The phrase “duck and cover” is a bit of ancient history that may be meaningless to younger generations.  It likely brings back a variety of memories for elementary school students in the United States in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.  For me, yesterday’s post about the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima atomic bomb recalled the dark days of the Cold War.

When the Soviet Union exploded an atomic bomb in 1949, it was a shock to the U.S. government and the population.  In an attempt to calm an agitated public, the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) created a program to educate ordinary people about what they could do to protect themselves in the event of a nuclear attack.

The FCDA hired a New York City ad agency to create a film that could be shown in schools to educate children about how to protect themselves in the case of atomic attack.  It was filmed at a school in Astoria, Queens, and featured Bert the Turtle and students and adults demonstrating recommended defensive techniques.

Here is the original 1951 film.


Asserting that people could protect themselves from a nuclear blast by hiding under their desks or a blanket at a picnic is a bit absurd.  Still, the campaign provided some reassurances to a concerned public.

Duck and cover drill.  Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Schools held drills each year to the sound of air raid sirens.  Classes marched to the basement and sat against the walls in the hall with hands over heads.  Children were also taught that a nuclear bomb could explode with no warning.  Upon seeing the flash of a nuclear explosion, school kids were supposed to react basically the same way as soldiers on a battlefield.

Dropping immediately and covering exposed skin provide[s] protection against blast and thermal effects … Immediately drop facedown. A log, a large rock, or any depression in the earth’s surface provides some protection. Close eyes. Protect exposed skin from heat by putting hands and arms under or near the body and keeping the helmet on. Remain facedown until the blast wave passes and debris stops falling. Stay calm, check for injury, check weapons and equipment damage, and prepare to continue the mission.

— US Army field manual FM 3–4 Chapter 4

Although a nuclear attack meant certain death or serious injury for most in the target area, there were some benefits to the drills.  Covering exposed skin could prevent burns, and where I lived, the drills for a nuclear attack also doubled as practice for tornadoes.

Today, many are extremely concerned about the harmful effects of climate change, and rightly so.  Those effects occur over a period of years or decades, and there are well understood ways to stop climate change or mitigate its effects.

During the Cold War, civilian populations carried on their daily lives with the threat of instantaneous annihilation always in the back of mind.   We lived with terms like “mutually assured destruction.”

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were in an arms race to develop bigger and better nuclear devices in great numbers.  U.S. nukes were smaller but more accurate.  The Soviets specialized in weapons with massive destructive power.  Its largest nuclear weapon, the Tsar Bomba, was tested in 1961.  The explosion was more powerful than all of the bombs used in WWII combined and 1,400 times more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.  Some joked that “close only counts in horseshoes and thermonuclear weapons.”

People were unsure if civilization would survive.  In the event of a nuclear war, some of my high school friends made a pact in 1970 to meet at the summit of Pikes Peak on July 4, 2000.  Even though there was no war, we actually met there as a sort of mini reunion.

The duck and cover generation 30 years later.  L-R Bart Brown, Alan Stahl, Loring Ingraham, Sarah Nemecek, and me in Colorado Springs, CO on July 4, 2000 after taking the cog railway go the summit of Pike Peak.

Final Thoughts

Thank heavens we have never had to duck and cover because of a nuclear bomb.  But the threat remains.  Do you have memories of the “duck and cover” days?