Friday, August 08, 2008

Civil Defense History: The Importance of Chronology

The latest issue of BAS contains an article by Joseph Masco, "Target Audience," about government films about nuclear weapons effects from the 1950s and how they continue to affect Americans' understanding of nuclear weapons. This attracted my attention as it contains a discussion of "Operation Cue," a civil defense film produced in 1955. I have to say that I think that the author's analysis is not particularly astute, as it ignores the issues raised by chronological context. As such, it cannot avoid being ahistorical.

According to the author:
This scripting of danger and stagemanaging of nuclear effects became increasingly sophisticated at the Nevada Test Site in the 1950s, eventually including parallel civil defense material aimed at civilians. Again, panic, not nuclear destruction, was positioned as the real danger in nuclear warfare. This argument was made with careful crafting of the images of nuclear warfare, censoring of nuclear effects such as fire and radiation, and focusing on atomic bombs rather than the much larger thermonuclear weapons already in the U.S. arsenal.


In Operation Cue, there is no discussion about radioactive fallout or the extensive fires that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki produced. Instead, the film provides a detailed portrait of a functioning post-nuclear state. Rescue personnel pull damaged mannequins from the rubble, flying several to off-site hospitals; meanwhile, the mass feeding takes place alongside standing homes and power lines. Later, the mannequins scorched by Operation Cue went on a national tour of J. C. Penney department stores, which had provided the clothing used in the test, offering an explicit portrait of nuclear survival to the U.S. public.

A closer reading of Operation Cue reveals a more complicated message: The film is training citizens to accept nuclear war as a normative threat, employing nuclear fear to craft a militarized society organized around preparing for nuclear war every minute of every day. To accomplish this, the portrait of nuclear danger presented in Operation Cue is partial, a carefully edited version of nuclear science that the day’s prevailing experts had already disproved via the test programs in Nevada and the South Pacific. In actuality, the fallout produced by nuclear tests such as Operation Cue traversed the continental United States, creating negative health effects for soldiers and civilians that continue to this day—a much starker reality than Operation Cue promises viewers.

Here Masco is arguing that the Federal Civil Defense Administration was being willfully mendacious in its propaganda efforts, intentionally withholding disturbing facts about nuclear weapons in order to engineer Americans' emotional lives to fight the Cold War. The truth of the matter is that when the film was made, the FCDA was not privy to the information that the AEC had gathered about fallout in the course of the nuclear tests in the Pacific in 1954. Indeed, a big part of the reason that Ralph Lapp went public with the problems posed by fallout in 1954-5 was so that civil defense planners could take this information into account in their planning efforts. (Lapp was a longstanding civil defense advocate, who wrote a pro-civil defense book titled Must We Hide? in 1949.) After information about fallout began reaching the FCDA, "Operation Cue" was edited to include an introduction regarding the fallout problem, as seen here:

And part two:

Besides the fact that the FCDA lacked up-to-date information to censor, the current knowledge about fallout in mid-1955 left a very great deal to be desired. It doesn't help that Masco's citation on this issue is to Richard L. Miller's 1986 Under the Cloud: the Decades of Nuclear Testing, a book which does not evaluate the health impacts of fallout scientifically. Indeed, in 1988 Technology and Culture published a scathing review of the book by Barton C. Hacker dismissed the book as merely the latest addition to the lengthy list of anti-nuclear screeds (including Harvey Wasserman's Killing Our Own) which "vary considerably in quality, but all are one-sided" and "selective in their use of evidence." In particular, Hacker noted that "nowhere, in any event, does Miller show that detectable fallout equals hazardous fallout. There may be a case for that view, but it needs better evidence than hazy memories, self-interested statements, or innuendo." This book hardly seems to be a stable foundation upon which to build a historical argument.

On the fire issue, Masco calls on Lynn Eden's Whole World on Fire, which is certainly not a bad book (albeit very partisan to the Harold Brode school of predicting fire effects from nuclear explosions). Unfortunately, I do not believe that Eden's book supports Masco's claim that the FCDA was willfully ignoring fire effects of nuclear explosions. The entire point of Eden's argument was that the AEC, SAC, and the other pillars of the American nuclear establishment all downplayed or ignored fire effects in their nuclear war planning. Seeing as the FCDA played second fiddle to these organizations, it's no surprise that they followed the contemporary fashion. It is also worth pointing out that the nuclear explosion in the film did not incinerate the model buildings prepared by the FCDA. This was due to inadequate fuel loading, and as a result of this and similar tests civil defense planners concluded that so long as fuel loading was kept sufficiently low, firestorms could not develop. Brode regarded this as a serious error, but it is worth pointing out that his was a minority view. In any case, I do not believe that the FCDA was being willfully mendacious on the fire issue, even if they were arguably very wrong about it in hindsight.

On top of this, "Operation Cue" is not a good example of the FCDA's elaborate fear management theories. This is partially because Behavioralism was on the wane by 1955, but it is also because the film is about nuclear weapons effects rather than people. Although subtle, the message of the film is really that then-current investment in civil defense infrastructure was inadequate. Keep in mind that hardly anyone built the home blast shelters featured in the film, and plans for public blast shelters were canceled by the Eisenhower Administration. Therefore, the average viewer in 1955 was likely to have thought, "what if that was my house? I don't have a shelter...I'd be killed!" This is very different from "I must accept nuclear war as a normative threat, and prepare for it every day of my life." The FCDA's hope was that this would translate into clamor for increased civil defense spending, but between the problems posed by the H-bomb and the highly disturbing overtones of civil defense in general, these efforts were in vain.

Besides this, the author gets even the simplest facts wrong, such as describing Val Peterson as the "inaugural head of the Federal Civil Defense Agency." Firstly, it was the Federal Civil Defense Administration; and secondly, Val Peterson was the second head of the FCDA. The actual inaugural head of the FCDA was Millard Caldwell, a segregationist southern Democrat whose racism and general incompetence caused massive problems for the FCDA's initial civil defense efforts in 1951-2. So on the whole, I must say that I am not altogether impressed by this article.


DV8 2XL said...

While I agree that the film in question is not as strident as Masco seems to think it is, there is some truth in his assertion that a certain amount of propaganda of the time was geared to present nuclear war as a normative threat, long before the arsenals of any potential enemy were capable of an effective nuclear attack. I also don't believe that this fact was unknown to defense planners at the time.

For example we know now that talk of 'missile gaps' were in fact designed to promote elevated spending. Having lived through that era I can understand Masco's point of view, despite the poor illustration he is using.

Now admittedly the perspective of a child, (as I was at the time) is somewhat different than an adult; weekly duck-and cover drills at school however did seem to indicate to me that that nuclear war was if not inevitable, certainly highly probable. Even the adults, who you must remember were no strangers to total war, took this very seriously. So it is very hard for me, given what we now know about what the real capabilities of the nuclear powers at the time were, not to see that much of this was willfully mendacious propaganda.

This is not to excuse poor analysis, and Masco is too young to have experienced the time as I have, but there is an element of broad truth in the accusation that public opinion then was being manipulated to accept the likelihood of nuclear war.

Sovietologist said...

It is true that some FCDA efforts present nuclear war as a normative threat. "Operation Cue" simply isn't a good example of these. Films and literature that discuss how a nuclear war will start, such as The Day Called X, do portray Soviet surprise nuclear attack as an ever-present threat that can occur at any time. However, this reflects the actual thinking of the FCDA, not some sort of onerous conspiracy to militarize society. I believe that the FCDA was only manipulating the populace so that they would "wake up" to a threat in which FCDA planners genuinely believed, even if it bore little relation to the actual strategic balance.

The question of what defense planners knew about actual Soviet capabilities is fairly complex. As the U-2 entered service in 1954, it was only in the late 1950s that the US discovered the true extent of Soviet strategic weakness. On top of this, only a very limited circle of government officials were privy to this information. Everything I have seen indicates that the FCDA was way outside of the information loop, especially given that continuity of government functions were the responsibility of another agency. Their evaluations of Soviet nuclear attack intended for internal use greatly exaggerate Soviet strategic power.

It should also be kept in mind that the paranoia of many Americans regarding Soviet nuclear intentions resulted in a belief that if the Soviet threat didn't exist now, it would exist as soon as the Soviets managed to make it hard fact. This was a pretty common theme in the domestic debate about the non-existent "missile gap" in the late 1950s. This mode of thought seems to have been endemic among SAC generals, and fed into their demands for ever-increasing expenditure on strategic nuclear weapons.

The extent to which US government officials (and ordinary Americans) genuinely feared and hated the Soviet Union is hard to relate to in retrospect--especially for someone like me who spends a lot of time in Russia. But as far as I have been able to gather, the people in the FCDA was probably more scared than anyone, however brave a face they tried to put on for the public.

DV8 2XL said...

What you say about the FCDA's ignorance may well be true; certainly from a purely Machiavellian perspective, it might be advantageous to have your propagandists actually believe what they are saying. Nevertheless I still believe that those high up in the government were well aware that an exchange was highly unlikely. The fact that no substantive civil defense measures were taken at that time - building shelters being the most obvious - indicates a certain lack of concern that can only be adequately explained by confidence that they would not be needed

The strategic mechanics of nuclear war are relatively simple, and we can assume that military planners at the time figured them out quickly. Any attack that did not bring your opponent to his knees immediately would result in a counter attack that would leave both sides weakened. I'm sure that this was particularly apparent to the Soviets who were more vulnerable to a conventional offensive than any Western power at the time.

Real deterrence then (as now) is a product of tactical nuclear weapons, that can effectively stop armored columns or amphibious invasions quickly across a broad front, without needing a massive amount of equipment and manpower. Breaking up each others cities simply had no real military value at that time, (or now) and again I cannot believe that this was not understood by those in charge.

What they did do is leverage the attack on Japan (which was done to end a war not start it) to cultivate public fear for political gain.

Now in all fairness I know that some felt that holding your opponents cities hostage, as it were, permitted more latitude on the ground particularly in regional conflicts, but in general a nuclear capability paradoxically raises the threshold for action (think of the the Hungarian and Czechoslovakian uprisings, which were not aided by the West) so even if some felt it was a necessary tool it was unlikely that this attitude lasted too long. Too at the beginning, a limiting factor was that a city was the smallest target that could be reliably acquired by the long range delivery systems in use, but as accuracy increased, primary targets shifted away from cities and on to purely military installations.

The point here being that what was being fed to the public about the risks of nuclear war, and the real conditions on the ground were not in alignment, and the only reason for that had to be domestic manipulation.