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Bucks County Invokes 1950s ‘Duck and Cover’ Campaign to Prep Residents for Nuclear Attack

Original 1950s “Duck and Cover” ad featuring Bert the Turtle.

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 Bucks County Department of Health thinks the controversial 1950s civil defense campaign “Duck and Cover” has gotten a bad rap.

The department on Thursday issued tips for surviving nuclear blasts in light of “increased concerns of nuclear war for many Americans” since the recent missile launch scare in Hawaii.

“If you were to ever find yourself in the vicinity of one of these events, survival is very possible,” they observe in an article entitled “Staying Safe in the Wake of a Nuclear Event.”

“At its core, Duck and Cover is a strategy intended to preserve as many lives as possible,” the article asserts.

In 1952, the newly-created Civil Defense Administration initiated the “Duck and Cover” campaign that was largely directed toward school children, advising students to duck under their desks and cover their heads should they see a “flash brighter than the sun.” Drills were conducted in schools throughout the country, foreshadowing today’s earthquake drills and active shooter exercises.

By the mid-1960s, a backlash against the strategy developed, not only because the effects of radioactive fallout were more clearly understood, and a single nuclear blast can create a crater miles wide and hundreds of feet deep, but also because the program became regarded as Cold War propaganda designed to play on fears of Communist world domination.

In fairness, the County Health Department fully acknowledged the controversy over “Duck and Cover” in its article, and presents both sides of the debate in an effort to salvage what it perceives to be valuable lessons of the campaign. And no one can argue that staying indoors and not staring out of one’s living room window at a potential nuclear fireball is good advice.

Nonetheless, the piece exudes a pervasive sense of irony.

“Although several countries do possess a nuclear arsenal capable of essentially destroying the earth, this is not the inevitable outcome of a nuclear attack,” observes one passage. “For instance, the largest nuclear weapon thus far tested by North Korea, if detonated near Center City Philadelphia, would not
subject Bucks County to the majority of the direct impacts resulting from blast.”

“Despite common perceptions, in general, nuclear detonations do not result in the death of everyone in the vicinity,” the Health Department goes on to say.

While county health officials undoubtedly have the public’s best interest in mind, and certainly ducking and covering under a sturdy object in the event of an earthquake or explosion is sound advise, “Duck and Cover” may best be left in the ash heap of history. While civil defense programs may be reassuring to the public, and even help prevent panic in the event of a scare, most political scientists agree that nuclear arms control agreements and non-proliferation pacts offer the best chance of surviving the potential scourge of atomic conflict.


About the author

Charlie Sahner

“Once you can accept the universe as matter expanding into nothing that is something, wearing stripes with plaid comes easy." - Einstein

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