Duck and Cover
May 3, 2006 11:53 AM   Subscribe

Did children actually believe that "Duck and Cover" would work?

Was the program met with any cynicism, or did Americans simply not know enough about the bomb to know any better? Did it make the atom bomb less scary?

I know this was all before the Kennedy assassination and Watergate, but did the public really believe the things the government was saying about the dangers of the atom bomb?
posted by interrobang to Health & Fitness (37 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My recollection (having studied this, not from personal experience during the Cold War) was that Duck and Cover was designed to protect you from things falling - or flying through the air - as a result of a detonation.

We learned Duck and Cover during hurricane season in the Gulf Coast, and even today it's standard practice for earthquake survival. Again, I think it's always been intended to provide protection against objects, not against radiation.

Your Wikipedia article suggests the same thing.
posted by aberrant at 11:57 AM on May 3, 2006

Critics have said that this training would be of little, if any, help in the event of thermonuclear war, and had little effect other than promoting a state of unease and paranoia.
This wikipedia article is pretty helpful. Ducking and covering would protect you against the shockwave (possibly) but obviously not against the radioactive effects. I suspect that this was actually a method of making the the bomb less scary, much as you suggest. In Vancouver, we're taught to duck & cover in case of an earthquake (to protect ourselves from debris).
posted by aeighty at 12:00 PM on May 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

Yeah, in the Chicago area, we learned this to protect ourselves from tornadoes.
posted by MeetMegan at 12:01 PM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: I asked my mom about this once, and she said yes - all the kids knew it and were well-drilled. Why shouldn't they believe it? My dad was one of those who were marched through the test sites in Nevada (not him, but same kind of thing). They just had no idea at the time. Whether that was naivete or slightly willful ignorance I don't really know, but I think we are all much more instinctively cynical now.
posted by dness2 at 12:01 PM on May 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I learned something like it here in Kansas in elementary school because there was always a tornado threat during a certain time of year. And I read the wikipedia article; it's linked in the question.

I'm asking what children during the 1950s thought about it.
posted by interrobang at 12:03 PM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: When my uncle talked about this practice, he said "It was better than doing nothing. Maybe only infinitesimally better, but better."

I don't know if that was how he felt as a kid, or an adult's rationalization.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 12:10 PM on May 3, 2006

I'm 24 and we had bomb drills in the basement of the elementary school that I attended in Baltimore, MD. Black and Yellow Radioactive signs, the whole bit. Lots of ducking and covering once we got to the basement. What I want to know, what made them think we'd have time to get that far? (Pretty close to DC, no?)
posted by bilabial at 12:10 PM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: Oh, to actually answer the question, I didn't believe it for a minute, not from kindergarten to third grade. But I paid pretty close attention to the news, for a six year old.
posted by bilabial at 12:11 PM on May 3, 2006

I certainly didn't believe it when I was a kid, back in the late 70's-early 80's, but then my parents were pretty deeply embroiled in anti-nuke protests at that time and instilled in me a deep and abiding fear of The Bomb.
posted by lekvar at 12:24 PM on May 3, 2006

I didn't believe it for a second, but I was a terribly cynical kid with a bone-deep fear of imminent nuclear annihilation.

No, I didn't get invited to many parties. Why do you ask?
posted by jennyb at 12:32 PM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: I was in kindergarten in 1960, and by then I knew that if a bomb hit anywhere NEAR school I'd be vaporised. I had two older brothers who delighted in informing me, in graphic detail, what happens to people when The Bomb goes off.
I learned to be cynical young, but I got invited to all the cool kids' parties anyway.
posted by Floydd at 12:38 PM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: I doubt that many kids beyond about 2nd grade did believe it would protect them in a nuclear attack. What it did was allow some small feeling that you could do something in such a situation. The alternative was "grab your ankles and kiss your ass goodbye," and the government wasn't going to say that (in any form).
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:43 PM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: "Was the program met with any cynicism, or did Americans simply not know enough about the bomb to know any better?"

What makes you think it wouldn't help?

A nuclear explosion isn't like a death ray; while the presence of radioactive materials does add a lot of damage, nuclear weapons function, for the most part, like really big bombs. Here's a description of what happens upon detonation of a nuclear bomb. "Duck and cover" is for is those people outside of the "flash and fireball" radius (they'd be killed instantly by x-rays, heat, or the intensity of the close-in shock wave collapsing buildings on top of them) but still within the "blast" radius, as the shock wave weakens. In this radius, the shock wave will be like tornado-to-hurricane force winds, breaking windows and tossing debris around. If you duck and cover within this radius, you significantly reduce your risk of injury, same as in an earthquake or tornado.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:04 PM on May 3, 2006

Depends. I was a kid in the 70s, and we never figured it would do much for the radiation. But it probably would provide some protection against flying objects, and that never hurts. Also gave us something to do in the school hallways (besides panic) during tornado warnings. (We never really decided whether we were in more danger from the russian bombs or the nuke plant 30 miles away....)
posted by jlkr at 1:06 PM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: I was born in 1953. I don't recall really thinking about it one way or the other. We had air-raid drills just like we had fire drills. It was what the teachers told us to do -- so I did it.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:21 PM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: In the UK in the early eighties we had a couple of school lessons discussing the government's Protect and Survive advice. I remember our physics teacher having a bit of a difficult time with it. It was obvious to us he wasn't particularly convinced and obvious to him that nor were we. Living, as we were, not many miles from central London, we were all convinced we'd be promptly fried if nuclear war happens.

If you duck and cover within this radius, you significantly reduce your risk of injury

Just in time for a slow and agonizing death from radiation sickness, cancer, starvation or other causes resulting from the likely complete breakdown of civil society. Yes, I'm a cynic, but if a nuclear missile hits a major European or US population center, it's probably a safe bet that it's not an isolated incident. More seriously, I'm skeptical of this sort of advice because it's promoting a false hope. If we begin to consider nuclear warfare possibly survivable, at least for some, then that might be enough for some fool somewhere to think it's an option.

Earthquake and tornado preparation and drills are very different, of course, and no doubt a Good Thing.
posted by normy at 1:29 PM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: I agree with St. C. Den Beste - we did it because they told us to. We said grace at lunch because they told us to. We stopped saying grace because they told us to.

I knew that if the bombs fell, we'd all be dead. I don't recall caring, one way or the other. There wasn't much I could do about it.
posted by clarkstonian at 1:35 PM on May 3, 2006

normy writes "Yes, I'm a cynic, but if a nuclear missile hits a major European or US population center, it's probably a safe bet that it's not an isolated incident."

This was certainly the case in the cold war (though possibly not in the very beginning, when delivery systems were less sophisticated and there were many fewer weapons); an isolated nuclear explosion is probably more likely today, though.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:36 PM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: I was born in 1953. I don't recall really thinking about it one way or the other. We had air-raid drills just like we had fire drills. It was what the teachers told us to do -- so I did it.

I was born in '51 and that sounds about right. Kids in those days weren't full of irony and skepticism like you kids today (and how many times do I have to tell you to get off my damn lawn!); we pretty much accepted what we were told.

did the public really believe the things the government was saying about the dangers of the atom bomb?

Yes. Except for the beatniks and commies (which were pretty much the same thing as far as your average American was concerned), people really did believe what the government said. It took the Vietnam War to knock that out of people's heads, or at least mine.
posted by languagehat at 1:38 PM on May 3, 2006

If I may piggyback: any ideas when the zeitgeist turned and generally people believed a nuclear war would mean the end of the world? I see that "On The Beach" came out in 1959, and the book two years before that. (I'm too young to have known the world that preceded this notion, even though my generation was promised by the Reagan administration that mail deliveries would still continue if you could only lie in a ditch when the bombs started falling....)
posted by kimota at 1:45 PM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: Data point: I did duck and cover practice in elementary school in the mid 80's under the guise of "tornado drills." Always thought it was weird, since we lived in the Appalachian mountains and never had tornados. Figured we were more likely to get blown up from a bomb dropped on the local ammunition factory. All that cynicism, and it took me till I was 14 or 15 to realize that we were doing bomb drills, they were just calling them tornado drills to keep the little kids from freaking out and the older kids from laughing. 2 miles from the nitro factory -- we were practicing kissing our asses goodbye.
posted by junkbox at 1:52 PM on May 3, 2006

an isolated nuclear explosion is probably more likely today, though

I'm not convinced. A dirty bomb delivered on the ground by terrorists, perhaps. But that would have a much smaller blast radius and most likely happen without warning, so 'duck and cover' defenses don't help. I don't believe there's much chance of a terrorist group delivering anything more sophisticated, like an ICBM. If we're thinking about some rogue state with nuclear capabilities, they've all currently got much more to lose than gain, so, for now at least, it's not a big worry.

I guess I'm getting off-topic, so I'll stop now...
posted by normy at 2:00 PM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: I was born in 1949, and I attended school in Chicago. We didn't have tornado drills in the city, but they tested what was then called the "air raid siren" once a month. (They still do, all across the Chicago area, but now it's called the tornado siren.) I always wondered why the Russians wouldn't attack at 10:00 am on the first Tuesday of the month and catch us all believing it was just a drill.
posted by Joleta at 2:21 PM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: I was listening to NPR around mid-March of this year, and they had on some ex-military official who was credited with having invented "duck and cover." He said the knew all along it was useless against a nuke, and just served to make people feel like they had some way of preparing themselves.

I can't find the NPR show I heard it on--they don't appear to have transcripts online.
posted by Brian James at 2:28 PM on May 3, 2006

OK, they do have transcripts, but I still can't find it.
posted by Brian James at 2:29 PM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: Reader's digest answer: In California, they were called earthquake drills.

Long, verbose answer:

Duck and cover is only useful against the blast effects. You can't duck from the initial radiation burst, because it arrives at the same time the light does... if you see the flash, you've already been hit by whatever immediate radiation you're going to take. But it can certainly help against the blast wave. They are nuclear BOMBS, after all. The radiation is a side effect; the actual goal is to make a really, really big explosion. It's the blast the does most of the damage, and the death-from-blast-damage circle is enormously bigger than the death-from-radiation-exposure circle.

If you didn't take a lethal dose in the flash, and you're upwind of the fallout, you could save your life through duck and cover. Yes, you could easily still be killed, but isn't somewhat improved survivability better than nothing?

I was born in the late 60s, and started school in the early 70s. I do vaguely remember some 'bomb drills' early on. After some deep thinking here, I'm pretty sure we continued them through late elementary school, but they changed to 'earthquake drills'. Earthquakes never particularly scared me (Loma Prieta was fun!), and they had talked about the possibility of being bombed before I had any real concept of death or even serious personal injury. I knew OTHER people were scared of nuclear war, but I MYSELF wasn't that worried, for whatever reason, until high school.

By high school, it was a big, big topic of conversation... it was something you could always talk about. In the early 80s, Reagan was on the offensive, and the world felt like a very dangerous place indeed.

We pretended to be oh-so-jaded, cynical, and world-weary, but in actuality I think most of us were terrified. I certainly was.

The most common idea I heard: "Now that I have a car, if we get a bomb warning, I'm driving as close to ground zero as possible. It'll be better that way. Shelters are for morons."

I still wonder if they'd actually have done that, or if they'd have run like rabbits. I'd have done the rabbit thing, myself.
posted by Malor at 3:02 PM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: When my father was an elementary school student in New York City, he was given the 'class job' of closing the blinds during nuclear bomb drills. On several occasions, he was sent to the principal's office for refusing to actually shut the blinds; in his words, '"if we're going to die, I'd at least like to see what a nuclear bomb exploding looks like first."
posted by thomascrown at 3:12 PM on May 3, 2006

In the short film version (part of Atomic Cafe) other variants of Duck and Cover are shown, including a picnicking family hiding from the flash under a tablecloth.
posted by A189Nut at 4:00 PM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: Born in '54, only time these drills were experienced was during the Cuban Missle Crisis. At the time I was completely ignorant of The Bomb and the ancient woman teaching 3rd grade wasn't at all comfortable talking about this. I didn't hear the expression 'Duck and Cover' until I saw "The Atomic Cafe" so that wasn't what we were taught to do, specifically; the teacher was just telling us to crouch under the desk in case It Happens. "What happens" I asked. As usual she was irritated with my back-talk, but described a scenario with a real bright flash from outside along with the air-raid sirens going off (a very common event at the time, due to regular tests of that system). Needless to say this was all a real eye-opener to me so I began my own research (which at the time meant discussions with my peers) and I rapidly concluded this under-desk-crouching was an exercise in extreme futility, given our suburban Washington DC location.
posted by Rash at 4:30 PM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: I was born in 1953 and grew up on a ranch almost next door to what is now Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch near Santa Maria, California. My little sisters and I attended a 2 room schoolhouse until it closed in 1964 and we were transferred to a regular school about 20 miles away. We went through the duck and cover drills regularly due to the close proximity of the missile base at Vandenberg AFB and we just looked at it as something different from the regular routine of school until they added a twist in '65.

That was when they assigned each student to a group depending upon where they lived. When they had the first new drill, everyone got into the appropriate group and a teacher led the group as they walked toward their own street where their mothers were supposed to be waiting to meet them. My sisters, I, and 4 other rural kids who all lived out of the neighborhood were assigned to a special group that went to the cafeteria with some hapless teacher whose duty it was to stay with us until the we were wiped out by the bomb.

That was when it really hit home: All the other kids got to be with their families whyen whatever was going to happen happened, but we were left to die with a stranger and never see out families again.

That was some pretty scary shit to thrust on 7-11 year old kids.
posted by buggzzee23 at 5:17 PM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: I was born in '51, and my father was career Navy, so we went to public schools near big military bases growing up. We learned to duck and cover, and did drills regularly from about 1958 through maybe 1966. I, too, remember that the teachers giving these drills were especially earnest around the time of the Cuban Missle Crisis. In the late 50's and early '60's, the DEW line was thought to give perhaps 4 to 5 minutes inbound warning of an polar Russian ICBM attack, for the civilian populace of Canada and the U.S. That is, the DEW line was expected to pickup missiles in their orbital phase, during the last 14 to 15 minutes of flight to American targets, and it would take a few minutes to get the warning out to the country via Civil Defense warning system. So, at best, you were going to have 3 to 5 minutes warning, and the best you could hope to do for most school kids was to get them into interior areas of the school buildings, and duck and cover. And there was expectation that doing that, would, actually, save some lives.

I also remember a day coming home from high school in '66 or '67 in eastern Kansas (Dad was based at NAS Olathe then), when some Nike missle sites came up to launch attitude as we were driving by in our school bus. The bus driver stopped, and we all got out and laid down in the ditch by the side of the road, the big kids sheltering the little ones, as we waited in the weeds for Armageddon. After about 20 minutes there, a pickup truck came along, the bus driver and the driver talked a while, the missile launchers dropped to horizontal, one after another, and we got back on the bus, and went home.

Good times you don't soon forget.
posted by paulsc at 5:24 PM on May 3, 2006

I later learned of "duck and cover" as a rather interesting sexual adventure. And no, I'm not telling.
posted by megatherium at 6:30 PM on May 3, 2006

My experience was similar to Malor's (SoCal, started school in the early '70s). The earthquake/bomb drills were during grade school. The drills scared me and I knew hiding under my desk couldn't save me from a bomb. The only drills in junior high and high school (late '70s to early '80s) were fire drills.
posted by deborah at 7:32 PM on May 3, 2006

I believe it would be moderately effective if you were a long way away from the bomb. If you're under a desk right after the flash goes, you're not the guy gawping out the window when the blast wave hits.
posted by tomble at 8:10 PM on May 3, 2006

I was born in 1957. We had no bomb drills, as such. I never heard 'Duck and Cover' until years latter. We had tornado drills (or the real thing). I hated these, as I can't breath well when I'm sitting on the floor with my head down and my hands locked over the back of my neck (can anyone?). I wasn't near military, just heavy industry (GM plants).

I had no awareness of the Cuban crisis, a fact which puzzles me. Probably it was kept from us kids. It was a weird environment. (when Kennedy was shot, our teacher didn't tell us why she was crying). I was 6 then, so I guess I must have been 5 during the Cuban thing. Life was, from my view, pretty damn perfect.
posted by Goofyy at 10:35 AM on May 4, 2006

I was there (born in 1943). Everybody knew it was BS and thought it was just one more particularly dumb lie adults were telling. "If you see a bright flash, take cover immediately." Really! If you see a bright flash, bend way over and kiss your ass goodbye.
posted by KRS at 10:50 AM on May 4, 2006

Wouldn't getting kids trained and used to doing an action that doesn't require much thinking be useful in preventing all-out panic? At least if everyone is under their desks, they're not freaking out running around all over the place. Then once things calmed down a bit, the teacher could more easily account for all the students and hopefully *calmly* lead them to safety or have them all wait for help or something. Just a thought.
posted by edjusted at 12:00 AM on May 6, 2006

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