Cinema History from the Cold War!

Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow

RKO-Telepathe Pictures

Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow 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 atomic protection, made the city ideal to place under a national microscope.  Andre Baruch, a popular radio personality and commentator for the Brooklyn Dodgers, provides narration.(1)  He opens the film by tracing the communal spirit of America as the opening shots depict numerous scenes of goodwill and neighborliness including the sharing of a ride, a lawnmower, a rake, and bit of gossip over the clothesline. Looking at this attitude throughout history, it's suggested the nation was built on the idea of working together, from trading posts, sewing bees, and roof raising parties to the wagon trains opening the West. "The lone covered-wagon seldom made it!"  Baruch's cheerful narrative is halted by footage of a mushroom cloud, which prompts a stern warning: America cannot hope to stop all enemy aircraft and recently developed missiles. To counter the threat of an enemy attack, a group effort is needed to organize an effective civil defense force.  A brief tour of the Federal Civil Defense Administration headquarters in Battle Creek, Michigan, explains that while civil defense policy is organized at the national level, it is best implemented by city and county governments, as has been done in Reading. 


"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."  Through the extensive use of aerial shots, flattering footage of the city is shown as residents shop, drive, attend classes, work, relax, and carry on with their livesWhat differentiates Reading from most other American cities, however, is the expansive network of civil defense participation which has developed at the local level.  In Berks County, a control center for emergencies is located within the courthouse and two full-time staff members sign-up volunteers for jobs in rescue, first aid, cooking, and fallout monitoring.  "There is a job for everyone in CD, whether a housewife, auto mechanic, banker, or young Junior League matron!"  To supplement the life experience that each volunteer brings, significant training centers are erected throughout Berks County to prepare for any eventuality.  Among the many groups receiving training are the Reading Pistol Club which will serve as auxiliary police, and several rescue groups comprised solely of women.  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!"


"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.  A local motorcycle club volunteers 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. 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. 

1. Burt A. Folkart.  "Andre Barcuh; Your Hit Parade Announcer.  Los Angeles Times, Sept. 17, 1991.