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A Primer for Survival
Office of Civil Defense
Robert Saudek Associates

By 1965, ambitious architects and engineers within the Office of Civil Defense had surveyed thousands of cities across the United States and identified potential fallout shelter space for an estimated 136 million people.  In spite of these impressive numbers, officials continuously battled an apathy among the American public which they sought to cure by searching for new ways to encourage nuclear preparedness.  Looking to expand their message through the popular medium of television, government civil defense agencies had long created films with the intent of broadcasting them over the airwaves.  A Primer for Survival followed this well established strategy, though as a television series sponsored entirely by the Office of Civil Defense, it differed from other productions, which were often aired only once.  Instead of being shown as one continuous feature, the show was segmented into four episodes, each presenting special guest lecturers.  Designed to offer advice and promote civil defense as a worthwhile cause, the show also tackled the problem of apathy towards the atomic threat in a calm and deliberate manner.

Hosted by Dave Garroway, A Primer for Survival consisted of four short episodes, each written to address a different aspect of the National Fallout Shelter System and life under the threat of nuclear war.  Garroway, a longtime NBC anchorman and founder of The Today Show, was known for his laid back demeanor and soft spoken tone.  The series opens by exploring public sentiment toward fallout shelters in A Fact of Life, which also examines moral issues attached to the subject.  The second episode, The Sword and the Shield, presents a number of scientific experiments to validate the usefulness of fallout shelters.  This is continued in the third installment, Fallout, which looks specifically at the damage radioactive particles can do to human, animal, and plant life.  The series concludes by discussing what life would be like after a nuclear war in Post-Attack World.  Though designed for television broadcasting, A Primer for Survival was also made available through the OCD in 16mm format for any interested parties looking to promote civil defense.

A Fact of Life

Is a public fallout shelter system worth all the trouble and money?  This is the question asked of random citizens on the street in the opening segment of A Primer for Survival.  Bus drivers, housewives, lawyers, and college students are among those surveyed, all of whom express a skepticism about the efficacy of fallout protection and whether post-attack life would be worth living.  Dave Garroway explains these attitudes as a mix of confusion, worry, and ignorance, all of which surround the atomic threat.  To remedy this lack of information, Garroway introduces a special guest, former Office of Civil Defense director Steuart L. Pittman.  Pittman, who never appears comfortable in front of the camera, describes how the military forces of the United States cannot be fully effective until they are augmented by a solid civil defense program.  Offering a similar opinion is Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman, who quietly predicts that even in the event of extreme radioactive contamination, the country will have enough food to last several years.  Each man reflects on the Cuban Missile Crisis, then just three years prior, citing the numerous calls for more shelter as evidence that most of the population would fight for survival.  This resolve, the series suggests, shows that Americans are taking the possibility of nuclear attack as "just another fact of life!"

The Sword and the Shield

Since the days of ancient warfare, shields have been used by humans for safety and protection.  Modern shields take many forms, from the welder's mask to the roofing tar and shingles keeping out the rain.  Even the warning siren systems erected across the nation act as a type of shield.  What about the fallout shelter sign?  "For man at his worst, should the worst come to pass, this shield is the shield against the worst of all possible disasters!"  Dave Garroway introduces himself onscreen, offering quotes from Defense Secretary Robert McNamara about the need for a strong civil defense.  The sword, Garroway explains, is any nation with a nuclear arsenal, capable of blanketing all of America with fallout radiation.  Whereas the previous segment dealt with moral and practical debates surrounding the National Fallout Shelter System, this episode focuses on the science behind fallout shelters.  Garroway demonstrates fallout shielding through a series of small experiments, using a light bulb which grows dimmer with each shade of material he places in front of it.  If the bulb is radiation, its effect weakens as more mass is placed between the source and surrounding humans.  The same principle can be applied to buildings with solid materials, shown by scaled down models.


Despite opening with clips of Operation Ivy, which successfully detonated the first hydrogen bomb, this third installment of the Primer For Survival series does not focus on the initial burst of flame and heat.  Instead, as Dave Garroway explains, the worst danger for the majority of the population would come much later in the form of fallout radiation.  Utilizing clips from the 1963 Office of Civil Defense film About Fallout, Garroway highlights the National Fallout Shelter System as the best means of survival for anyone caught downwind of a nuclear explosion.

The Post Attack World

Dave Garroway opens this final segment in the halls of Congress, where he describes a recent committee hearing on civil defense expenditures.  Although elected officials pledged full support for support for the National Fallout Shelter System, tough questions lingered.  Chief among them: what type of world would await the survivors of a nuclear attack?  Garroway admits that no easy answer is forthcoming, but offers a panel of experts to provide some guidance on what may be expected.