"There Are No Civilians; We Are All at War": Nuclear War Shelter and Survival Narratives during the Early Cold War

By Jacobs, Robert A. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), December 2007 | Go to article overview

"There Are No Civilians; We Are All at War": Nuclear War Shelter and Survival Narratives during the Early Cold War


Jacobs, Robert A., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


"There are no civilians; we are all at war," statement of the fictional President after a nuclear war in the film, Panic In Year Zero!

The Importance of Survival Narratives

On the night of July 25, 1961, President John Kennedy spoke to the nation about the Berlin crisis, in which the United States and the Soviet Union tiptoed toward nuclear confrontation, saying, "In the event of an attack, the lives of families which are not hit in a nuclear blast and fire can still be saved-if they can be warned to take shelter and if that shelter is available. We owe that kind of insurance to our families-and to our country." Kennedy's linkage of individual or familial fate with national fate expressed a primary narrative about survival of a nuclear explosion in early Cold War America. Kennedy expressed this equivalence in a reassuring manner, in order to soften the need to tell Americans to prepare for nuclear warfare. Kennedy also told a stunned nation (about to embark on a fallout shelter craze in response to the President's speech) that the government had under development "a new household warning system." He spoke of the "sober responsibility" of preparing for nuclear war and put the nation's shelter program under the control of the Department of Defense ("Speech" 536). These steps reinforced something that Americans had already become aware of: they were soldiers in the Cold War, and their backyards had become the front lines. Their personal survival had become emblematic of the survival of the nation.

Discussions and depictions of survivors following a nuclear war were common in early Cold War America. Some of these images were advanced by federal agencies, like the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA), while many reached Americans through mass media and popular culture sources like newspapers, fiction and poetry, films, television, and radio. At the same time that the US military worried about defeating the Soviet Union in a nuclear war, American citizens worried about surviving one.

In civil defense pamphlets, individuals survived atomic attack much as they would survive natural disasters; good citizenship led to survival, and survivors helped society to recover and rebuild. Civil defense pamphlets tended to be highly depoliticized: citizens survive and recover from atomic attacks of unspecified origin. Civil defense depictions of nuclear attack often stressed the metaphoric bond between self and nation, reassuring that personal survival equaled national victory.

On the other hand, popular culture texts tended to emphasize personal character traits as the key to survival, from rugged individualism to brutal self-interest and deeply anti-social behaviors. Popular culture depictions of survival emphasized that society might have to be largely destroyed in order for "our way of life" to continue. This too, linked personal behavior with the behavior of the state. Even though the possibility of nuclear war terrified many Americans, the logic of its necessity was personalized and justified in stories of individual survival. The correspondence of self and nation in survival narratives implicitly linked the ethos of personal survival with the necessity of national nuclear war fighting.

In popular culture narratives of survival, the individual was removed from society, isolated, while the grotesque surgery of nuclear warfare was performed. To make it through this period of intense self-reliance and isolation, survival narratives assumed one might have to revert to a primitive level of behavior and commit acts that in peacetime would be considered abhorrent. All such acts were justified by the extremity of the situation and the imperative to survive, and considered acts of self-defense.

Like so many other aspects of nuclear popular culture, survival narratives changed markedly once the Cold War crossed the threshold into the thermonuclear era in 1954. Survival narratives of the later half of the atmospheric testing era (1954-63) became far more brutal than those of the earlier atmospheric period (1945-54).

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