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8 posts from June 2013

27 June 2013

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

Bert, the Turtle: ‘The Duck and Cover Song’, Leon Carr, Leo Corday & Leo Langlois. 1953 © Sheldon Music Inc.

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.'

Further reading:

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




Bert, the Turtle: ‘The Duck and Cover Song’ Leon Carr, Leo Corday & Leo Langlois. 1953 © Sheldon Music Inc


Bert, the Turtle: ‘The Duck and Cover Song’ Leon Carr, Leo Corday & Leo Langlois. 1953 © Sheldon Music Inc

26 June 2013

From the Collections: Native Americans visit London

Totems (Queen Anne visitors)
Above: Totems drawn by three of the visitors to the court of Queen Anne [Add MS 61647]

Public Domain Mark
These works are free of known copyright restrictions.

Team Americas were happy to host scholars from Oxford University, UCL and Yale this morning, part of a tour looking at the history of Native Americans visiting London. Carole and I put together a small selection of items loosely related to the theme and it seemed a shame not to share some of them with our readers.

Tee Yee Neen Ho Ga Row (Sloane vol)
Above: a depiction of Tee Yee Neen Ho Ga Row, one of the 'Four Indian Kings' [Add MS 5253]

The bulk of the display revolved around the 'Four Indian Kings' who came to England in 1710, during the reign of Queen Anne. The above illustration is from a volume formerly belonging to Sir Hans Sloane while the totem signatures on the top are on documents relating to the business of the Privy Council.

French territories map
Above: 'A New Map of the Parts of North America Claimed by France' [Maps 69917.(29)]

While researching the display a few other items of marginal relevance caught my eye and it seemed a shame not to include them. The above is a map from the 1720s detailing the French colonies of North America, what is particularly interesting though is the demarcation of Iroquois territory on the map and the notes about the importance of this group to the protection of British colonial interests.

I suspect this is a display that will come out again, so there are possibly more blogs to follow. In the meantime, if you would like any more information just get in touch.


20 June 2013

Tossed Salad and Scrambled Eggs: The Constitution 225 Years Later

Public Domain Mark The Constitutions of the Several Independent States of America, London, 1782, British Library Shelfmark

Once upon a time in Seattle, Niles and Frasier Crane decide to dissolve their connections with their wine club and to institute their own (Niles: 'my enthusiasm for the wine club has started to turn...', Frasier: '... it used to be the the wine club.  Now it's just the teasing people club.').  Their enthusiasm for their new club grows apace:


So what's preventing us from starting a whole new club from scratch?  


We could really get back to basics!


Something that's just about wine! And a clear constitutional procedure for enjoying it!


Yes, only maybe this time the governing body could be bicameral!  


Well, I don't know, Niles, there is something to be said for the parliamentary system!


Well, either way we have to have a strong judiciary to keep it in check.


God, I love wine.

The next scene opens with Frasier and Niles huddled over their new constitution, quill pen and parchment in hand.

It's not just Frasier and Niles, of course, but the US as a whole could be said to have 'Constitution Complex', with its balanced clauses and elegant eighteenth-century language burrowed deep within the core of national memory.  The US Revolution itself, it could be argued, was also the result of a widespread early American engagement with republican and constitutional ideals.

As a physical document, surrounded by inert gas, and tucked up at night in bomb-proof vaults, the Constitition is something of a civic shrine, often making an appearance in disaster movies: zapped by extra-terrestrials, crumpled by natural disaster, or incinerated by terrorists and troublemakers.

The text also has a strong, online presence, as well as a regular series of books arguing the various sides of how to interpret it, especially since the rise of 'originalism' in the 1980s, a line of political and legal argument that seeks to interpret the Constitution as it was understood by its creators and agreed at the Ratification, 225 years ago.  The founding fathers, in these readings, are often found to be rather conservative in outlook.  Others read the text as a 'living constitution', a founding document that nonetheless has to change with the times.   (The tone of the debate sometimes brings to mind Frasier's criticism of the original wine club).  For a balanced starting point, the Library of Congress offers a good overview of many online resources, as, of course, does the US National Archives. (And, dare we say it, our own Online Gallery feature on the American Revolution.)

This said, the Complex can't just be diagnosed in the US.  As the imprint above shows, Britain (and for that matter, France), were obsessed with constitutionality.  Printers, such as the pro-revolutionary publisher John Stockdale, found that constitutions, whether printed cheaply or in deluxe vellum volumes, were a good publishing bet.  Frasier and Niles would have felt quite at home.



Naomi Wood


Image © Ander McIntyre

A portrait of Naomi Wood at the Moghul exhibition at the British Library in December 2012.

Naomi is one of the Writers in Residence at the Eccles Centre for American Studies, the author of The Godless Boys (Picador) and Mrs Hemingway (forthcoming from Picador).

[Ander McIntyre is a photographer and a Fellow at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.  He is an occasional contributor to this blog.]

19 June 2013

Civil War Project update – A journey through the Southern (and Northern) States

 Gardner War

Alexander Gardner, Studying the Art of War, Fairfax Court-House [Virginia], June 1863. British Library Shelfmark 1784.a.13.1

Public Domain Mark This work is free of known copyright restrictions.

Catherine Bateson, our King's College London MA intern updates us on some of her findings as part of the US Civil War Project:

150 years ago, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Fremantle of the Coldstream Guards was on a long train journey from Shelbyville, Tennessee, to Atlanta, Georgia. Fremantle was conducting an independent tour of the Confederate States at the height of the American Civil War. He witnessed life on the home-front, military and naval engagements and had met General Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. While on the train, which "was much crowded with wounded and sick soldiers", the British officer noticed "a goodish-looking woman". Fremantle reports that this lady had fought on the frontline and that "no notice had been taken of [her gender] so long as she conducted herself properly", though clearly something had happened because "she had been turned out a short time since for her bad and immoral conduct". He offers no further comment other than noting that "she wore a soldier’s hat and coat, but had resumed her petticoats". Information about female soldiers in the Civil War is often hard to come by, though the Library of Congress has recently drawn attention to this intriguing aspect of the war.

Fremantle’s observation is just one of many wartime snapshots Fremantle jotted down in a three-and-a-half month diary of his American adventures, imaginatively titled Three months in the Southern States, April-June, 1863 (General Reference Collection The diary is a fantastic Civil War primary source, made all the more interesting as it was written from a neutral British perspective. It also contains entries from July 1863, when Fremantle was at Gettysburg observing one of the Civil War’s most famous battles. His account of events of 1–3 July 1863, written as the fight raged around him, remains one of the best eyewitness reports of the battle. The Library holds several copies of Fremantle’s diary, including the 1863 first edition.

Followers of the blog will know that our Civil War project has been going on for a while, begun to commemorate the American Civil War Sesquicentennial – or the easier to say '150th anniversary' – in 2011. The project is finally nearing completion and the website will hopefully be going live in the next few weeks. I’ve been interning with Team Americas for the last month, adding finishing touches to the website, providing detail to the digitised items and highlighting numerous British connections to the American conflict. Fremantle himself gets a reference, alongside fabulous images of maps, photographs, diplomatic letters, wartime objects and my personal favourite, Union and Confederate songs, including several which praise the role of Irish soldiers in the conflict.

In the meantime, the image above is a taster of what will be on display. The photograph was taken 150 years ago this month by Scottish-born Alexander Gardner. Studying the Art of War features Union officers who would take part in the fighting at Gettysburg in 1863. It is tempting to think Fremantle saw similar scenes behind the Confederate line. As has been mentioned on the blog before, photos from Gardner’s two-volume book have already been digitised, and the website will contain more information on a selection of some of the best.

I like to think that if he were around today, Arthur Fremantle would have enjoyed our Civil War project, as like his diary jottings it covers numerous aspects of this tumultuous period of American history.



13 June 2013

John Burnside: Finding Jennifer

Shadow play alternative banner

Image © John Burnside

Five months into my Eccles Fellowship term, I can think of several reasons why my latest project has yet to acquire a title, (other than the embarrassingly vague-sounding working title I began with, i.e., 'Good', which is, as all working titles are, a piece of private shorthand for those questions Seneca poses, in De ira and elsewhere, about how we might do good, how we could be good, beyond the mere dictates and prohibitions laid down by the law. How do we oppose or correct injustices? How do we counter the cynicism and corruption of what people of my generation used to call 'The System'?


[Detail of Seneca sitting in a bathtub while a man is slitting his veins, obeying
Nero's orders. This image, Harley 4425, f. 59v, identified by the the
British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions.] Seneca's philosophy has always been a preoccupation of mine, and the underlying ideas in this as yet unnamed novel have their
source in his writings.

It is frustrating, this lack of an expressive, or perhaps evocative title – but then, this stage of the project not only coincided with a whole series of eerily familiar events at home, from tangles with political corruption in my own back yard to family illness and bereavement (both of which feature strongly in the novel's plot) but it also happens to be the point in a novel's development when, as usual, I find myself dismantling my one big idea, like a technician dismantling a machine to see how the internals work.

'Good' is a novel that spans eightyish years, revolving mostly around two main characters, a brother and sister, both of whom I could see very clearly from the first. One of these characters (for the moment, his name is Jeremy) has two children, a son and a daughter, both of whom become involved in the politics of the 60s and 70s – and it is this daughter, whose name is almost certainly Jennifer, I am pursuing through my research. Though, on reflection, 'pursuing' is perhaps too strong a term. Too deliberate. What I have really been doing, for five months, has been a process that I think of as active waiting: reading, not reading, being attentive to chance happenings, looking at pictures, travelling – there is usually a fair amount of travelling, for me at least – and both thinking and trying not to think too much. Now, I believe Jennifer has shown up, in some ways very different from how I first saw her, but also, for me, much more interesting - and maybe that is the point of research, in the end. That is the point of dismantling the big idea and peering into the darkness of the machinery: to undermine the self, to run counter to initial impressions and (hopefully) to surpass those first expectations.

The process of finding Jennifer began in the reading rooms of the British Library and took me, by way of Williamsburg, Virginia – where Jennifer goes to college for a time before becoming a political activist – and various other wanderings, to (inevitably, though for the moment, only virtually) to the National Archives in Washington DC.
One person can
Jennifer is a political activist, inspired as much by the rhetoric of mainstream American politics during the Kennedy years as she is by more predictable thinkers like Karl Marx, Malcolm X and Che Guevara

The next stage of the process - the proof of the pudding stage - is to write down what I found.

John Burnside is an Eccles Centre Writer in Residence for 2013.

11 June 2013

J. Montgomery Flagg and Uncle Sam

Uncle sam

If you’ve been anywhere in the vicinity of the Library in the last month or so, you can’t fail to have seen the accusatory pointing figure of Uncle Sam urging you to come to see our exhibition Propaganda: power and persuasion.  And if do make it in to the exhibition (which, of course, we hope you do), you will find an original World War I Uncle Sam poster (kindly lent to us), with the familiar exhortation to enlist: I WANT YOU for U.S. ARMY.

The image is by J. Montgomery Flagg (1877–1960) and first appeared on the cover of the 6 July 1916 issue of Leslie’s Weekly, with the title ‘What are you doing for preparedness?’ The recruiting poster was printed the following year, 1917.  Flagg had a precocious talent for drawing. He sold his first piece to the children’s magazine St. Nicholas at the age of 12, and by 16 he was already regularly supplying material to both Life and Judge magazines. He came from a fairly well-to-do New York family and studied briefly in both England and France. After travelling around with his new wife in the early 1900s, he settled in New York and enjoyed great success as a commercial artist. Known mostly as an illustrator, he also published both satirical and more risqué material, and later wrote scripts for films during several periods in Hollywood. He drew cartoons which lampooned advertising slogans (e.g., he depicted a hungry lion with the caption ‘I’d walk a mile for a camel!’), marriage, politics, prohibition and more or less anything. Flagg also worked as a portraitist, – his wit, good looks and talent making him popular with, amongst others, the Hollywood celebrities of the day. In his 1946 autobiography Roses and Buckshots, he presents himself as a bohemian, eschewing convention, and he enjoyed a notorious reputation for his numerous affairs. Almost the complete opposite of Norman Rockwell, Flagg revelled in the urban life. According to Susan E. Meyer, he 'was not only an artist of his time, but a participant in the life he depicted… He captured the spirit and personality of the first half of this century in his illustrations, in his writings, in his films, and in the way he lived.’  But it is for his work in support of the war effort, and one poster in particular, that he is now most remembered.

When the U.S. entered World War I, Flagg was appointed military artist of New York State by Charles S. Whitman, the Governor at the time. The notion of ‘Uncle Sam’ as a personification of the federal government predates Flagg’s image, although there is some debate on the origin of the term. Historical sources reference a Samuel Wilson (1766-1854), a meat packer who supplied meat to the army during the War of 1812. Wilson used to stamp his barrels of beef with US, standing, of course, for United States. But the well-liked Wilson soon came to be known as ‘Uncle Sam,’ and it wasn’t long before the name gained the now familiar wider meaning. Early illustrators and cartoonists, such as Thomas Nast, had tended to depict Uncle Sam as an old man wearing a stars and stripes suit, but Flagg’s image is altogether more vigorous. His pose is of course inspired by Alfred Leet’s military recruiting poster of 1914 featuring Lord Kitchener (although Flagg would never confirm or deny the link). But what you might not know is that Flagg used his own face as the model for Uncle Sam. A staggering 4 million copies of the poster were printed between 1917 and 1918, making it the most popular poster of all time.  Flagg was a member of the first Civilian Preparedness Committee organised in New York in 1917, and also served on the Committee of Pictorial Publicity (which was organised under the federal government’s Committee on Public Information). He went on to produce over 40 works in support of the war effort, including other well-known designs, such as Wake up America and Tell that to the Marines! Other activities included offering a free portrait to anyone who purchased a $1000 liberty bond, and writing and supervising the production of American Red Cross and U.S. Marine films.

The popularity of Flagg’s Uncle Sam poster resulted in its adaption and re-issue for World War II (400,000 copies printed). Flagg presented a copy to President Roosevelt and told him the story of using his own face. Roosevelt was impressed – ‘I congratulate you on your resourcefulness in saving model hire. Your method suggests Yankee forebears.’ (Flagg in fact was also to produce a poster for Roosevelt’s re-election campaign).

Although there have been numerous representations of Uncle Sam over the years, it is Flagg’s that has been the most enduring, his own face providing a personal face for the government to enable it to mobilise its people, to tell them to enlist, to buy bonds, and to help them to understand what was needed of them during wartime. Popular as the image was with many, the exhortation to duty and sacrifice did not sit well with everyone – some posters were defaced, leading a group of New York women to urge Congress to make the defacement of war posters a federal crime (– for a compelling account of how the relationship between the American government and its people was re-made during WWI and the impact on civil rights, see Christopher Capozzola’s Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the making of the modern American citizen, Oxford University Press, 2008. British Library shelfmark YC.2009.a.22).

And the afterlife of the image has been very interesting. Its copyright-free status has resulted in it being used to advertise everything from cigarettes to laxatives; it has been enlisted as anti-American propaganda by other nations, and most notably perhaps, the image was given a rather different ‘reverse’ face and appearance during the anti-Vietnam war campaign.

For more on the whirlwind life of Flagg see Susan E. Meyer’s entertaining and copiously illustrated James Montgomery Flagg, New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1974. British Library shelfmark X.423/2209


04 June 2013

The Secretary: a journey with Hillary Clinton

Kim Ghattas (the secretary front cover)
Above: the cover of Ghattas' book, 'The Secretary: a journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the heart of American power'

As the sun bathes central London it seems like the best possible time to start this year's Summer Scholars programme. On Friday Kim Ghattas, BBC State Department Radio and TV Correspondent, will open the season with a talk drawing from her new book, 'The Secretary'.

Ghattas, who grew up in Beirut during the civil war, has worked as the BBC's State Department Correspondent since 2008 and has drawn on her earlier personal experiences as well what she has seen from the front row of U.S. diplomacy to open up this world to a new audience. With Hillary Clinton as the main focus the book looks at how she handled a range of issues in the first Obama administration, from the relationship with Asia, to the Arab uprisings, to crisis spurred by the diplomatic cables revealed by WikiLeaks. Friday's talk will provide an introduction to the book, as well as a Q&A session and a chance to discuss the issues raised with other attendees over a tea or coffee at the end.

For Team Americas this is a timely talk to be hosting as our intern, Catherine, wades through political letters relating to the Civil War, part of the final steps of the Civil War digitisation programme. If you would like to attend the talk is this Friday lunchtime, places are free and you can find full details here.


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