Lifeline of the Nation
Association of American Railroads
Federal Civil Defense Administration
Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization
When America was thrust suddenly into the chaos of World War II, a total and rapid mobilization of resources was needed to prepare the county for the arduous years ahead. The monumental task of shipping soldiers, supplies and raw materials across the United States fell primarily upon the railroads. The Association of American Railroads, an industry organization comprised of the largest rail companies, worked with the government and military to prioritize war-related cargo. To highlight their contributions, The Association of American Railroads teamed with Carl Dudley Productions to release Lifeline of the Nation in May of 1945. Clearly a product of the War Years, the film shows smiling G.I.s aboard steaming locomotives, stationmasters stopping greedy industrialists from putting their own interests first, and rail workers who dream of an Allied victory. After the War's conclusion, Carl Dudley would go on to write the pioneering documentary series This World of Ours. In 1958, his company would reunite with the Association of American Railroads to produce this updated version of Lifeline of the Nation. Sponsored, in part, by the Federal Civil Defense Administration, the film shows how America's railroads are preparing to meet the threat of an enemy atomic attack.
Opening with contrasting shots of a verdant farm valley and scenes of booming industry, Lifeline of the Nation depicts the uneasy peace which has settled around the world. While railroads have fully integrated themselves into a peacetime economy, they remain ever vigilant to the possibility of war. According to Art Gilmore, the famed radio and television announcer who provides narration, the rail industry's commitment to duty and American security was proven during World War II when 90% of all military was moved by train. This duty did not end with the War. Instead, the film theorizes, the detonation of an atomic weapon over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 made railroads all the more important to national defense. By 1955, Gilmore explains, the invention of the Hydrogen Bomb, the jet aircraft, and the ballistic missile have erased the geographical protection the United States has always relied upon to isolate itself from foreign attack. Choosing to meet this new reality head-on, The Association of American Railroads sent representatives to work with civil defense officials. The result of this cooperation was a four stage action plan for rail companies to follow in the event of an atomic attack. The first stage encourages local and regional railroads to have procedures in place upon the report of an air raid warning. The second stage outlines how railroads will ship food and other badly needed supplies into stricken areas. Once bombed cities have been stabilized, the third stage sees railroads mobilizing military cargo and soldiers to fight the war against the aggressor nation. At the same time, the fourth and final stage ensures civilian transportation, particularly in area unaffected by the war, continues as normal and works towards rebuilding the nation.
Although the film does describe these preparedness measures, it serves much more to highlight the technological advancements in the railroads industry, loosely tying each new feature to civil defense. Art Gilmore relates how much better diesel engines fared under the stress of war than did other locomotives. With most new American locomotives being manufactured as diesels, the can better withstand post-attack conditions. Similarly, the freight cars they pull are designed to carry more weight. A single car, for example, could carry 50,000 cans of food into a bombed city. A train of standard length could carry 3.8 million cans to relieve homeless and refugees in need of food. Specialized cars can also carry refrigerated items like fresh meat or milk. If a particular rail company is out of commission, the standard gauge size for tracks and cars ensure that any operating railroad can utilize their lines and help with civil defense duties. Electric automation of many rail yard tasks not only means there is a vast and reliable communication network in place, but frees up rail crews for other duties. Trained to work as independent units, the crews can help with rescue and construction operations. Rail yards themselves make excellent storage depots for civil defense supplies. Although it was The Federal Civil Defense Administration which helped organize these suggestions and which was ultimately credited on the introductory title card, it would be The Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization which ultimately released and promoted the film In the summer of 1958, the F.C.D.A. merged with The Office of Defense Mobilization to create a hybrid agency which would eventually be named The Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization. The O.C.D.M. would spend the final years of the decade declaring many civil defense films from the early 1950's obsolete because they did not address the problem of radioactive fallout. Interestingly, Lifeline of the Nation addresses this issue in its closing moments. While admitting that railroads will not be able to operate in areas heavily contaminated by fallout, the film argues that crews can quickly lay auxiliary tracks to keep traffic flowing around problematic regions. Because Lifeline of the Nation was privately sponsored, it was not declared obsolete like many of its contemporary motion pictures, however, after 1960, it was not included in any government promotional catalogs.