I let it slip by without even a thought. National Civil Defense Week was a thing during the 1950s and 60’s. It was the second week in September, or right after labor day. Why that particular day? I’ve not been able to find any particular reason, maybe it was available. Then again, maybe someone in the government thought a nuclear attack might be more likely during the holiday rich autumn.
In 1972 Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird established the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency as an independent component of the Department of Defense. In 1983 Ronald Reagan announced a Crisis Relocation Plan to evacuate major urban areas in the event of nuclear war. They thought it was possible to save as much as 80% of the population. How reasonable does that sound now?
Growing up the threat of nuclear war was always in the background, since my father was in the Air Force and we frequently lived on bases with a Strategic Air Command wing. Those bases were all first level targets. Mushroom clouds were expected within 30 minutes of the onset of hostilities. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 we were stationed on a SAC base in Georgia. Missile flight time from Cuba was around 10 or 12 minutes. You needed to know where your assigned Air Raid Shelter was.
It all seems so quaint now. It’s interesting to see the videos produced by the various government agencies, all intended to help us survive nuclear attack and the ensuing radiation damage from fallout. Now we know that the somewhat hysterical belief that a nuclear war would have wiped out “all life” was wildly overblown. We have the example of Chernobyl, where radiation byproducts are many times more concentrated than any bomb detonation. The worst areas are too dangerous for humans, but most parts are a wildlife preserve. No science fiction mutants to be found. Life goes on. There were never enough warheads to wipe out every small town in the US or the Soviet Union. Most rural areas would have been untouched.
After the 2011 terrorist attacks, the somewhat moribund Civil Defense Agencies were rolled up into Emergency Management, FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security. Having a cabinet level agency with a near unlimited budget should make us feel safe, right? Turns out the real danger is not where we thought it was. No nuclear bombs detonated near schools. No lives were lost. No radiation damage.
That doesn’t mean the Duck and Cover exercises were a complete waste. Now the threat is called “Active Shooter.” The threat comes from within, and it kills dozens of people every year. We don’t seem to have a National Civil Defense Program to deal with Active Shooters, but we are starting to train children how to barricade classroom doors. We call this progress.