of ‘warheads’, their delivery systems and the infrastructure needed to control their use. However, rapid improvements in weapon capabilities by both sides rendered both Military and Political control centres vulnerable to attack. The weapons themselves also had to be protected from an attack, ultimately seeing them placed in hardened silos or hidden on submarines in the deep oceans.

Having written off the bulk of their general populations in the event of a nuclear attack, politicians now hoped that some form of government would continue to be possible afterwards.

At a national level their immediate goal would be to guide the direction of the overall prosecution of the war.

At a local level they would be trying to support the civilian population, many of whom would be facing the effects of fallout, burns, blast and the destruction of most public infrastructure.

Bunkers were created to protect politicians so they could continue to operate after an attack. Despite their locations being official secrets, the reality is that national-level, hardened bunkers expected to be targeted by the enemy’s weapons. Survival in them might have spanned several weeks in best cases, or be as short as minutes in the event of a direct hit by a megaton-yield weapon.

Local politicians might have relocated to bunkers under civic buildings or close by. These might have given varying degrees of protection from fallout but would still have been rather vulnerable to blast effects. Similar problems confronted military establishments which faced the near certainty of being on the enemy’s target list.

The popular conception is that military forces, whether NATO or Warsaw Pact, would never contemplate a First-Strike use of their nuclear forces. However, in the event of being attacked themselves, they aimed to be able to use their surviving weapons in a so-called ‘Second-Strike’, perhaps still with the vague aim of trying to ‘win the war’… or so that story goes.

However, at the start of the Cold War, in the event of ‘general war’ with the Soviet Union, the US Joint Chiefs had a secret plan, unknown to even the President or Secretary of Defense.

This ‘Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan’ (JSCP (7)) involved the pre-emptive use of their entire strategic nuclear arsenal against ALL major cities across the Soviet Union AND China, if their systems detected that an immediate attack on the US was in progress.

This ‘launch on warning’ approach reduced the time available to decide to use nuclear weapons to minutes – blurring the line between First-Strike and Second-Strike, and creating the huge risk of a catastrophic misunderstanding (like in the 1983 NATO ‘Able Archer’ exercise, for example (8) ).

Was the Political-Military goal really to ensure that their weapons would survive for second-strike use, hence deterring a first-strike against them?

Or were they always seeking the clear advantage that would make a first-strike possible, as perhaps the deployment of Pershing-2 missiles to Europe might have enabled?

Whatever the circumstances, the Political-Military Establishment was claiming to represent and protect a general public who elected them on the presumption that they would act rationally, keeping the public’s safety paramount at all times.

– but the Cold War reality was very different.

For decades the general populations were not told the plain truth.

They were sold a lie that survival was possible by successive governments’ propaganda, both left and right wing, spanning from Second World War civil defence structures to myths like ‘Duck and Cover’ and ‘Protect and Survive’.

In my opinion, this ‘Civil Defence Lie’ denied the public an honest opportunity to vote for politicians who would work hardest to ensure their survival in ALL circumstances. And when the real hard truths started circulating in the public domain, the Lie helped to prevent them from pushing hard for nuclear disarmament, which was perhaps the only effective way of guaranteeing them a long-term, low risk chance of avoiding that apocalypse.

Even today, when the truth of non-survivability has been publicly revealed, the effects of that propaganda are so pervasive that most people still think (if they think about this at all) that some form of survival after a nuclear attack might be possible – the existential threat is so large and yet so removed from their everyday lives, that it remains easier to trust that governments are protecting them.

Civil Defence Propaganda
In the US, rather than building civilian bunkers and developing major infrastructure to help the surviving population in the aftermath of a nuclear attack, there was instead a strong focus on showing the public federally funded educational films.

One particular sequence starring ‘Bert the Turtle’ is notoriously famous. Aimed at children, ‘Duck and Cover(9) (10) said that when they ‘see the flash’ they should ‘duck and cover’. They should ‘kneel with their backs facing the windows, eyes shut, their hands clasped behind their backs’ – the idea was to minimise the amount of skin exposed to initial flash of heat and light from a nuclear explosion. ‘Duck and Cover’ drills were a part of regular Civil Defense drills for every US citizen. They were also shared in a special radio adaptation, nationwide newspaper serials and even a 16-page colouring book.

My objection to ‘Duck and Cover’, especially Bert the Turtle, is the almost Disney-like, jolly tone that is used to suggest that nuclear attacks were survivable. It doesn’t make clear that within the fireball zone your chances were very small, as they were if you were caught up to 3km from the fireball. It doesn’t show the devastation that would be wrought on buildings in built-up areas, including collapses from over-pressure in the blast wave, or the shredding effect of debris propelled by the blast wave. It doesn’t talk about the risk from fall-out in the event of a ground-burst. As critics at the time pointed out, what happens after the attack?

Immediately after the blast wave had passed people were supposed to find somewhere safe to shelter – but how many places had a shelter secured against fall-out? How many families had an airtight home shelter? And even if they did, what happened when carbon dioxide levels reached dangerous levels (if they realised) and the room had to be unsealed for a few minutes to change the air inside? But ‘Duck and Cover’ was pervasive – if that is what the sensible Turtle would do, wasn’t it enough for you?

But perhaps the greatest part of the deception was educating the nation about surviving an atomic (fission) weapon attack, when the government was already developing the H-bomb.

Just one year later, the US detonated a 10.4 megaton weapon in the “Ivy Mike” shot at Enewetak Atoll – that explosion was over 450 times more powerful than Nagasaki bomb… were the American public really going to survive explosions of that magnitude with a bit of ‘duck and covering’?

Another education programme was called ‘Survival Under Atomic Attack’ (11), which aimed to tell people how best to prepare their household for a nuclear attack. This included having a first aid kit, stoking up on tinned goods and water and having a shelter, preferably in a basement. It made survival sound quite straight forward, but didn’t properly answer questions like what happens when water supplies run out? It was also immediately out of date with the creation of the megaton H-bomb.

Some schemes to evacuate large cities were created against initial opposition from the federal government. Evacuation might have been successful before the development of ICBMs, but from that point on was unrealistic. Still, money was spent on evacuation plans from the 1950s onwards, creating the impression of doing something to protect the public.

The Soviets took civil defence much more seriously, with compulsory Civil Defence lectures and practical training from the age of 8 years (12). Junior school pupils were trained to sew basic face masks from cotton wool and gauze and knew what to do when an alarm sounded. They knew how to shelter from radiation in an underground shelter and hide from the shock wave in either a forest or a ravine (if one was handily nearby!) Moral and psychological training ensured that everyone was taught to stay calm and react calmly to all instructions. National training standards were set. For example, people had to be able to quickly select the appropriate gas mask – you had to take your head measurement, find the correct mask size, screw the filter canister onto the mask and then put it on and check the seal for leaks. If you achieved all that in one minute you passed, two and you got a bad mark. The pass time for putting on the gas mask was 10 seconds, 12 was a fail. In the Soviet version of ‘Duck and Cover’ citizens had to be able to throw themselves to the ground and find suitable cover within three seconds. They were marked down if they chose a poor quality location or didn’t cover their hands or head.

The Soviets published a brochure called ‘What everyone should be aware of and know’ (12), which explained what should be done in response to threats. It began with the statement that “the imperialist camp is preparing the most terrible crime against humanity – a world thermonuclear war that could result in unprecedented destruction”. It said that every Soviet citizen had the duty to “… study ways and means of ensuring protection against weapons of mass destruction and to know how to implement them in practice”.

Films were also used to ‘educate’ the public in the UK. The Civil Defence Information Bulletin (13) was a series of information films produced in 1964 that was intended to be shown to the public if a nuclear attack with warning was expected. Topics included how to prepare a fallout room, what supplies to stock as well as how to protect oneself immediately if an attack occurred with similar principles to ‘Duck and Cover’. The films presented another cool, logical impression of straight forward survival, with one householder leaving his fall-out room to check his house for damage – it showed little structural damage with just a couple of small fires in one room from the heat flash.

However, the most persistent piece of UK government propaganda was probably the “Protect and Survive” series created in the 1970s and early 1980s (14). Once the leaflet entered the publican domain it created both a lingering fear of nuclear attacks AND the idea that people could survive in their own homes with sufficient preparation.

The UK government could have proposed building proper shelters for the civilian population, like Switzerland.

Or it could have chosen nuclear disarmament in the face of such an existential threat, taking a nuclear-free stance like New Zealand.

It chose to maintain the status quo of keeping a nuclear boot on the throat of every hostile nation on the planet, while accepting that same boot from other nuclear-armed states.

The ‘Protect and Survive’ materials were prepared in radio, print and TV forms (15). For me, they represent the most egregious failure of a national government to protect its population. The opening ‘episode’ says “You can protect yourself and your family, and later on we will show you what steps to take”.


The advice for Sheltering in Place felt rather like preparing your own tomb, and all to a flippantly apocryphal soundtrack.


1 – “Civil defense” –

2 – “United States civil defense” –

3 – ‘The “H” Bomb Threat to the UK in the Event of a General War’ – Joint Intelligence Committee Report, January 1955 – there is interesting context for this report in chapter 4 of Peter Hennessy’s book “The Secret State” (Penguin, 2010)

4 – “The Secret State” – Peter Hennessy – chapter 4 ‘Beyond the Imagination’ – Penguin (2010)

5 – Hansard – HC Deb 05 December 1962 vol 668 cc1457-68

6 – “Cold War Secret Nuclear Bunkers – The Passive Defence of the Western World During the Cold War” – Nick McCamley – Pen & Sword Military (2014)

7 – See “The Doomsday Machine” – Daniel Ellsberg – Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017

8 – See “1983 – The World at the Brink” – Taylor Downwing – Little Brown, 2018 – for example

9 – Duck and Cover (1951) Bert the Turtle –

10 – “Duck and cover” –

11 – “Survival Under Atomic Attack” –

12 – “What was taught in civil defense lessons in the USSR?” –

13 – See YouTube:

14 – “Protect and Survive” leaflet –

15 – “Protect and Survive” TV recordings –

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