What You Should Know About Biological Warfare

Federal Civil Defense Administration
Reid H. Ray Film Industries, Inc.

Most Cold War civil defense films dealt exclusively with the subject of atomic warfare, however, government officials felt compelled to inform the public about additional ways enemy agents could harm the United States.  A long list of threats, including contagious disease, industrial sabotage, agricultural toxins, and other unconventional means of attack were compiled in the pamphlet What You Should Know About Biological Warfare.  The pamphlet was released by the Federal Civil Defense Administration in March of 1951 and seven months later, a film of the same name was produced by Reid H. Ray Film Industries, Inc. as part of the F.C.D.A.’s first motion picture campaign.(1)  The campaign consisted of nine films, each officially sanctioned by the F.C.D.A and each based off instructional pamphlets already in circulation.  Other films released as part of this original series include Duck and Cover, Our Cities Must Fight, Survival Under Atomic Attack, Firefighting for Householders, and Emergency Action to Save Lives.(2)  At a brisk eight minutes in length, the film version of What You Should Know About Biological Warfare explores the vulnerability of the United States to toxins and the deliberate spread of disease, while also stressing the terrific damage that rumors and gossip can do. 

Careless talk, whispered discretely in barber shops, factories, and weekend bridge games, is by far the most dangerous aspect of biological warfare.  As an authoritative narrator explains, rumors ("There's a new poison, one ounce can kill all the people in the United States!") greatly exaggerate the lethal potential of biological weapons.  There are, however, concrete threats posed by such attacks and the film presents three of them, examining the damage they may cause.  The first, toxins, if dissipated in an enclosed area, can immediately sicken people confined inside.  This is shown on screen when an enemy agent, complete with trench coat and half-cocked fedora, releases an aerosol into a factory vent labeled "Fresh Air Intake", leading to fevers for workers exposed to the spray.  The second threat, plant growth regulators, may be used to wilt crops, harming agricultural production.  While the effects of toxins and plant growth regulators may be swift, they are limited in nature.  It is the third threat, infectious germs, which may have the farthest reaching impact.

Reid H. Ray, which also released Walt Builds a Family Fallout Shelter (1960), was a well known producer of short, instructional films.  At the time of this film's creation, the company was headquartered in St. Paul, Minnesota.(3)  The final moments of What You Should Know About Biological Warfare, then, depict a hypothetical enemy attack on a small Minnesota town where the population is subjected to infectious disease.  From the moment civil defense officials first announce a suspicious rise in illnesses, to recovery of the final patient, the narrator explains the public will be kept up to date on all developments with a near constant stream of radio broadcasts.  This, along with many images of hard working medical staff, serves to show the viewer that rumors and panic can be curtailed by a thorough information programs.  Although this message could be applied to most aspects of civil defense, the specific nature of What You Should Know About Biological Warfare meant that it would be outdated by the late 1950's when federal agencies began to focus specifically on protection from fallout radiation.  Citing the changing nature of Cold War threats, the F.C.D.A. declared the film obsolete in 1957, recalling all government copies and encouraging private owners to cease showings of it.(4)

What You Should Know About Biological Warfare may be viewed in its entirety HERE.

1. Federal Civil Defense Administration.  Annual Report for 1951.  United States Government Printing Office, 1952.  p. 15.
2. New York Times.  "Films for Defense Set."  Feb. 12, 1951.  p. 18.
3. "Ray in Full-Scale Telefilm Invasion."  The Billboard.  Nov. 1, 1952.  p. 9.
4. Federal Civil Defense Administration.  Annual Statistical Report.  June 30, 1956.  p. 124.