Bert the Turtle: or, how they learned to stop worrying and love the bomb
Bert, the Turtle: ‘The Duck and Cover Song’, Leon Carr, Leo Corday & Leo Langlois. 1953 © Sheldon Music Inc.
If you’ve been to our exhibition Propaganda: power and persuasion you will probably have spotted the cute character above and you might have listened to the accompanying recording of the Duck and Cover song. Bert also features in the Duck and Cover film. I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering how on earth Bert’s capers and ducking under your school desk could ever have been considered sufficient protection against the blast of a nuclear bomb – after all, the film and song came out in 1951, well after the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. So I started to do a bit of reading to find out more. The subject is obviously much too big and complex for a simple blogpost so I’m just going to note a few of the things I discovered and point to some further reading for anyone who is as intrigued as me at just what kind of collective delusion (or what Peter Boyer has described as the ‘big sleep’) was going on in the Cold War U.S. of the early 1950s.
In August 1949 the Soviet Union conducted its first successful nuclear test, and ‘America’s unique physical security,’ as President Eisenhower had described it, changed forever. During WWII, ‘civil defence’ had meant black-out drills, learning how to conserve scarce resources, planting ‘victory gardens,’ raising money through war bonds, and Rosie the Riveter (many examples of which are to be found in our exhibition). But the new threat from weapons capable of flattening U.S. cities meant that civil defence had to be re-defined, and initially at least, the education system was considered to offer the perfect conduit for transmitting the required message. ‘Education is our first line of defense. In the conflict of principle and policy which divides the world today, America’s hope, our hope, the hope of the world, is education.’ said President Truman in 1949. In January 1951 he announced the formation of a new federal agency – the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA). Its role was to be both supervisory and ‘inspirational’, but responsibility for implementing (and funding) its programmes was left to individual states. Although TV (still in its infancy and not in all homes), was used for dissemination of some information, the FCDA preferred radio, print and film, and most of its output was aimed at the public school system. So, the early fifties represent a very specific period in the history of education in U.S. schools – when national defence and education were inextricably linked (leading to the National Defense Education Act of 1958), and teachers provided bomb threat and civil defence training to children, – and through the children, their parents.
One key thing to note is that training wasn't about the technology of the bomb or what happened when it went off, but more about how to behave, emphasising the ‘3 Rs’ –Rights, Respects, and Responsibilities. According to the New York Board of Education, ‘the child should know what to do in school, at home, in the street, or in the playground. He should be trained in self-reliance, imbued with faith in his ability to survive, no matter what the danger.’ According to the FCDA, ‘Like the A-bomb, panic is fissionable. It can produce a chain reaction more deeply destructive than any explosive known.’ To gain the support of parents, letters were sent to homes to reassure them, citing ‘competent experts’ in the atomic field. For example, parents in Los Angeles were told, ‘As devastating as the atomic bomb is, there is no evidence to justify a feeling of hopelessness in the event of such a bombing.’ There in fact seems to have been an amazing lack of public information on the effects of the bomb in the early 1950s –with the Atomic Energy Commission actively minimising the known effects of radiation. In addition, JoAnne Brown notes that virtually no factual material on the effects of an atomic bomb appeared in educational journals in the 1950s or in history text books. This, together with the over-riding emphasis on controlling panic, of being alert but not alarmed, starts to make the idea of ‘duck and cover’ as a strategy look just a little more understandable.
Several types of air raid drill were introduced – ‘duck and cover’ being the most common (and best remembered), but there were also advance warning drills (usually involving moving classes to school basements or other shelters), and dispersal drills (mainly tested on the east coast and soon deemed impractical). Teachers were also given a variety of materials for use in class, and Bert the Turtle/the Duck and Cover story was one of the most popular. Issued by the FCDA in 1951, it received a wide distribution in print (as a comic book), as both film and filmstrip, and song. The film is one of the first attempts on screen to help children understand what they should do in the event of an atomic bomb attack. As Bert explains, ‘It explodes with a flash brighter than any you have ever seen. Things will be knocked down all over town… YOU must be ready to protect yourself.’ So, as soon as a teacher shouted ‘duck,’ kids were taught to dive under their desks and assume the ‘atomic head clutch position.’ As JoAnne Wood explains, ‘Duck and Cover typified the way both educators and FCDA officials handled civil defense for children. Instruction and drill were typically purged of all frightening elements and were implemented with a perverse cheeriness. The net effect was a bizarre disjuncture between the known consequences of atomic war and the playful precautions of people living under its threat.’ Brown argues that this illegitimisation of people’s fears fostered a ‘dangerous and widespread psychology of repression,’ and others have gone on to argue that the psychological fall-out from this repression was one of the causes of the unrest and protest movements of the 1960s (see Robert Jay Lifton, The Broken Connection: on death and the continuity of life, Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Press, 1979. BL shelfmark YC.1996.a.4169).
Another major strand of the school civil defence activities was the introduction of identification programmes for children. This is straying off my ‘Bert the Turtle’ story, but I can’t resist including a quote from the Journal of the National Education Association on the various options for identifying lost – and dead (although not overtly stated as such) children in the event of an attack. Just look at the options! ‘Tattooing is considered occasionally, but generally rejected because of its associations and impermanence in the case of severe burns... Marking of clothing is more seriously regarded [but] clothing can be destroyed... and is frequently interchanged. Fingerprinting is... regarded by some as an infringement of privacy. Cards are easily worn out, stolen or destroyed.’ For anyone interested, the preferred system opted for was the dog tag, long used by soldiers, but now ‘domesticated’ as JoAnne Brown describes it, for home use, and taking on an almost talismanic quality for protection of the nation’s children. Of course, the likelihood that dog tags would help identify anyone caught up in an atomic bomb blast is as believable as thinking you would be ok if you hid under your desk.
There are numerous reasons why teachers were, on the whole, complicit in the ritual of civil defence activities but I’ve no space to comment on them in a blog that’s already way too long. The two articles cited below provide much more information – and also explain why this peculiar role assigned to teachers and the school system didn’t last for very long. By the time of the launch of Sputnik in 1957, it was clear that America had fallen behind in the technology race. As former Senator William Benton put it, ‘Russian classrooms and libraries, her laboratories and teaching methods may threaten us more than her hydrogen bombs.’ Critics of the early 1950s focus on moral and spiritual education wanted a bigger emphasis on technical education which, to quote Michael Carey ‘would enable them to build weapons – more, bigger, better – and create the absolute security that moral and spiritual education could never attain.’
But to return to Bert the Turtle: as one California cabbie recalls from his schooldays, ‘Only the young, the naïve and the schoolteachers were fooled by the drill.’ An educational filmstrip perhaps provides the most appropriate advice: 'The Atomic Energy Commission says the best defense against an atom bomb is to BE SOMEWHERE ELSE when it bursts.'
Michael J. Carey, The Schools and Civil Defense: the Fifties revisited. Teachers College Record, Vol.84 (1), Fall 1982, pp.115-127 (NB. The whole issue is on Education for Peace and Disarmament: toward a living world). BL shelfmark Ac.2688.q/4
JoAnne Brown, “A is for Atom, B is for Bomb”: Civil Defense in American Public Education, 1948-1963. Journal of American History, Vol.75 (1), June 1988, pp.68-90. Available through JSTOR in the Library’s reading rooms.
Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American thought and culture at the dawn of the atomic age, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994 BL shelfmark YA.1997.b.2861 and Fallout: a historian reflects on America’s Half-Century Encounter with Nuclear Weapons, Columbus: Ohio State University press, 1998. BL shelfmark: 98/17544