The vast majority of civil defense films were products of government agencies, though this wasn’t always the case. A handful of early films, such as You Can Beat the A Bomb and Pattern for Survival, were released by private companies prior to the formation of any cohesive central authority on atomic civil defense. This changed with Executive Order 10186 which established the Federal Civil Defense Administration in December of 1950. Just two months later, the F.C.D.A. announced the creation of nine films designed to address the threat of an enemy attack using unconventional weapons. These particular films, all based upon instructional booklets already in circulation, would be the first to enjoy the full backing of the United States government. In April of 1951, Survival Under Atomic Attack became the initial government civil defense film. With famed broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow narrating some of the earliest atomic protection advice offered to the American public, the film brings the pamphlet of the same name to life.(1)
Recognizing that the average American audience in 1951 likely knew very little about the atomic bomb, the writers of Survival Under Atomic Attack explain several topics in just under nine minutes. Murrow begins by describing the primary dangers of an atomic detonation, blast, heat and radiation. He makes several references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to stress that, despite exposure to radioactive fallout, Japanese survivors continue to lead normal lives. Murrow further adds that, should the United States be subjected to a Soviet attack, evacuation of target areas is unfeasible. Residents of large cities must remain to keep up vital war production and keep roads clear for emergency services. This point is discussed in detail in the 1952 film Our Cities Must Fight. Instead of evacuating, citizens should concentrate on clearing flammable debris from their homes and preparing a well-stocked shelter in the sturdiest room of their home. The film wraps up with three simulated attacks, instructing the viewer on what to do when the siren sounds in different situations. Closing blinds, unplugging appliances, filling water buckets, and seeking shelter are the steps recommended. If caught by surprise at home or in the open, the only option is to crouch towards the ground and shield vital body parts.
Survival Under Atomic Attack was introduced with great fanfare. Several months after its release, The American Journal of Nursing described the film as "the best introduction to the subject (atomic warfare) yet produced."(2) Civil defense leaders and civic groups across the country requested copies for use in presentations and recruitment meetings. Within nine months of its release, over 4,000 16mm prints were sold, which the F.C.D.A. heralded as an industry record.(3) Eager to spread the film's message, the State of California released That They May Live in the summer of 1951, which used still frames from the motion picture and text from the pamphlet to create a slideshow for school-aged children.(4) In spite of all its influence, however, the film would not enjoy favorable longevity. By 1956, Survival Under Atomic Attack was removed from lists of films which were available for rent or purchase through government catalogs. The following year, it was officially deemed obsolete. Citing changing methods of warfare and protection, F.C.D.A. officials recalled all government copies of the film and encouraged any private owners to cease screenings.
Survival Under Atomic Attack may be viewed in its entirety HERE.
(1) Annual Report for 1951. United States Government Printing Office, 1952. 15.
(2) Survival Under Atomic Attack. The American Journal of Nursing, Vol. 151 Iss. 11. Nov. 1951.
(3) Annual Report for 1951. United States Government Printing Office, 1952. 14-15.
(4) "Around the State in Civil Defense." The Los Angeles Sentinel. 7 June, 1951. p. A8.