Jeffrey LewisSurvival Secrets for Atomic Attacks

Michael Katz Hyman sends along this brilliantly funny manual, NSRB DOC. 130 Survival Under Atomic Attack (1950).

Remember kids, “Beyond 2 miles, the explosion will cause practically no deaths at all.”

The atomic age inspired all sorts of “you can survive” silliness, including this story from Friend of Wonk Stephen Schwartz:

My favorite story concerns the tale of Willard Libby, the former Atomic Energy Commission chairman who opposed public funding for shelters and insisted they could be constructed cheaply. To promote his cause, Libby wrote a 15-part newspaper series titled “You Can Survive Atomic Attack,” featuring a less-than-$30 “poor man’s shelter” he had built in West Los Angeles out of railroad ties, old tires, and bags of dirt. “Libby’s argument for the viability of the poor man’s shelter was undercut somewhat when this structure was subsequently destroyed in a brushfire.” When physicist and former colleague Leo Szilard heard about the fire, which occurred during the Cuban missile crisis, he said it proved not only “that God exists, but that He has a sense of humor.”



  1. yale

    That survival manual is exactly correct.

    It specified the fatality risk for a Hiroshima/Nagasaki weapon (“nominal yield”) airburst.

    Here is a chart of casualty vs distance for Hiroshima:

  2. David Isenberg (History)

    Re W Libby, now we know who was the inspiration for T.K. Jones, the Regan official who poohed poohed the prospect of a nuclear attack by famously saying just dig a hole, throw a door over it, and shovel some dirt over it.

  3. Andy (History)

    This is nothing compared to some dirt and railroad ties:

  4. Anonymous

    Bearing in mind that the average yield of nuclear weapons in the years preceding that pamphlet was probably in the 20kt range (same order of magnitude as Little Boy and Fat Man), the pamphlet is probably correct to note that there will be practically no deaths at all at 2 miles out. Of course, this depends on height and location of burst as well as weather conditions, but the statement is probably not so far from being accurate for its time. Just a thought.

  5. Burt T. Turtle (History)

    Suddenly I feel like watching “The Atomic Cafe” again! Of course, in fifty years, the next generation will be giggling about the “is today a condition magenta or raw umber?” crayon of the day public safety alert system.

  6. yale

    My favorite cold war memorabilia sites.

    This site has some astounding artifacts:

    Check out the Convertible Basement Wet Bar/Fallout shelter Plans:

    Great cold war era films:

    Particularly check out the film “House in the Middle”
    Shows why being a bad housekeeper is dangerous in the event of an atomic attack.


  7. stevensnell (History)

    my favourite:

    “Sir, you can’t let him in here. He’ll see everything. He’ll see the big board!”

  8. fastfission (History)

    Thought for 1950, it isn’t entirely wrong to say that 2 miles out is relatively safe. If you assume a “nominal” fission bomb of the sort the USSR had at the time, 20 kt or so, you’d have results like so, according to the calculations at Sublette’s archive:

    Fireball radius: 0.1 km
    Air blast radius (near total fatalities): 0.75 km
    Radiation radius (500 rem): 1.48 km
    Air blast radius (structural damage): 1.99 km
    Thermal radiation radius (third degree burns): 2.35 km

    At two miles out (3.22 km), you’re missing the worst of it. Which doesn’t mean it’s a good thing, of course, but it’s not the (literal) end of the world. There are still fallout considerations, and infrastructure issues, but these are the sort of things such pamphlets are trying to address (don’t eat food which has been outside, stay inside for awhile, don’t panic, etc.).

    Though I sympathize completely with the humorous aspect of Civil Defense, I think sometimes it gets a bad rap. Sure, if you’re right under ground zero, you’re toast. But if you’re not, then you probably could stand a greater-than-zero chance of survival if you made some preparations.

    In any case, it’s fairly obvious that the “Civil Defense is worthless” approach is one which is intended to re-state the direness of a nuclear war, to make it seem so unimaginable that no one would ever dare to think it something worth doing. I respect the moral stance of the position to a degree, but I’m also suspicious of it in terms of its willingness to bowl over assessments of people like Herman Kahn, who for all their nuttiness did have a political point (if nuclear warfare is only total war, then in a world of guaranteed secondary strikes, it quickly becomes an empty threat, and thus has no real deterrence effect except against a first strike, allowing plenty of leeway for other nuclear maneuvers).

    These are general reflections, not criticisms of this particular post. I’ve always thought it interesting, though not incomprenhesible, that the anti-nuclear community is often far more eager to tell you how important and powerful the weapons are than the people who actually build and field the things. I have a hard time finding a stable ground between thinking nuclear weapons are in general a Not Very Good Thing but at the same time feeling nothing but disdain wooly thinking no matter where it comes from.

  9. Josh Narins (History)

    Well, since we are on the topic of history, since your blog wasn’t around in the mid-1990s, I don’t know what you have said about Iraq being “six months” away from a “fully” capable nuclear weapon on the eve of the first Gulf War.

    Is that the consensus? Is it reasonable?

    I ask specifically because Henry Hyde brought that up as a fact on the House Floor during the real debate on the fake H Res 861.