Everyone's heard of it... but why would anyone think it was a good idea? Who made it, and why? How did it become a cultural milestone?
I have to confess that I find "Duck and Cover" maddening. Not so much the film itself, but the reputation it's developed, and the fact that no one bothers to contextualize it in its proper historical context. "Duck and Cover" is a unique historical artifact, one that could only have been produced in a very particular cultural and political context. What should be emphasized is that this particular historical moment lasted all of a few months, after which the Federal Civil Defense Administration realized that they had made some very serious mistakes.
The roots of "Duck and Cover" can be found in the efforts of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey to interview survivors of the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Irving L. Janis wrote in 1951 that "A substantial proportion of respondents in Hiroshima and Nagasaki reported having reacted immediately to the intense flash alone, as though it were a well-known danger signal, despite the fact they were unaware of its significance at the time. A number of them said that they voluntarily ducked down or "hit the ground" as soon as the flash occurred and had already reached the prone position before the blast swept over them." Janis argued that these findings suggested "that the casualties of an A-bomb attack might be reduced if the population had been well prepared in advance to react appropriately to the flash of the explosion." The U.S. Army Medical Department estimated in 1948 that "of the 50,000 or more deaths which would ordinarily result from a single attack on a modern city about 10,000 could be avoided if every person in the city were adequately informed beforehand as to what he could do for himself in case of an A-bomb disaster."
Clearly, the U.S. government regarded improvised civil defense measure like "duck and cover" to be minimally effective. So why did they create an instructional film emphasizing them? The answer can be found in the Report of Project East River, a colossal 10-volume review of the U.S. civil defense program made in September, 1952. As the authors explained:
With the advent of the Korean difficulties, it appeared that the civil defense structure of the nation should be brought to readiness at the earliest possible moment to meet an immediate threat.
"Duck and Cover" was meant as a temporary measure, in case of a sneak Soviet nuclear attack before U.S. active and passive defenses could be improved. These were to include better radar systems to give earlier warning of impending Soviet attack, improved active defenses to intercept and destroy incoming bombers, and an elaborate civil defense system to protect American urban dwellers. However, only the first two of these ever saw fruition. The FCDA, in large measure due to its own bungling and incompetence, proved unable to convince Congress to fund its shelter program. This did not, however, prevent the FCDA from including a public blast shelter in the film. Had the FCDA's plans been realized, these would have been a common sight in American cities. Instead, public shelters only became a reality in the Kennedy years.
One should keep in mind that a major (and perhaps the major) goal of the FCDA's 1950s propaganda efforts was to enlist public support for the FCDA's more ambitious schemes. After all, like all bureaucracies the FCDA's primary imperative was its own perpetuation and growth. This is not to say that the FCDA's motives were cynical--it genuinely feared the prospect of Soviet nuclear attack--but its desire was for the funding to create a credible civil defense, not for the American people to complacently believe in "duck and cover." But in order to create the public clamor for increased civil defense funding, the people needed to fear the prospect of enemy nuclear attack, and to believe US defenses were inadequate. The FCDA's initial efforts to stoke nuclear fear, unfortunately, failed to inspire Americans to write their Congressmen to demand the allocation of funds for shelter-building.
Even by mid-1952, it was clear that the FCDA's efforts to "sell" civil defense to the public were failing. As the Report of Project East River stated:
Thus far, the major appeal has been on the likelihood and imminence of attack. The country, now in its second year of major civil defense effort, has not responded to the continuous campaign stressing the need for civil defense. Since the appeal has not led to durable results, new ways must be found for establishing a sounder basis for civil defense needs and participation.
"Duck and Cover" is perhaps the epitome of civil defense propaganda emphasizing the likelihood and imminence of attack. (I won't bother going into the production history of the film, as Conelrad has already done a far better job of that than I could.) Therefore, the film was recognized as a failure less than a year after it was produced. Unfortunately, the film failed to disappear from circulation, and continued to torment children in some places for years to come. This, of course, ultimately worked against the purpose for which the film was originally intended. Instead of encouraging greater support for civil defense, the film's apparent naivete in the face of the growing nuclear threat helped convince an entire generation of Americans that defense against nuclear attack was impossible.
"Duck and Cover" probably owes its current notoriety to the 1982 film The Atomic Cafe. On the one hand, The Atomic Cafe is a brilliant piece of filmmaking. Its creative editing and exposition-free presentation make for a powerful viewing experience. On the other hand, these very features make the film incapable of historicizing its contents. Indeed, even though all of the footage is from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, The Atomic Cafe really tells us much more about the culture of the early 80s than it does about the early Cold War. Among other things, its makers edited the historical footage (and particularly "Duck and Cover") for maximum irony. For these reasons I disapprove of the use of this film as a means of instructing students about Cold War civil defense. Without an understanding of the activities of the FCDA at the time it was created, it gives a highly misleading impression of the goals and methods of civil defense.
Indeed, "Duck and Cover" is so fascinating and ironic because it is atypical of U.S. civil defense propaganda, not because it is representative of it. Because the FCDA changed propaganda tactics less than 18 months after it was founded, "Duck and Cover" is very unusual. In large measure because it was made before the development of the H-bomb, it looks especially foolish in retrospect. It is a film that could only have been made in 1951, and can only be understood in the context of 1951. Any other way, the film is reduced to mere kitsch, rather than history.