Cinema History from the Cold War!

Decision Making in Civil Defense

Office of Civil Defense
Department of the Army
1967



Throughout history, politicians, military commanders, and even civilians, have been called upon to make snap judgments in difficult circumstances.  An enemy nuclear attack was considered by Cold War government planners to be, generally, the most difficult of circumstances.  A vital role of a well-established civil defense program then, was to predict, through extensive planning and practice well in advance of any emergency, the results of even the smallest decisions in order to avoid unforeseen consequences.  Decision Making in Civil Defense, released by the Office of Civil Defense in 1964, uses footage captured during Hurricane Carla to demonstrate the pressured situations in which volunteer personnel would be expected operate in.  Hurricane Carla, which devastated the Eastern coast of South America and the Caribbean before swinging into Brownsville, Texas in September of 1961, caused several hundred million dollars in damage and left 43 people dead.  Weather Bureau forecasts originally charted the Category Five hurricane's landfall over Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida.  Carla's sudden shift Westward meant the coastal population of East Texas needed to act quickly to stave off disaster.(1)  The film uses this storm in particular to show how, no matter what level of preparation has been achieved, the shifting nature of a large scale disaster means that many decisions will need to be made quickly, with limited information of questionable accuracy.

                             

Prolific actor and comedian Eddie Bracken hosts Decision Making in Civil Defense.  The film's opening features a mannequin head draped with buzzing electric lights while futuristic beeps and blips give the scene a cold, mechanical vibe. Bracken uses his comedic talents to bring meaning to this bizarre introduction.  Machines, like mannequins, are incapable of making independent decisions.  Humans, on the other hand, must weigh the consequences of even their small decisions, humorously shown on screen when Bracken muses over his tie choice.  Will it please his secretary?  Or his wife?  And how will each option effect his present situation?  Civil defense officials must consider the impact of all their decisions. After showing the practical applications of such thinking during natural disasters like Hurricane Carla, the film offers a hypothetical atomic attack scenario.  A local civil defense director enjoys a peaceful evening at home when he is suddenly interrupted by the flash and blast of an enemy bomb.  Through a series of still images of command centers, it becomes clear the director must make harrowing decisions.  Among his toughest are where to allocate limited fire and rescue personnel and how to deal with overcrowding in fallout shelters, which likely means large sections of the population will be exposed to deadly radiation.  The film ultimately stresses that with pre-planning, such decisions can be made with minimal loss of life.

References: 

(1) "Hurricane Carla - 50th Anniversary." National Weather Service Forecast Office. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization, 21 Sept. 2011. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.