How to Survive a Nuclear War, '70s Style

Friday A/V Club: A vintage civil defense film


If I said I was about to show you a government film about how to survive a nuclear war, you'd probably guess that it came from the 1950s, that golden age of absurdly optimistic civil defense films. But Protection in the Nuclear Age was released in 1978, and it was made with an aesthetic that those of us who were in school in that era will recognize quickly. Some moments in these animations of pre- and post-apocalyptic life aren't that different, in form if not content, from a 1970s guidance counselor's collection of posters about emotions.

Like that guidance counselor, the movie strains hard to stay positive. "Defense Department studies show that even under the heaviest possible attack, less than 5 percent of our entire land mass would be affected by blast and heat from nuclear weapons," the narrator claims at one point. "Of course," he adds mildly, "that 5 percent contains a large percentage of our population." But those people just might have time to flee to the rest of the country, which "would escape untouched—except possibly by radioactive fallout." Oh, you and your little caveats.

The movie may also be the only official government document to ask the eternal question, "Why not just give up, lie down, and die?" Existentialists have pondered that problem for years, but only the Pentagon has produced this pithy answer: because "protection is possible." Suck it up, Sartre.

(For past installments of the Friday A/V Club, go here. For another edition involving nuclear survival, go here. For another edition involving nuclear explosions, go here.)

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  1. Our designated fallout shelter was a store, but we would only be allowed to use it outside of business hours so as to not disrupt commerce. I guess fallout only falls at night.

  2. Radioactive fallout dissipates very quickly and is easy to avoid if the proper steps are taken. It is hard to stay positive about thermonuclear combat, but its even harder to get people to dispassionately look at the facts.

    Nukes are not nearly as destructive as most people imagine. The primary targets in a nuclear war are military sites, not cites. Not all nukes will survive long enough to launch and not all of them will make it to their targets and go off. Fallout decays to nothing within a few weeks.

    Not great news to be sure, but not nearly as bad as is commonly imagined.

    1. Yes – The “enough nukes to destroy the world 10x over” thing was always nonsense.

      Even if the cities were targeted, people who know what they are doing in the outer suburbs survive.

      1. Maybe in the 1940s. The bombs are a lot bigger now.

        1. Nope

    2. The myth of the “surgical strike” but with nukes?

    3. Back before Bush 1 shut down half the bases in California where the cities grew around the military bases the cities in Cali were a prime target. I live less than 20 miles from a major air base with two large cities around it. So yea some cities are targets

      1. Major cities are targets but secondary and third rate targets. if your enemy has no population left to continue the fight, then what.

        Primary targets are offensive weapon systems like silos, airfields, ssbn bases, and major military communication centers.

        The USA and Russia have so many nukes that I would bet major cities in south america and africa are targets just to knock them back to the stone age too.

  3. “that five percent contains a large percentage of our population.”

    All that means is those cocktail swilling coastal elite cucks are gonna be effed.

    Oh wait, that’s me…

  4. Tsutomu Yamaguchi was an open-air survivor of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki (he suffered radiation burns but died at age 93 in 2010) is proof that humans can be remarkably tough to kill. Unless lawyers get involved, in which case a scientific study will turn up that points to Whitney Houston’s death in the tub was due to a dangerous additive in her shampoo proven, proven, proven to cause depression in white lab mice.

    I am convinced my toe nail fungus today is due to my feet being X-rayed in a Salt Lake City shoe store in 1954 to make sure that the cowboy boots I wanted for my 7th birthday fit me. It was my 7th birthday and the grandparents spoiled me like crazy.

    1. Lucky Yamaguchi. His story is pretty interesting.

  5. My Grandfather built several bomb shelters in the 60’s, I know where some are, and I have a few home mechanic magazines from post WWII describing ho to make your own or purchase your own, great fun.

    1. DC is pretty far off north, but the closest of the Hampton Roads Naval bases and shipyards are only 30 miles south, and Wallop’s Island is 55 miles ENE. If someone nukes military installations, we’re probably screwed.

  6. You don’t have to directly kill people with nukes. It’s far more effective to kill what keeps most of them alive.
    EMP wide swaths of America with a handful of nukes: No grid electricity. No automobiles built after 1975, including farm equipment. No trains or aircraft. With luck, 50% might survive for the long term in certain well-set rural areas. Major cities, even with no direct strikes, would see massive dehydration losses within a few days. Subnutrition, then starvation would become epidemic for large and mid-size cities and suburbs within a month. Total national first year casualties could easily exceed 80%, with half of the survivors in peril for the next winter, even with huge and immediate aid from all over the world.

  7. If that “only 5% of our total land mass” figure encompasses Alaska, the Rockies, and the desert southwest within the unaffected zones, then we’re really, truly screwed.

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