December 4, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

How to survive a nuclear war

9 min read
Back in 1980, the UK government gave advice on how to survive a nuclear war that was rubbished at the time as Tony McMahon discovers
survive nuclear war

In the late 1970s and early 1980s – the majority of young Britons felt a nuclear war was a distinct possibility and they wouldn’t survive it. Tension between the United States and USSR was mounting as the Cold War entered its last phase ahead of the largely unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 80s. There were record turnouts on CND demonstrations as fears grew that President Ronald Reagan in particular was prepared to countenance the use of nuclear weapons. It was an era of high anxiety over the prospect of an imminent nuclear showdown.

The rise and fall of nuclear war civil defence strategies

Up until the end of the 1960s, Britain had a worked out plan for how the country would be governed if the USSR fired its missiles at us. There would be regional “commissioners” put in charge around the UK. Under them would be local authorities and a 300,000 strong Civil Defence Corps. After 1968, these plans were largely junked and civil defence was put on a “care and maintenance” basis. However, between 1974 and 1980, the Labour government oversaw the development of the public information campaign, Protect and Survive. It was kept under wraps until the close of the decade.

Then the media and activists demanded the Protect and Survive strategy be made public. In 1980, the Home Office relented and released the print and film material. Far from assuring the public of its prospects of survival in a nuclear war, Protect and Survive gave the impression that the government was prepared to countenance nuclear war as an option. Membership of CND skyrocketed – as did attendance on monster demonstrations held in the early 1980s. Up to quarter of a million people marching through London.

After 1979, the Tories did attempt to put in place a coherent civil defence strategy and to force local authorities into simulation drills, etc. But this national government push on nuclear war civil defence was met with a mixture of indifference, ideological opposition, and demands for more funding from local authorities – at a time when public expenditure was being cut. So we had Exercise Square Leg in 1980 that assumed half the UK population had been killed. While Exercise Hard Rock in 1982 assumed a nuclear exchange with the enemy involving about 54 warheads that would leave 7.9 million people dead. Other plans proposed allowing urban populations to flee willy-nilly to the countryside while a contradictory plan had the cities sealed off by the army and the population allowed to die – thereby protecting rural areas. Nice!

This was a public information film linked to Protect and Survive. In the post-war era, short films like this on a range of topics were standard fare on TV and in the cinema. Telling kids not to talk to strangers or how to avoid a house fire starting. But this was seen as something Orwellian and frightening at the time.

FIND OUT MORE: Queen’s speech for a nuclear war

Protect and Survive – the death of civil defence

Throughout the 1980s, the Tories tried to revive civil defence. They argued that having such a strategy in place could anticipate other forms of crisis. But for many people, Protect and Survive was like an unwelcome visitor from another era. It echoed the infamous ‘duck and cover’ drills for American schoolchildren in the 1950s. At a command from their teacher, pupils would be sent cowering under their desks as this film shows.

Nobody wanted to return to the blind deference to authority of decades past. We were a post-Watergate generation that no longer believed those in authority had our interests at heart.

There were essentially two schools of thought on nuclear war civil defence in the 1980s.

One looked back to the experience of the Second World War when the population was directed by government agencies on how to take shelter, protect themselves in an aerial attack, and beware of spies amongst you by not engaging in careless talk. That had been essential to protect the population and should simply be updated for modern war conditions. The other school of thought was that a nuclear war had to be avoided at all costs. To even plan for its eventuality was to bring it that much closer. There should be no preparations because there was no way of surviving it. As many thought at the time – you might as well just sit under the blast and go quickly.

The difference in outlook on civil defence was generational as well as political…

You have to remember in the 1980s, that people in their 60s had more than likely fought or been involved in some capacity in the Second World War. And it seemed a very close memory. That war had ended in the east with two nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tokyo had been reduced to cinders by carpet bombing. So could humanity conceivably survive a nuclear war? The older generation thought yes. After all, hadn’t London pulled through the horror of the blitz and the Axis powers, Germany and Japan, recovered quickly from massive destruction? The plucky human spirit could even see off a few nuclear bombs!

But the younger generation, influenced by the anti-Vietnam war protests of the 1960s, worked on the assumption that this was nonsense. Nuclear bombs were way more powerful than anything dropped on Japan in 1945. Governments had lied about both the peaceful and military uses of nuclear. There had been accidents at power stations – Three Mile Island in 1979 for example. The scandal of nuclear waste dumped in the Irish Sea. Teenagers and students had no enthusiasm for civil defence exercises.

The UK government’s Central Office of Information collated a number of public opinion polls and surveys in 1985 and found that 40% of Britons expected a nuclear war in their lifetime and 80% did not expect to survive. Most had no confidence whatsoever in civil defence. Labour-controlled local authorities including the metropolitan county councils covering the major cities declared themselves ‘nuclear-free zones’ during the early 1980s, and refused to cooperate with civil defence exercises.

Non-governmental advice on how to survive a nuclear war

Even though Protect and Survive failed to convince, some saw an opportunity to address widespread public anxiety on the threat of a nuclear war. And sell as few books!

Below is a tome published in 1980 on tips to survive a nuclear war by Barry Popkess. I still have my copy just in case the nukes rain down! Written by somebody who was apparently a former member of the armed forces, it could actually apply to any situation where you were stranded in the wild. How to forage for food. Build a shelter. Treat wounds. But it then goes into details of what risks you might face from nuclear and chemical attacks. Interestingly, it touches a lot on how to remain a good citizen and not descend into savagery.

nuclear war survive

Popkess wasn’t alone in thinking a nuclear war could be survived. The Swiss thought so as well. There were an estimated 20,000 official nuclear bunkers around the country during the Cold War and an additional 30,000 private bunkers. I’ve seen one just outside Geneva. The Swiss really did intend to inherit the post-apocalypse Earth!

Dystopian futures

Attitudes towards the survivability of nuclear war were undoubtedly shaped by popular culture. Many of the post-nuclear dystopian dramas of the time tended to be very pessimistic about how humans would behave once law and order had broken down and the authorities wiped out. The 1984 movie Threads saw Sheffield taken out in a nuclear strike. Very dated now and the CGI wouldn’t pass muster with a Zoomer audience. But it still packs a punch. War breaks out in the Middle East leading to nuclear strikes in the region. Things quickly escalate. Anti-war demos fill the street. Then the unthinkable – a fiery mushroom cloud over a British city.

The British author John Wyndham (1903-1969) is best known for The Day of the Triffids (written in 1951) and The Midwich Cuckoos (written in 1957) – the latter adapted into the 1960 movie Village of the Damned and in 2022 under its original title. But many believe Wyndham’s masterpiece was The Chrysalids. In this dystopian future, people have a recollection of the Tribulation. Rather like Noah’s Flood, a cataclysmic event that destroyed much of humanity. Believing that God had punished the human race for transgressing, communities practice strict eugenics. Any hint of abnormality or mutation is rooted out and killed. The action centres on one girl who has six toes and a group of children who are telepathic. The influence on many other works of fiction over the last sixty years is very obvious. I bet you can think of three movies or TV series that have a whiff of the Chrysalids about them!

The 1970s must be recognised as the decade that loved a good post-apocalyptic movie. Farewell to the optimism of the last two decades. The future was going to be utterly bleak. Take your pick! Maybe the remains of the human race would lead a hedonistic lifestyle but then everybody had to die aged 30 by riding a bizarre “Carrousel”. That’s the plot of Logan’s Run – the movie and later TV series. Or Charlton Heston as American astronaut George Taylor who lands on a very odd planet where apes have enslaved humans. At the end of the movie, he finds the Statue of Liberty poking out of the sea on a beach and realises he was on Earth all the time – and humanity had destroyed itself in a nuclear war. That’s the plot of the 1968 epic Planet of the Apes – which spawned sequels and a TV series in the 70s and new versions in more recent times.

There are plenty of other examples – and leaving the cinema as teens back in those days, we were left in no doubt that nuclear war would end civilisation. Full stop.

Nuclear war civil defence and analogies with Covid

In the 1980s, on the political Left, we rejected state organised civil defence.

One of the strange ironies of recent times is the way in which the Left and Right in politics have swapped places on issues and in terms of attitude. Covid is an interesting case in point. Just to declare my position – resolutely pro-science, pro-vaccine, and pro-mask. However….it is interesting that during the lockdown, liberals and the political left were broadly in favour of a kind of civil defence approach to dealing with the pandemic. There was an acceptance of what health officials and government ministers recommended. We became quite zealous of adhering to the right measures and angered at those who did not.

The opposition to Covid measures came mainly – though not exclusively I’ll admit – from the right. The Alt-right for example. Public health measures, mandated masking, getting vaccinated became the subject of ever wilder conspiracy theories. The authorities were not to be trusted. Corporates were trying to poison or control us. This was all about softening us up for dictatorship. Etc, etc.

Our attitudes to the military-industrial complex in the 1980s had a similar ring to it. Though I like to think our positions were better thought out. But we dissented from state messaging and advice on surviving in a post-apocalyptic world. We chafed at any talk of civil defence. We scorned government pamphlets and information films.

On nuclear war, we were rebels. Today on Covid, we’re conformists.

Was Protect and Survive right all along?

Protect and Survive got a pasting back in 1980. But might it have been the best advice in a pretty lousy situation. Let me be a contrarian here for the sake of it!

This recent video gives advice on how to survive a nuclear attack and….it’s really not that different from Protect and Survive! Getting into a brick building to avoid the fallout and changing your clothes. Maybe the government boffins were right over forty years ago. One certainly can’t underestimate the horror that a nuclear blast would bring but in the worst possible circumstances, is it completely ridiculous to have some handy tips?

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