The rise and fall of the American fallout shelter
Whatever happened to fallout shelters? And would they have actually worked?
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In this episode of Vox Almanac, Vox’s Phil Edwards looks at the history behind one of the Cold War’s more unusual legacies — the fallout shelter. Of course, any history of the fallout shelter has to include nuclear proliferation, civil defense, Presidential politics, and a turtle named Bert.
The video above serves as a condensed history of the Cold War’s fallout shelter fad, from the kookily cheerful propaganda videos to the hobbled Federal agencies that tried to administer Civil Defense. Yes, it includes the classic Cold War film Duck and Cover, in which a bomb-fearing turtle named Bert teaches kids that hiding under their desks could be sufficient protection from nuclear annihilation.
Any history of fallout shelter culture (and Cold War propaganda) becomes an indirect history of Cold War nuclear escalation, from Hiroshima-sized bombs to hydrogen behemoths. As the nuclear threat increased in magnitude, the absurdity of civil defense amped up simultaneously.
This video (and a day spend trawling the Internet Archive for darkly humorous videos) provides a more intimate portrait of Cold War paranoia as it was lived. Paired with Kenneth Rose’s comprehensive book about fallout shelter culture, it’s a look at daily life with the bomb — even when that daily life included the occasional jaunt to a thick-walled concrete bunker a few feet underground.
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