In Time of Emergency – US Cvil Defence Film 1969

This interesting US film, produced by the Office of Civil Defence and Department of Defence, is analogous to Britain’s Protect and Survive. Like Protect and Survive this film is basic advice to the population on what to do under conditions of nuclear attack. It follows largely the same pattern; what immediate action to take should a nuclear explosion happen whilst you are out in the open and the second part of how to prepare your home should international tensions rise and attack may seem possible.

There are some obvious differences beyond presentational style – Protect and and Survive is stark and impersonal (“chilling” might be a more fitting description) and this is a much more paternalistic approach. One obvious difference is that Protect and Survive doesn’t shy away as much from the less pleasant aspects of its subject – for all both films are about nuclear attack, “In Time of Emergency” avoids too much discussion of blast effects, the extent of radiation and fall-out and ultimately any discussion of casualties. For all the many shortcomings of Protect and Survive it was reasonably unblinking about the effects of nuclear attack; it admitted that if you were within 5 miles of the explosion you stood almost no chance, that the minimum shelter time was probably 14 days, that medical, rescue and fire-fighting attempts were pretty unlikely and that ultimately you may have to bury your own dead. Chilling stuff.

I couldn’t help but feel “In Time of Emergency” avoided much in-depth discussion of this. It even avoided much discussion on your sanitary requirements – even Protect and Survive had to admit you were going to have to pee and poo in your own shelter space. Perhaps the originators of “In Time of Emergency” realised how absurd many of the more realistic preparations were and were thus better left unsaid.

One very notable difference were the elaborateness of some of the preparations and the huge gulf between the wealth of the United States and Britain. The US had a system of public shelters and whilst not absolutely comprehensive, the UK had whatsoever. In Britain there had been no public shelter space provided since World War II and successive governments had rejected calls for any public shelter programme, generally on the basis of cost.

The difference in wealth is even more striking at the individual level; the American film shows large detached homes with extensive basements, and whilst it can be said was the case for every American family, it was another world from the homes of Britain. Another key difference were the level of supplies families had, both the 1963 British Civil Defence film “Civil Defence Bulletin no. 3” and Protect and Survive’s “Food Consumption” (1976) show very modest amounts of food and water being taken to the shelter. Contrast this to “In Time of Emergency’s” vast supplies of water in large plastic and glass containers, the huge tins of food and other storage items. In fairness “In Time Of Emergency’s” supplies were far more realistic for any kind of long stay in the shelter, the British versions had supplies that looked like what you might have if you were snowed in for a few days. They certainly didn’t look like they’d sustain a family for a week.

Cabinet Minutes on Civil Defence, 1951

There is a very interesting document on Civil Defence from 1951 as part of Cabinet Minutes from the 27th of January that year.

Despite crippling post-war austerity, the government had decided to increase spending on Civil Defence from £137 million to £180 million over four years which is more than £5 billion in today’s money. Even in 1987, the UK was spending only £69 million (£170 million today) despite facing a far greater threat.

The most profound comment in the document however is that it admits to the basic contradiction in both Civil Defence, deterrence and in that they are part of the same:

the Defence Committee considered that, quite apart from the enormous cost that would be involved [of a large stockpile of blackout material] , any general acceleration of civil defence preparations would give the impression that the the Government regarded war as inevitable.