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How to survive a nuclear bomb. What people thought in the 1950s.

On the 6th and 9th August 1945, when the United States dropped atomic bombs onto the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world changed forever. The conclusion of World War 2 brought in a new conflict, the Cold War, pitting the Soviet Union against the United States in a series of proxy wars and an ever-growing threat of nuclear confrontation.

There’s a widespread understanding that if a nuclear attack were to occur today in a densely populated city, there’d be little one could do to survive. Ask someone of any practical steps they could take, and other than finding some shelter, they’d likely be pessimistic in their recommendations, particularly after having seen the outcomes on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nuclear bombs today are more powerful and plentiful, and so for many people, it may just be a matter of resigning themselves to their fate.

But what did people think in the 1950s, several years after the destructive power of nuclear weapons were put on display for the world to see? Was there something the Japanese didn’t do or weren’t prepared for that could have significantly heightened many people’s chances for survival? In the 1950s, there were various television broadcasts in the United States that aimed to educate the population of what to do should a nuclear attack take place.

The understanding back then was that an atom bomb caused damage primarily from the blast, heat and radioactivity. Sounds reasonable. But the advice also suggested that radioactivity wasn’t a big issue, claiming that the majority of people exposed to radiation recovered completely. This runs counter to the experience of the hibakusha, Nagasaki and Hiroshima atomic bomb survivors, who suffered from various long-term health complications. The suggestion that radioactivity wasn’t something to be concerned about could have been made due to a lack of knowledge, or perhaps it was a way of partly exonerating the sole perpetrators in history to have dropped nuclear weapons on civilian populations.

Rather than evacuating cities, government advice was to stay; the reason being that industrial production would be an important factor in any military conflict. Deserting a city would be just what the ‘enemy’ wanted. Instead, the population was advised to find a shelter, for example, a cellar or basement. The lower the better. If you had a home without a basement, the best option was to choose an area without windows on the ground floor such as an interior hallway.

Upon hearing a siren alerting of a nuclear attack, people were advised to act fast. Close curtains, turn off and disconnect electrical and gas appliances, and close doors; but leave them unlocked. And then head to your sheltered area. If you were outside and saw the sky light up, you were told either to immediately find shelter near a doorway or drop to the floor to avoid any flying debris. The immediate danger was assumed to be over within a minute, but there was an understanding that radioactive particles trapped in dirt and water could pose a risk. So people were advised to go or stay indoors and to cover any broken windows with blankets or cardboard. If exposed to radioactive material, people were advised to wash themselves thoroughly with soap and water.

The government communicated that if the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki knew what was known and advised in the 1950s, thousands of lives could have been saved. Using a cartoon character, Bert the Turtle, the short and simple advice was to “duck and cover”. Children were taught this and practiced drills at school, taking cover under their desks.

It was also repeatedly warned that the flash of an atomic bomb could come at any time. Instructional videos drilled in the idea that one had to keep the eventuality in mind at all times and be prepared to act instinctively. If you saw a flash before any warning alarms, the advice would be to be like Bert and to “duck and cover”.

But despite what appears to have been a culture of hypervigilance for an atomic attack, it appears by the late 1950s, at least according to some limited survey evaluations, that the majority of people felt a nuclear attack in the United States was unlikely. This of course would change several years later during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, arguably the closest the world came to all out nuclear war. One argument for the more relaxed attitudes in the late 1950s is attributed to denial, a psychological coping mechanism to deal with the frightening prospect of a nuclear attack. People, it is argued, preferred to deny the existence of a nuclear threat rather than confront the horrors it could entail and thus be sufficiently prepared for it.

Today it is widely recognised that interstate conflict has the potential to go nuclear, and if there were to be a precipitation of nuclear war, there’d probably be little chances for survival if multiple bombs were dropped on a city.

Image of nuclear war, perspective from space.
Nuclear war today would be vastly different to 1945, when single atom bombs were detonated.

This understanding, along with detonation temperatures comparable to the core of the sun, likely leave people with pessimistic outcomes of survival, hence why there doesn’t seem to be a culture of hypervigilance that existed in the early 1950s. Others may feel that military technology exists to intercept and shoot down any incoming nuclear warheads. And some may be practicing the coping mechanism of denial.

The advice for surviving a nuclear attack is similar to those promoted in the 1950s. The first step is to get inside. Remove any contaminated clothing and wash unprotected skin from fallout. Stay in a basement or in the middle of the building. Keep staying indoors until there’s news from authorities that it’s safe to go outside. If there’s no news and you’re separated from family and friends, keep separated for the time being. Stay tuned to the media and make sure you carefully follow instructions. If you’re outside when a detonation occurs, find any cover you can. Once the shock waves have passed, you’ll have around 10 mins to get inside somewhere before radioactive fallout arrives.

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