Remember Duck and Cover? What Safety Experts May Have Been Thinking

How did safety experts come to feel that hiding under a desk or in a hallway with one's hands over one's head would protect against nuclear catastrophe?
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A front page photograph in the New York Times on Thursday, October 21, depicted fourth grade students from San Francisco's Alamo Elementary School huddled under their desks as part the annual earthquake drill that the state of California has dubbed the Great California Shakeout.

This photograph brought to mind the Civil Defense "Duck and Cover" drills conducted by schools and communities in the 1950s and 1960s, and I went in search of information.

How did safety experts come to feel that hiding under a desk or in a hallway with one's hands over one's head might safeguard against being injured in an earthquake (now) or protect against nuclear catastrophe ( the '50s and '60s)?

What Were They Thinking?

Protecting normal citizens from the possibility of attack became a concern in World War I but the fear was vastly heightened by World War II as British citizens regularly had to cope with the threat of bombings by seeking protection in underground rail stations. The fear that at some point, America might be attacked on native soil began to worry both U.S. citizens and the U.S. government.

While there were American emergency councils as early as 1917, there was no major government focus on civil defense until the early 1950s. In 1949 the Soviets successfully detonated their own atomic bomb, robbing the United States of their brief status of being the only country with nuclear weapons. Because U.S.-Soviet relations were tense, the United States became concerned about the possibility of nuclear attack and created the Federal Civil Defense Administration in 1951.

Partly because Congress did not provide a robust budget, the emphasis of the FCDA was on disseminating information to teach communities how to protect themselves. Schools were the logical focal point for this training as they already had tentacles into most parts of the community.

The "Duck and Cover" philosophy began at this time. Little was known about radioactive fallout, and many experts believed that the danger from a nuclear blast was from the effect of the blast (glass and debris flying through the air), the heat, and only to some extent, radioactivity. They were aware that people would not be able to escape a blast, so protecting against flying debris (duck) and heat (cover to minimize head or neck burns) made a certain degree of sense.

A poster that was used in Concord, New Hampshire read:
When you see a flash of light brighter than the sun---
Don't run; there isn't time.
Fall flat on your face.
Get Down Fast!

The recommendation in most of the literature at that time was to stay down for "at least a minute."

During 1952 the Civil Defense Administration created a convoy of ten trucks and trailers that toured with civil defense dioramas and posters showing ways to "beat the bomb." An estimated 1.1 million people visited the convoy, and more saw the film, "Duck and Cover," which was screened in schools and aired over television airwaves. The film featured a pith helmet-wearing turtle named Bert who shows what needs to be done as soon as an American sees a "flash of light brighter than the sun." Check out this short clip.

1954: A Pivotal Year for Knowledge

Ivy Mike, the code name given to the first nuclear test of a fusion device, made it clear that children huddled under coats in hallways (a recommendation at some schools) was not adequate against a weapon that created a crater 6, 240 feet (1.9 km wide and 164 feet (50 meters) deep. The fireball from Ivy Mike was approximately 3.25 miles wide and the mushroom cloud rose to 57,000 feet.

On the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands an additional test, known as Castle Bravo, was also conducted in 1954. This test clearly revealed the dangers of radioactive fallout, something the scientists had felt was not an issue when bombs were detonated via air fusion. The residents of the atoll who returned after the test were sickened by the radiation, and radioactive particles were deposited across 7,000 miles, poisoning some Japanese fishermen who were thought to be well out of the range of the test area.

Despite this information, the Civil Defense Administration continued to encourage "Duck and Cover" drills. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 brought fear of the unknown to even greater heights.

In addition to "Duck and Cover" the government also went through various periods where they encouraged communities or individual families to build bomb shelters. Those without a bomb shelter were still to have on hand a four-day supply of food and water and a first-aid kit. Then: Go inside the house, draw the blinds but stay away from windows, and read the pamphlet, "Protection from Atomic Attack." (I presume people were actually supposed to read the pamphlet in advance of an attack.)

Why did they continue on with what was clearly inadequate advice?

Even then, safety experts were well aware that providing reassuring advice lessened the likelihood of panic. As we all know, heightened fear can be paralyzing, and this enhances the danger for the person and all those around him or her. (The world witnessed this in action during 9-11. Maintaining calm and marching down what must have seemed like a dizzyingly endless series of stairs in the World Trade Center was life-saving.)

In addition, studies during World War II showed that lightly trained (40 hours or less) civilians could be organized into teams and perform 95 percent of the emergency measures needed immediately following a catastrophe.

It must have been with these thoughts in mind that the Civil Defense program continued despite experts' rapid realization that "Duck and Cover" would very likely be inadequate.

Earthquake Prep: Drop Cover and Hold On?

The fact that "Duck and Cover" would have been woefully inadequate in case of a nuclear attack made me suspicious of the advice given to the California school children obediently ducking under their desks rehearsing for the possibility of an earthquake. To my surprise, my reading told me otherwise.

When it comes to earthquakes, this isn't bad advice. In areas of the United States that are prone to earthquakes, community building codes require a certain level of sturdiness to the structures themselves, so American citizens would be less likely to experience toppled or caved in buildings. However, two possible incidents over which building codes can have no control remain dangers: During a quake, random items including glass from shattered windows, may well fly through the air, and therefore "covering" is a good idea. In addition, the most frequent injury during earthquakes is usually broken bones when people are knocked off balance while trying to escape from wherever they are.

For these reasons, "Drop, Cover, and Hold On" is actually wise advice. Good to know.

What are your memories of "Duck and Cover" drills?

And if you'd like to read some happier stories about schools of 50-60 years ago (remember Home Ec and Woodshop?), send an e-mail with "School" in the subject line. I'll send out my free e-letter on the subject.

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