While the winter time at Oscar-Zero tends to slow down quite dramatically after November 1st (although we’d rather it not), it does offer some time for staff to stretch their legs and get out to other museums.
With a distant eye towards a visitor’s center, we have journeyed in the past year for professional but also personal reasons. In either event, museum visits are almost always part of the destination or at least shoehorned in somehow. After all, while a visit is used to gain ideas for our own, it’s still an entertaining and inspirational experience to become the visitor instead of the operator. It lets us stand back and remember what it was like to see something for the first time.
Last June, a U.S. Military Heritage conference in Fredericksburg, Texas offered, as part of the excursion, a visit to the National Museum of the Pacific War. As a google search of the museum will tell you, it is highly regarded and after our visit it’s easy to see why. Although landlocked (so located as it was the birthplace of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, an outstanding leader of the Pacific War), a great deal of naval history including conning towers, Japanese midget submarines and other items were evident.
However, while thoroughly enjoying the experience, a keen eye scanned the exhibits and considered the different options. Here is a hatch from the U.S.S. Arizona, a ship that was destroyed during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Did the museum have issues with visitors touching the priceless object? Why was it necessarily placed there? What environmental sensors or security systems helped ensure it would remain a viable artifact?
These are questions that often take the true carefree enjoyment out of a museum visit, but, on the other hand, is a part of the job. I was there to gain insight into artifact and exhibit displays, to take note of their efforts and perhaps to adopt or implement ones of my own when I returned.
Last week, a visit was made to the National Infantry Museum located at Fort Benning, Georgia. Another marvel, and one of the top free military museums nationwide. Once inside, a corridor lined by prolific battle exhibits was a walk through time. A first exhibit demonstrated a Revolutionary War assault on a British redoubt. A paratrooper’s parachute provided a great movie backdrop in the World War II portion and a full-sized Huey helicopter sitting in tall grass with troopers dismounting provided an iconic and memorable display of the Vietnam War.
Walking beyond, I was soon surrounded by a wave of first and second infantry
lieutenants at the post going through an officer’s training school. It was then, to a realization, that part of the museum was oriented specifically towards military personnel, sharing a role for the public. Below, on the first floor however, great halls told the stories of the Civil War, the Revolution, Armor through the ages, World War I and II and then…of course…a favorite with the Cold War exhibit.
A great deal of time was spent within that one, noting displays on the Korean War and a personal touch focusing on the individual within the Vietnam War. I observed the young lieutenants and a handful of families that came through, curious as to what exhibits engaged them. Firearm exhibits were a draw, as were touch screens. Neither museum had a lot of work dedicated towards inspiring, educating or entertaining children, although if I’d glanced at their visitation statistics I’d imagine that they would constitute a small number of visitors anyway. Meanwhile, some lieutenants seemed rather uninterested in the exhibits altogether and chatted instead. I’d heard more than a few video game and movie references between them.
While the Museum of the Pacific War was situated within a shopping and entertainment district, the National Infantry Museum was not – right outside a gate to Fort Benning. Within it had a big-screen theater, a restaurant and a number of hall of fames to make up for that. It also had a World War II vintage building area outside (unfortunately it was locked up) but also some tank displays out beyond via a walkway. Both museums had a great deal of commemorative displays, memorials and the like. In effect, there was a great deal to take care of and maintain at both museums.
Back at Oscar, in the snow and quiet, it’s never difficult to stand and stare at what could be. The infantry museum had this…wouldn’t it be great if we could modify it a little to help tell the story of the ICBM? The Texas museum had the Japanese submarine with a sweet movie backdrop to make you feel underwater…maybe someday we could have a “molehole” exhibit to help tell the story of the bomber alert mission at Grand Forks and Minot with a similar immersive experience? So many what ifs, so many possibilities.
One does not have to be in the museum industry, of course, to be inspired and to be fascinated with how those two excellent museums operate.
And although we have yet to visit the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, we imagine it handily beats Army and Navy hands down (sorry, we had to do it).
If one had been permitted, and if wall structures had not been erected, one could sit outside the Grand Forks Air Force Base fencing immediately to the southwest of the runway and look out upon the alert pad. A handful of B-52s and KC-135s stood “cocked” in Strategic Air Command parlance, loaded with fuel and weapons (in the case of the B-52) pointed towards a taxiway to the main runway. Even in the quiet before the alarm sounded the tension was palpable as security forces roamed the area and barbed wire dissuaded would-be intruders.
When the klaxon rang, only a few quick glances by the guards would indicate anything was the matter. Men in green flight suits soon flood out of the “molehole”, a semi-buried barracks for alert crews, and sprint towards their trucks. They race to their awaiting aircraft, yanking off “Remove before flight” tags and quickly readying the aircraft. Soon the engines spool up in a high whistle, and the lumbering aircraft begin their slow but steady movements towards the runway. One after another they take-off, performing a Minimum-Interval Take-Off (a MITO) in order to perform what is called a “base escape”, racing to take-off and be clear of Grand Forks Air Force Base should Soviet missiles strike. Smoke trails fade into the northern sky.
A quiet alert pad is disrupted by frantic movement on the flightline to the east as on-duty crews attempt to ready more aircraft for flight across the runway. Distant white contrails begin to slowly lift from the ground in a line from the southwestern to northwestern horizon. The missiles of the 321st Strategic Missile Wing are joining the fight, accompanying and soon overtaking the alert bombers of the 319th Bomb Wing as they streak into the high atmosphere.
Grand Forks Air Force Base’s contribution to the SIOP, the Single-Integrated Operational Plan is taking place. The thought was not too long after a scene like this Soviet warheads would be impacting targets in the continental United States.
A frightening thought to say the least, at any stage of the Cold War be it 1962 or 1986. The SIOP was only to be used in a dire national emergency, such as warning of an all-out nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.
The Single-Integrated Operational Plan was created 60 years ago this year. Born of the Joint Strategic Targeting Planning Staff (JSTPS) at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, it’s goal was to jointly coordinate World War III between the US military services which possessed strategic nuclear weapons (the US Air Force with its bomber and nascent ICBM force, and the US Navy with its new Polaris SLBM force). Strategic Air Command was the senior part of the staff while the US Navy was allowed a smaller number of inputs. In essence, the JSTPS was a predecessor organization to today’s Strategic Command.
Essentially, JSTPS studied methods to more effectively destroy important Soviet targets in
a war but it also included targets in Warsaw Pact countries (Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania to name a few) along with targets in Communist China. The hope was to eliminate a target being hit too many times (if the Navy had assigned a Polaris to hit one while the Air Force assigned an Atlas missile to hit the same) but also in an effort to avoid “fratracide”, destroying friendly nuclear delivery vehicles which happened to be in the same area during detonation.
Requirements were made of certain targets to assure destruction, in case one had been a dud or did not effectively neutralize the target. With some targets picked for numerous attacks, some analysts considered this method as “making the rubble bounce”.
As the SIOP underwent development, President Eisenhower sent a gentleman named George Kistiakowsky to Omaha to review it. A scientist with an amazing career stemming back from fighting alongside the White Russians during the Russian Civil War to helping develop some of the explosive lenses used on the first atomic bombs during the Manhattan Project, Kistiakowsky was stunned to read over the targeting lists. He located a city with a population near the size of Hiroshima and found it to be targeted with one 4.5 megaton bomb and three 1.1 megaton bombs. Hiroshima had effectively ceased to exist after a 13.5 kiloton bomb.
While this first SIOP was approved by Eisenhower before he left office, it would come into force during the Kennedy Administration. Incoming Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara would be briefed in Omaha on the weekend of February 3, 1961.
It might be said here that the emergence of a changing nuclear policy first began. While
McNamara had less knowledge of nuclear weapons, it has been said that he found the targeting and casualty figures appalling. Marine Commandant David Shoup in December 1960 had also expressed his concerns about targeting China along with the Soviet Union if that nation had not attacked US interests. An “alert-force” only attack was predicted to kill 175 million Russians and Chinese, a full-force attack brought that number up to 285 million. This, apparently, did not take other secondary casualties into consideration.
When McNamara later received a briefing from RAND analyst William Kaufmann a few days later on February 10, he likely had the SIOP on his mind. Kaufmann proposed a no-cities plan, later to be considered “counterforce”, hitting military targets instead of industrial areas (Khrushchev later darkly joked and denounced this plan – “Not bombing cities? How aggressive” he mentioned during an address). McNamara pushed this plan by early 1962, along with adopting different war plans to offer the US president outside of all-out nuclear attack. Minuteman, but especially Polaris, would come to symbolize this new spirit of nuclear deterrence. Specifically, Minuteman II at Grand Forks would be built with these methods in mind. The first Single-Integrated Operational Plan was and is a secret document, but it had profound effects upon the US military and political community.
However, many misunderstand the secret of SIOP. Although many histories regard the plan as monstrous, and most definitely unleashed it certainly would have been, it was written not for use as an offensive move by the United States. Rather, it was a contingency plan to fight a nuclear war which the United States or NATO did not start.
There were interests in using parts if not all of the plan as a “preemptive strike”, when “strategic warning” (spies, surveillance, etc) indicated that the Soviets were planning on attacking on a certain day. Back in 1960, this raised a number of eyebrows on what would constitute “preemptive” or “sneak-attack”, and think-tanks have grappled with that question ever since.
Strategic Air Command considered the SIOP as a method to quickly and decisively end a war, it was built specifically for the nuclear deterrent mission, and drew upon strategic bombing experiences during the Second World War. However, there was a failure to grasp the larger economic, societal, and environmental costs of an all-out nuclear strike on much of the Eurasian continent. By 1964’s Dr. Strangelove, portions of American society began to question the morality of nuclear tactics, let alone nuclear testing and other aspects of the Cold War. Set against a blooming period of environmental and societal awareness, what the SIOP represented was the ultimate doom that everyone wanted to avoid, and this included SAC leadership.
SIOP-62 called for approximately 3,423 nuclear weapons (yielding a grand total of 7,847 megatons) against communist targets. The use of a single one however meant that the Strategic Air Command, Grand Forks Air Force Base, the radar-navigator aboard a B-52, the deputy missile combat crew commander at Oscar-Zero, had starkly and horribly failed their mission. SAC failed to keep the peace, and “peace was their profession” as the motto went. The command was a bulwark not against actual aggression, not like Air Defense Command nor the Safeguard system eventually fielded, but the mere thought of an adversary considering aggression. It was instead a veritable “big stick” as coined by Theodore Roosevelt to deter a possible opponent. While the controversies and problems related to nuclear weapons and the Cold War are present to this day, that is one thing that could be said of SAC. While called upon over Korea, Vietnam and the first Persian Gulf War, it did not fire nuclear weapons in anger.
And these are the discussion points, the debates, the memories and the guilt of the Cold War period. When humankind developed weapons of incredible destruction, drew up plans that would have killed millions of people, stood at the brink, then stood back considering the planet’s mortality, making agreements with powers once thought never negotiable. Then turning former alert pads into aerial drone development centers, missile silos into museums, and the stories of those who knew those dark times into testaments for future knowledge and reflection. It was an incredible period of human history, and all the more remarkable that the peace was arguably kept, and that we survived it.
In the depths of winter, the sound of happy and excited children was a nice reprieve from the quiet hum of the boiler system at Oscar. I had stumbled upon a notice for the annual UND Aerospace Community Day and, in the midst of developing some K-12 science and history learning for the site, I decided to see it for myself.
The University of North Dakota had long been associated with Grand Forks and Minot Air Force Bases. They were a part of the Minuteman Education Program (Later the Missile Crewmember Education Program) that provided Masters programs to interested missileers (who as officers generally possessed a Bachelor’s degree already). As the Minuteman missile force began to take shape, planners had realized even before deployment that there would be downtime. Unlike Atlas and Titan, the Minuteman was much less maintenance intensive and advances in automation eased job duties. Strategic Air Command proceeded to implement MEP at Malmstrom AFB, Montana in 1963 (shortly after the first Minuteman sites became operational). As the bases grew, so did the program and the universities tied into the program.
UND operated programs at Grand Forks and Minot, initially offering a Masters in Industrial Management. That changed in September 1972 to strictly offering only a Masters in Business Administration (an MBA). Even with the incentive to study on shift, by the late 1970s the missileer force had a waning interest in the Minuteman Education Program, something had to change.
Back in 2020, I was amazed at the amount of technology utilized by the college. There was an Air Traffic Control simulator that looked as though you were in the control tower itself. At small banks of computers flight simulators were available, and the children playing on them were transfixed on the wonder of it all. Bigger simulators were a huge attraction, as was the Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) obstacle course. Behind it all were charismatic college students and professors teaching youth how to play, and how to learn. I passed by a few 8 or 9 year old girls proudly wearing space suit costumes or flight suits, something very heartwarming to see considering the lack of women in the STEM career field. In my college days, we learned about how to reach out to kids via STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) activities. Saturday I learned that UND Aerospace has effectively mastered the technique, and can do so in a single day. Kids excitedly ran from station to station stamping their small passports, staring transfixed at meteorite samples and laughing as they threw gliders.
What a way to get kids excited about science and aerospace. It made me wonder what we can do with history to capture that enthusiasm.
Strategic Air Command wisely studied the problems related to their Minuteman Education Program and decided that if missileers wanted to study, they should have a better choice of options. In 1988, enrollees were allowed their choice of “any locally available, regionally accredited graduate program with tuition and books paid by SAC”. A missileer working towards a Masters was demonstrative of initiative, not to mention that the degree would confer a new level of creative thought processing and some mastery of the bigger picture. Knowledge was a product realized by many as a critically important aspect of life, not just as a piece of paper handed to them at a graduation ceremony, but the experience and better understanding of the world.
Speaking with a few of the professors and staff at the UND Aerospace Community Day, I learned more than a handful are ex-military, some even with experience at Grand Forks Air Force Base itself. While the Air Force had nurtured their curiosity of aerospace, they were now teaching it. This isn’t to say that the military is the only or even the best path for perspective students, but it seemed to help out these gentlemen. All I can say is that if this event was an experience of my childhood, with a deep enthusiasm for aviation myself, I wonder if I wouldn’t have gone to UND for such a program. Many years later, seeing the light in these children’s eyes as they connected patterns and understood concepts, is a fulfilling sight. They were learning, and it was obvious that the spark had ignited a passion in some of them that would guide them the rest of their lives.
That’s the neat thing about educating through inspiration, and is a continuing goal of ours at Oscar.
The smell of earth must have been strong, and that’s all you could see ahead of you as you crouched in your dug-out position. You adjust your helmet a little more over your eyes instinctively as the loudspeaker in the far distance begins the countdown. Gazing from side to side you see another soldier in fatigues flexing his fingers in apprehension, gripping his M1 Garand rifle. Others were chatting and kidding before, but now they are silent. The desert air is still, and 3,500 meters before you a device perched carefully upon a steel tower begins it’s starting sequence.
10, 9 , 8…the speaker gets closer. Briefly you consider how you got there, a volunteer looking to break the monotony at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Transported to an area north of Las Vegas, Nevada. You remember the days of instruction, the Geiger counters, the film badges that would haze over if you received too much radiation, and now it had come to this moment.
What would it be like when the speaker got to zero? What would happen?
You soon found out.
There was not a hint of sound, but the world around you became a bright white as if the sun came up in your trench somehow. You decide to open your eyes and look down at your hand, the light is bright enough to see your bones through the skin before it slowly fades away.
“The blast wave will arrive at your position shortly, you may now stand and look forward” the loudspeaker calmly relates.
As you nervously stand and look forward, a massive column of smoke rises skyward rapidly. It is topped by a mushroom-like puff. The shockwave of the blast rolls quickly towards you, throwing up dust and pushing you back with it’s force. Soon you jump out of the trench with the other soldiers and begin walking towards ground zero of the Apple-II nuclear test blast of Operation Teapot. It is 1955.
In the 1950s, the concept of tactical nuclear warfare was being tested in the Nevada desert roughly every other year. The Atomic Energy Commission, along with the nuclear laboratories in Los Alamos and University of California at Berkley, were ambitious to try new streamlined or more efficient nuclear weapons. Those with large yields, thermonuclear weapons, were mostly (but not all) tested in the Pacific Proving Grounds of Eniwetok and Bikini Atolls. Due to the advent of the Korean War, along with the costs of logistics involved, the United States decided to test smaller weapons at the Nevada Proving Ground (later Nevada Test Site) from 1951 onward.
With these experiments, the Department of Defense had decided to conduct maneuvers with military personnel from all services to test their effectiveness in fighting a nuclear war on the battlefield. Given the large advantage of manpower within the Soviet Red Army, along with the newly formed Warsaw Pact armies, the United States wondered if nuclear weapons could be used on the potential battlefields of central Europe to counter a Soviet invasion.
The “Desert Rock” exercises, from 1951 to 1957, sought to better understand this concept.
Troops were tested for psychological wear concerning nuclear weapons, tanks and aircraft were subjected to nearby nuclear detonations to see how they might fare against an A-bomb. During the Apple-II test of Operation Teapot 1955, Desert Rock IV and Operation “Cue” were also held in conjunction of the 29-kiloton test.
While Desert Rock IV tested the military, Operation “Cue” tested civil defense efforts. Civilian buildings were tested for toughness, some stocked with food stuffs and mannequins. Power distribution was tested, as were propane tanks, brick buildings, steel buildings, cinder block buildings. It was very symbolic of a world in the 1950s trying to understand and somehow beat the A-bomb.
Film reels promoted safety of these events. Certain weather conditions or higher winds might cancel the tests while field interviews with soldiers who observed the blasts seemed to confirm the power of nuclear weapons while also reassuring survival to front line troops.
Unfortunately, fallout and ionizing radiation was not as well understood. Continental weather patterns assured a great deal of the radiation produced was brought into the atmosphere and fell-out at various dosages and patterns across the United States and Canada. Iodine-131 was a major concern with it’s ability to cause thyroid cancers. During the 1957 test series Operation Plumbbob, one can see that a great deal of the northern plains (and North Dakota) received some higher dosages of this fallout product. The worries of this and Strontium-90 collecting in milk caused alarm in the late 1950s and while perhaps not a direct impetus to the anti-nuclear movement, it certainly contributed to it.
Years later, an Atomic Veterans History Project online provided a great number of stories, some very interesting and some quite tragic, from the veterans who experienced these tests in Nevada and in the Pacific. Unfortunately, the website folded, however snippets and pieces of history can be found throughout the internet. A common theme of later sickness unites many of them.
While medical studies have been conducted, it is difficult to say what the full scope of consequences from the 1950s-era atmospheric atomic testing in Nevada have been and will be. The Cold War was a time of suspicion, of arms races and economic and political warfare. It’s implications have lingered long into the 21st century and will remain for years to come. While some of it’s symbols and installations like Oscar-Zero have become friendly but meaningful places of history and memory, others, like the pot-marked Nevada Test Site remain as locked-off reminders of what could, and what did, go wrong.
While doing laundry last year after a brutal and heavy blizzard, I’d discovered that the dryer wasn’t doing its job. Further, the hallway in which the laundry was located was soon burdened with humidity. I checked the lint-trap but it was clean and figured that there must have been a build up of lint somewhere along the vent line. After I expressed my confusion about the dryer, a neighbor relayed that the vent was fine but the top was covered in snow. There was no where for the humidity from the wet clothes to go except back into the hallway. I’d never thought to consider that.
It was unexpected, and made me wonder if the U.S. Air Force had been similarly caught off guard by little things in North Dakota. While a few Atlas and Titan-I sites surely were exposed to wind and cold (F.E. Warren’s Atlas population and Ellsworth’s Titan-Is for sure), Minuteman became inherently tied to cold weather sites (save Whiteman). It turns out that harsh winter conditions flushed out a number of shortcomings in the Minuteman system, some with severe consequences.
Before Grand Forks and Wing VI, problems related to the diesel generators on sites were quickly identified. In an Air Force official history, although the generators were supposed to start automatically in the event of a loss of commercial power, Combat Crews could not readily monitor the generators and at least in a few cases the motors had burned up after oil reservoirs were depleted. Hopefully, the transition over to battery power ran a bit more smoothly however, as we will see, there was consequences to this as well.
A temporary reduction in current to a Launch Facility in the newly built Wing VI triggered the emergency generator to kick on, however as the current was restored the generator refused to quit creating an overload situation. According to the history the overload caused a short circuit in which, had there been a second electrical pulse, could have conceivably fired the first stage engine. The guidance and control system, however, would not have activated and the missile would have crashed nearby with experts stating “there could not have been a nuclear explosion”.
The blizzard of February 1966 had left a deep impression on the surviability of Wing VI during a conflict. While the Wing had yet to become fully operational, a number of sites including Launch Control Facilities and Launch Facilities lost power as their diesel backup systems refused to start automatically. Problems persisted through mid year as commercial power had been interrupted at Grand Forks sites on 450 occasions, 125 of which involved a failure of the generator to kick on. The Air Force quickly implemented emergency modifications to the system including creating larger reservoirs of oil to maintain the endurance of the generators but also improving the switching equipment to ensure the engines would start when required. Often battery power, 160-volt at Grand Forks sites, picked up the slack, however recharging the batteries was a careful process. If the battery was overfilled with fluid or allowed to overheat it could explode. With a heavier reliance on the batteries than expected, the Air Force was soon short of spares and new units had to be ordered.
One problem that was somewhat solved before Grand Forks came on-line was the problem of ice and snow accumulation beyond the massive 110-ton silo enclosure door. If a door could not fire open in the event of ice, how well could it expect to open if debris from a nearby nuclear burst was obstructing it? In 1964, the Air Force quickly fixed that problem by adding a second gas generator unit that effectively doubled the opening force of the door. An added ice scraper could help clear the ice as the door slid open.
Yet the snow and ice melt caused issues that plagued Grand Forks sites until deactivation. Water could accumulate in the silo, especially at sites with poor drainage. While improvements to sump pumps at the bottom of the launch tube were made, flooding could still be an issue.
Minuteman II constituted a huge leap in technology with it’s NS-17 guidance control system. Computerized components allowed storage of up to 7222 words of memory and greatly enhanced the flexibility of the system by allowing, at the time, the selection of up to 8 pre-programmed targets. Yet the sensitivity of the electronics were not well understood by all who handled them at the time. As the NS-17 traveled to the silo, the cold of winter could chill it’s components. With a temperature-controlled silo, the unit was quickly re-warmed and tested. To counter overheating with the system, a liquid coolant was injected. This cold-warm-cold cycle seemed to produce a thermal shock to the system that caused it to fail.
A system of careful handling was instituted, however the NS-17 continued to fail in the field. A TRW systems probe on the problem revealed issues in poor quality control and “sloppy” workmanship in production among the major causes of failure. The report stated the the Autonetics Division of North American Aviation (the producer of the NS-17) was simply too bold in adapting sophisticated electronics to the field so quickly. A standardization program was instituted and the problem with the NS-17 was eventually solved.
Something to keep in mind, with all of these problems being discovered and on-going, the Air Force was pushing modernization to the Minuteman fleet as soon as possible. It didn’t want to spend time fixing problems but instead keeping the missile fleet up-to-date. The Vietnam War had pulled many experienced missileers from the field, there was a definite learning curve for those moving on from the recently deactivated Atlas to Minuteman, and the scientific prowess gained by many early in the ICBM development program were retiring or moving on to different sectors. Essentially, everything was just moving too fast for everything to work perfectly. Considering the huge difficulties of Atlas and Titan, Minuteman was seen as a cure-all to the ICBM fleet – yet it had its share of teething troubles as well, and wintertime often exposed them. Contractors and maintainers were working to ensure a very high number of Minuteman missiles remained on ready alert, a higher percentage than the bomber force or the fledgling Polaris SLBM force. The demands and mission requirements of the Strategic Air Command were strenuous, however, through the work of many dedicated individuals the ICBM force was quickly postured, providing an instant retaliatory option where none had really existed before.
Even in the grip of a deep, dark NoDak winter.
Nalty, Bernard. USAF Ballistic Missile Programs 1964 – 1966 Office of Air Force History
Nalty, Bernard. USAF Ballistic Missile Pograms 1967 – 1968 Office of Air Force History
Nalty, Bernard. USAF Ballistic Missile Programs 1969 – 1970 Office of Air Force History
While investigating the 1971 EBS scare, we sat back and enjoyed a few civil defense films from the 1970s. There are three notable ones, each from a different western country, might be taken in as some of the last Cold War nuclear attack information films.
The very iconic “Burt The Turtle” film was aimed at youth with aims to reassure a disturbed public in the face of atomic attack before the larger thermonuclear weapons each side would soon deploy. As mentioned in a previous blog, the United States at least seemed to waiver back and forth between sheltering in place to evacuating major target zones to sheltering in place via fallout shelters (people in blast zones were somewhat quietly just written off) and back to evacuation in times of crisis during the late 70s and early 80s.
Yet between the three films, there are stark differences in planning between the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. However there was one key similarity, these were all short films never really meant for public broadcast except during times of deep tension between the superpowers, if nuclear war appeared likely. This was especially true with the UK’s “Protect and Survive“, the first produced of the three films.
An animated film that came from a now infamous pamphlet campaign, “Protect and Survive” was produced as a series of short informational sketches to be aired on the British Broadcasting Corporation during crisis. The films were initially classified, however there were leaks in 1980 to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Each segment, astoundingly, begins with an animated mushroom cloud and the ominous roar of a bomb blast – sure enough to attract attention, but difficult to say if the introduction would be very reassuring.
The films focus specifically on remaining in one’s home, building up protection against fallout, gathering supplies and starkly arguing against evacuation.
“If you leave your home, your local authority may take it over for homeless families, and if you move, the authorities in the new place will not help you with food, accommodation or other essentials”
The American “Protection in the Nuclear Age” possesses elements that argue the exact opposite way, but then again the United States is a much larger country than the United Kingdom. Later historians generally agree however that the planning was often put in place without actually notifying evacuation centers that they would in fact become evacuation centers – “Raven Rock” has an interesting chapter on this subject.
“Protect and Survive” is very tedious and repetitive, especially on fallout protection
measures, however that was likely to drive home different points. The films focus a bit more on sanitation measures than it’s Canadian or American counterparts and, specifically, has one major difference. The last segment provides tips on how to deal with fatalities in the fallout shelter. While we’re not sure this was the last film in the series, seems to be kind of a down way of ending your documentary.
Canada’s “11 Steps To Survival” is to the point, but a little less heavy than “Protect and Survive“. It is also animated, but carries a bit more on fire fighting techniques. In fact, it advocates fighting fires after the initial blast but before fallout begins to fall – a fair point if one is far enough away, after all you don’t want your indoor shelter burning down. Basements are acknowledged more in the Canadian and American films.
In 1978, the American Defense Civil Preparedness Agency (soon to be reorganized into the Federal Emergency Management Agency), borrowed heavily from “11 Steps to Survival” and produced “Protection in the Nuclear Age“. It was produced as a bi-lingual film and in Garrett Graf’s words “…outlining the threat and putting an optimistic view on a horrible catastrophe, underscoring at every turn that survival was not only possible but – with planning – probable.” (Raven Rock: Simon and Schuster. 2017).
The DCPA liked the lower-budget animated stick-figure quality of the Canadian film in that while live action could go out of style with fashions and vehicles, “Protection in the Nuclear Age” would not age as fast as some produced during the 1960s.
“In high risk areas, a third option is possible if there is time, temporary relocation, in a nuclear attack, the greatest danger would be blast and fire in the target areas, which means the people most threatened would be those living near our missile sites”
“Protection in the Nuclear Age” also advocated the possible use of improvised shelters, including digging out “L” shaped trenches in one’s backyard, covering them with doors and burying them with dirt. The concept was famously brought to light by Reagan-era Under-Secretary of Defense Thomas Jones when during an interview he pointed out if that “there are enough shovels to go around, everyone’s going to make it…” (With Enough Shovels: Random House. 1982).
All of these films were produced before 1980 and likely sat on shelves for some time in case of crisis. They would however prove to be the last nuclear attack survival information films produced on a wide scale. Of course, these would not be the last films produced with public danger mitigation in mind – by the 2000s anti-terrorism campaigns and later active-shooter films became more observable on the American landscape. September 25, 2018 became the first national Department of Homeland Security “If You See Something, Say Something” day aimed at keeping an eye out for suspicious activity.
While this blog sometimes pokes fun, and it’s difficult to talk about the history of these Cold War information films without also discussing the elements of satire, hindsight and even futility, but one key fact remains. Films were produced in a serious regard with at least an attempt to reassure a nervous public, even if the producers understood the implications of perhaps becoming a joke. When a new danger exists, it is human nature to try to find a way to survive it or even better to prevent it. It can be easily missed, but America’s “Protection in the Nuclear Age” starts out with a note on the importance of diplomacy.
“In time of emergency, our government, and many, many others around the world, will be doing everything in their power to keep the peace”
A government disaster agency most assuredly not just stand back and offer no advice to a new existential threat that humankind had never witnessed before. Luckily, those films were never aired for their original purpose and we can sit back, quietly reflect on what Cold War tension sat on the shoulders of individuals on both sides and consider what we might have done to calm a worried public.
Another blizzard has come and gone in North Dakota, and we prepared in the typical ways – made sure the winter survival kit is in the car, made sure the car is gassed up, got to the grocery store before the storm hit and once it did, hunker down and see what’s streaming or on TV. In fact, we watched an interesting look back at the 1966 North Dakota blizzard here.
In some instances, individual counties may issue “Civil Emergency” Warnings during the storm. A recent one in memory comes from the March storm last year when the sheriff of a South Dakota county issued one urging motorists from traveling in the blizzard. Others may be issued for drinking water contamination issues or other problems.
We’ve all heard too of the false alarms that have happened in the past. On January 13, 2018 the ballistic missile false alert in Hawaii was notable and more recently on January 12, 2020 a false alert was sent via automated text message to residents in Canada that an incident had occurred at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station east of Toronto, Ontario.
On February 20, 1971 at 9:33am Eastern Time, another false alarm had been transmitted not via text message, but rather over the American Emergency Action Notification network via teletype to radio and television stations nationwide…
MESSAGE AUTHENTICATOR: HATEFULNESS/HATEFULNESS
THIS IS AN EMERGENCY ACTION NOTIFICATION (EAN) DIRECTED BY THE PRESIDENT. NORMAL BROADCASTING WILL CEASE IMMEDIATELY. ALL STATIONS WILL BROADCAST EAN MESSAGE ONE PRECEDED BY THE ATTENTION SIGNAL, PER FCC RULES. ONLY STATIONS HOLDING NDEA MAY STAY ON AIR IN ACCORD WITH THEIR STATE EBS PLAN.
BROADCAST EAN MESSAGE ONE.
MESSAGE AUTHENTICATOR: HATEFULNESS/HATEFULNESS
This message instructed stations to read the special script of EAN Message One –
This station has interrupted its regular program at the request of the United States Government to participate in the Emergency Broadcast System…
In 1971, an emergency message from the president likely only meant one thing to listeners – nuclear attack. In fact, the origin of the alert was from the National Warning Center located within Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado near Colorado Springs, also home to North American Air-Defense Command. A civilian teletype operator named Wayland Eberhardt had been going about the normal Saturday morning routine of sending the center’s test message when he inadvertently inserted the wrong tape.
After six attempts to correct the problem, after 40 minutes the center had successfully cancelled the alert – but not before causing some havoc. Some radio stations had obeyed the alert and went off the air as required, others ignored the message while others missed it entirely.
The Cold War research rich “CONELRAD” website had a blog on the subject published in 2010, and while the article itself is interesting so are the comments below including a veteran newsman in Dallas who said “Mistake or not, we would not broadcast a warning since we were so close to Carswell AFB (a SAC bomber base) that no one would have time to take cover”.
Most assuredly the psychology behind such a decision merits study in itself, had an actual attack occurred how many news stations would bother to broadcast? Indeed, how many would receive the notification in the first place. In 1975, the Department of Defense commissioned a report relating to the implications of electromagnetic pulse and found that many EBS stations were unprotected, let alone radios and televisions in American homes that could be disrupted by the phenomenon.
With mistakes identified, and vulnerabilities studied, the system became more resilient and flexible. One major “good move”, was moving the real warning message tapes physically away from the practice tapes at Cheyenne Mountain after the 1971 incident. EMP protection was improved and as communication networks themselves evolved (fiber optics, the internet, cellular communications), more message channels were added. The Emergency Broadcast System evolved into the Emergency Alert System in 1997 as a representation of this.
Both the EBS and the newer EAS have proven instrumental time and again to warn the public of impending natural disasters such as providing flood warnings, tornado warnings, ice storm warnings, etc. National Weather Service radio is essentially the backbone of these systems, however many of us today are warned via Wireless Emergency Alerts via our smartphones or via automated systems broadcasting over television and radio. Systems that evolved from the CONELRAD system of the 1950s.