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Apr 23, 2009

With a new nuclear threat looming in North Korea, FLYP looks back on lessons from the past to see just how far we have or have not come.

By FLYP Staff

As the film rolls, a mischievous monkey “accidentally” drops a firecracker, causing Bert the Turtle to pull back into his shell as a voiceover instructs viewers to be prepared to “duck and cover” when they “hear the flash.”
Sound familiar? If you were enrolled in an American public school during the 1950s, you probably were exposed to Bert and his starring role in “Duck and Cover,” a short film from the Federal Civil Defense Administration.
Throughout the ensuing decade, these Cold War-era public service announcements continued, including the videos from the 1960s on this page.
Although the use of marionettes may seem quaint today, these television spots were part of a larger federal campaign to teach Americans what would happen when the bomb finally dropped.
From the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, an annual event known as “Operation Alert” was held, during which a quarter of the U.S. population would listen to the radio for notice of a (fake) nuclear attack. Even without the presence of a mushroom cloud, children crawled under their desks and office workers huddled in basement shelters.
Meanwhile, President Eisenhower would be shuttled off to a facility in the Blue Ridge Mountains, while critical sectors of the federal government all moved underground.
However, the federal government never fully funded civil defense, and the end of the Cold War signaled the agency’s demise. In its wake, states had a difficult time fulfilling federal mandates, and individual families lost the conviction that specially built fallout shelters were worth the expense.
However, some aspects of this era’s paranoia have persevered. Today, FEMA has a character named Herman—a crab with “disaster-proof” armor—who guides children through scenarios in which they need to gather vital, life-saving supplies.
And at airports, metal detectors, shoe removal and the latest fleet of full-body scanners are all the vestiges of the original safety device: the nuclear fallout shelter.


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