The Invisible Enemy The University of Michigan
The Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization
During the summer of
1958, two agencies merged into the hybrid Office of Civil and Defense
Mobilization which assumed the responsibility of preparing the United
States for a nuclear attack. The top priority of this new
government entity was to publicly stress the dangers of fallout radiation,
which had been treated as a minimal threat for the previous decade. To
achieve this massive task, a number of films were utilized to explain the
need for shelter from harmful fallout. One such film was The Invisible
Enemy, created by the University of Michigan in 1957 for use in Mid-Western
civil defense programs. The following year it was distributed nationwide
as a means of introducing viewers to the effects of radiation and the appropriate protective
measures to follow. Presented as an educational lecture, a
white-coated atomic scientist speaks to the "Governor's Advisory Council"
who sit off-screen eagerly jotting notes. As the lecture unfolds, the scientist
uses posters, measuring instruments, and models to explain how radiation can
sicken and kill.
As a research scientist, the lecturer repeatedly reminds the audience that radiation occurs naturally, from the sun and from earthbound minerals, which bombard humans in trace amounts on a daily basis. "You're here today in a building devoted to the peaceful uses of energy, nuclear energy for research and education!" He also details the processes used to peacefully harness energy from the unstable atom, emphasizing the strict control exercised over the dangerous materials and reactors to ensure safety. Radioactivity, the scientist explains, must be displayed to the public as a finished product of electricity, or a medical treatment for cancer, for only then can it be seen in a positive light. Instead, it is too often introduced as the longest lasting effect of an atomic explosion, causing fear and misinformation to spread throughout the population. Still, the lingering danger of a mushroom cloud cannot be overstated. "This radioactive cloud begins to be carried by winds for hundreds of miles, it is literally a cloud bearing possible death for hundreds of thousands of people living below it!"To graphically illustrate his point,
the scientist theorizes a nuclear detonation over Chicago at 1:45 p.m. on an
August afternoon. Within three hours, residents of Battle Creek, Michigan will take sick with radiation poisoning without proper shelter. In light of this fact, the
lecturer steps into another role. "Alright, I've been speaking to
you as a scientist, but let me talk to you as a man, a husband, and a
father." By means of an intricate model, the scientist invites
the audience into his home to showcase a personal fallout
shelter. The film cuts to Grand Rapids, Michigan where the scientist
and his family wait out the previously described attack.
Michigan, perhaps more than most states, felt the need to prepare for enemy bombardment. The National Civil Defense Headquarters was located in Battle
Creek and major population centers like Detroit were vital to American
Acknowledging the vulnerability of his home state, the scientist explains the extensive emergency networks regularly tested by Michigan and neighboring states. Interestingly, while the film promotes these state and nationwide programs, the underlying assumption among government planners throughout the 1950's was that each family would prepare and protect themselves, accepting only guidance from federal authorities. Returning to the lectern, the scientist offers concluding words, which not only reiterate the danger of radiation, but also the individual citizen's responsibility for self-preservation. "For on your willingness and ability to protect yourself and the lives of those who depend on you, depends in turn, the future of the free world. This, ladies and gentlemen, is why we in the United States must from here on learn how to protect ourselves from fallout, the invisible enemy!"