Cinema History from the Cold War!

Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow
RKO-Telepathe Pictures

The setting for Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow?  Any street, in Anytown, U.S.A.  More specifically, however, the film highlights the civil defense preparations of Reading, Pennsylvania, a modest sized community in the southeastern corner of the state.  The industrial nature of Reading and surrounding Berks County, as well as the local government's massive investment toward nuclear protection, made the city ideal to place under a national microscope.  Narrator Andre Baruch, a popular radio personality and commentator for the Brooklyn Dodgers, sets the film in a larger context by tracing the communal spirit of America from the pioneers to the modern city suburb.  The opening shots depict numerous scenes of goodwill and neighborliness including the sharing a ride, a lawnmower, a rake, or bit of gossip over the clothesline. Looking at this attitude through history, it's suggested this was how the nation was built, from the trading posts, sewing bees, and roof raising parties to the wagon trains opening the West. "The lone covered-wagon seldom made it!"


This good will has continued and Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow cites numerous charities and organizations as evidence. "And so it is today as we work together towards a common cause for a common good. Helping others is almost a natural instinct." Baruche's cheerful narrative is halted by footage of atomic test. "Why, I beg your pardon," he apologizes, "it appears there's been an interruption, but in today's world we live with the constant possibility of such interruptions as we contemplate the shape of Muscus Aggoticus, or poisonous mushroom!" A mushroom cloud forms in the distance and the roar of an explosion nearly drowns out the musical score.  With quickening pace, target planes streak across the sky before fire artillery fire swallows them up.  This victorious scene is coupled with a stern warning: America cannot hope to stop all enemy aircraft and recently developed missiles. Starkly, Baruch explains a few facts about the bomb while the camera pans across images of a destroyed Hiroshima.  "The bombs that did this to Hiroshima and Nagasaki are mere firecrackers in today's lineup of thermonuclear weapons!  In silhouette, a large city is subject to atomic attack.  Following the aerial barrage of bombers, the resulting smoke and debris morph into a skull over the charred urban remains.

Returning to the theme of community, Baruch explains that civil defense is the modern extension of historical groups survival efforts. Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow explains how this effort will take place, beginning on the national level with Federal Civil Defense Administration, headquartered in Battle Creek, Michigan. The film provides a brief tour of the building, where civil defense director Val Peterson is seen lecturing officials on critical target areas.  Also depicted at the F.C.D.A. central command is the nationwide attempt to trace fallout patters in various attack scenarios.  Utilizing massive maps other meteorological devices, technicians pour over data to analyze the invisible hazard.  Ironically, in spite of this initial focus on the innovative research conducted by the federal leaders, the remainder of the film makes it clear that the civil defense needs to be implemented and maintained on the local and county level.


"Reading, Pennsylvania! Reading is really no different than dozens of other communities which weave business, industry, and livability into the accustomed tapestry of the American scene." Many flattering shots of the urbanscape are shown, while the residents of Reading shop, drive, attend classes, work, relax and carry on with their lives, lives which are "worth preserving and protecting." What differentiates Reading from most other American cities, however, is the expansive network of civil defense participation which has developed at the local level.  While the general idea of civil defense in the 1950's called for privatized protection, beginning in the home and involving limited governmental intervention, Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow seems to suggest that the best course is for cities and counties to take control.  In Berks County, the control center for emergencies is located within the courthouse, where volunteers assist two paid staff members to sign-up volunteers for many various jobs in rescue, first aid, cooking, and fallout monitoring among others.


"There is a job for everyone in CD, whether a housewife, auto mechanic, banker, or young Junior League matron!" All reaches of society are encouraged to volunteer for civil defense duty, and to highlight the efficiency which Reading has created, all volunteers are carefully cataloged along with their helpful skills and other vital information.  To supplement the life experience that each volunteer brings, significant training centers have been erected across Berks County to prepare for any eventuality.  Among the many groups receiving training is the Reading Pistol Club who will be expected to serve as Auxiliary Police to  "guard power plants, bridges, water supplies, and other necessities for the common good!" Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow also strives to embody another aspect of civil defense which the government often tried to convey, the usefulness of such resources in time of natural disaster.  "Though in the minds of most, the idea of civil defense bring thoughts of 'the bomb' volunteers also may used in disasters such as cyclones, floods and other wayward fits of nature!"  Later films and other public information mediums would stress examples in recent history (the Great Missouri River Floods of 1950 for example) where civil defense rescue services offered practical and much needed assistance to stricken Americans.  Along with this idea, Berks County displays its progressive attitude towards the sexes, showcasing search teams comprised entirely of women.


"Statistics show that more civilians were killed by fire than any other force during World War II!"  Baruch's numbers help explain why the idea of radioactive fallout is given very little attention in the film. Less the forty-five seconds are dedicated to the longest lasting bomb effect, consisting entirely of a Geiger counter swooping back and forth. The pride of the Reading civil defense forces, however, is their early warning system. Lights flash up as warnings come in from Long Island, New York. If an attack is to take place, a box in the civil defense headquarters lights up and triggers alarms in fire stations, hospitals, schools and religious institutions. The notion of communication after an attack has also been carefully assessed and the recruitment of local women to work call centers at the phone company is the main solution. In case there are no phones, local ham radio operators are to be pressed into action after volunteering with the county. Although not specifically mentioned this would be the R.A.C.E.S. program in action. Meaning Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services, the program would ask ham radio operators to press on communications after a nuclear emergency. The local motorcycle club volunteer to act as couriers and escorts for medical personnel. In a creative throwback to the previous century, it is noted that civil defense officials are making lists of private horse owners in the county with the hopes that the animals could be pressed into service as messengers following an attack.  Local jockeys and riders are cataloged as well.


Of course, all of this preparation would be moot if there were not institutions in place to take on the wounded that would result from an attack. The rest of the film is dedicated to examining this problem. The solution is a Pre-Packaged Disaster Hospital.  In the basement of the Berks County Home, three medical professionals and thirty volunteers, including some from the previously mentioned motorcycle club, can have the hospital completely set up in four hours. When packed, the complete contents take up several semi-truck trailers.  When unpacked, a fully operational hospital is available well outside the target zone.  To take a look at the complete set up of the Packaged Disaster Hospital Click Here.   Concluding, Baruch returns to his opening narration, only to have his words of wisdom again halted by a mushroom cloud. "You've seen it here as direct evidence of how any American community can easily, there's the interruption again, the kind that's always with us in an uneasy world."

The Life Atomic

In 2011, the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles, located in Boyertown, Pennsylvania (just outside Reading), began hosting an exhibit called The Life Atomic.  Featuring plenty of civil defense memorabilia and displays centered on growing up at the height of the Cold War, the centerpiece of the exhibit was the restored REO Civil Defense Rescue vehicle that was used in Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow.  Here is a link with photos of the exhibit and the REO truck.