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‘The Nuclear War Fun Book’: Morbid laffs from the end of the world
06.14.2017
12:26 pm
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The prospect of catastrophic nuclear war has an interesting effect on the human psyche. My dad used to work for a man named Herman Kahn, who became famous in the early 1960s for writing a book called Thinking About the Unthinkable, which sought to analyze outcomes in which some portion of humanity survived the conflict more or less normally. Kahn’s reward for this was being savagely caricatured in the form of the Groeteschele character played by Walter Matthau in Sidney Lumet’s 1964 drama Fail-Safe. (Just a few months earlier, Kahn, along with Wernher von Braun, John von Neumann, and Edward Teller, became one of the quartet of people that went into the creation of Peter Sellers’ delirious eponym in Stanely Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.)

The Reagan years were an interesting time to be terrified of a war between the Russians and the Americans. For whatever reason the year 1983 was the, er, “ground zero” for the trope in pop culture. You had the absolute non plus ultra of “event TV” in ABC’s televised movie The Day After, which on November 20, 1983, imagined a nuclear warhead taking out Lawrence, Kansas. The same year saw the release of the grim Jane Alexander movie Testament and the sprightly hacker fantasy WarGames, both of which drew narrative oomph from the prospect of mushroom clouds over America. And of course the Wolverines of Red Dawn would beat the Russians guerrilla style a year later.

In 1982, however, a delicious and peculiar bit of black comedy hit the bookshelves, a parody of a children’s activity book that was executed almost too well—squint, and you just might mistake it for an earnest and actual fun book for the Armageddon to come. Which might be a backhanded way of saying the book isn’t really all that funny. But it sure is interesting.

The book was written by Victor Langer and Walter Thomas. You have to give them credit, they really nailed the tone they were going after, from the earnest assurance that some “prewar” activities have been included so that kids don’t have to wait until nuclear disaster strikes to begin having fun, to the bleak and vivid prospect of a “paper doll nuclear wardrobe,” which enables you to dress up mom and dad in a bodybag.

I don’t know much about the two authors, except that parodies such as this was Langer’s stock in trade for a while there—other titles included The IRS Coloring Book, Surviving Your Baby and Child, and a parody of The Whole Earth Catalog under the title The Whole Whog Catalog that somehow featured an introduction by none other than Chevy Chase.

Now that we’re annoyed at the Russians again, this book weirdly seems very much of our own time somehow, which might account for the startling prices the book is fetching on Amazon.
 

 

 
More from this remarkable little book after the jump…...
 

READ ON
Posted by Martin Schneider
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06.14.2017
12:26 pm
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‘A Short Vision’: The gory anti-nuclear cartoon that traumatized an entire generation


 
A Short Vision is one of the most influential pieces of animation ever created; it is also one of the most disturbing and controversial. In 1952, the very first successful hydrogen bomb was detonated, and it was over 450 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Horrified at such potential for destruction, Hungarian-British animator Peter Foldes and his wife, Joan, began working on a short cartoon in their kitchen, and in 1956 A Short Vision was aired on The Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan attempted to prepare his audience for the horror of the film, but his introduction stopped short of warning viewers they were about to watch an interpretation of the nuclear holocaust, complete with bloody, melting faces:

“Just last week you read about the H-bomb being dropped. Now two great English writers, two very imaginative writers—I’m gonna tell you if you have youngsters in the living room tell them not to be alarmed at this ‘cause it’s a fantasy, the whole thing is animated—but two English writers, Joan and Peter Foldes, wrote a thing which they called A Short Vision in which they wondered what might happen to the animal population of the world if an H-bomb were dropped. It’s produced by George K. Arthur and I’d like you to see it. It is grim, but I think we can all stand it to realize that in war there is no winner.”

While the short received a lot of praise from audiences and critics, many were angry and disturbed by such graphic depictions of the apocalypse. To be fair, most viewers were probably expecting something more along the lines of Julie Andrews, or at least Señor Wences. Undeterred by the backlash, Foldes continued producing groundbreaking, socially conscious animation throughout his career, including the first computer-animated film to be nominated for an Academy Award, La Faim in 1974. The short is a violent tale of inequality in which a gluttonous man is eventually devoured by the starving masses—you know, for kids!
 

Posted by Amber Frost
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06.12.2015
10:25 am
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Handy tips from the 1970s on how to survive a nuclear attack

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For some inexcusable reason, I have merged the first time I saw one of these Protect & Survive infommercials with watching kids TV on a Saturday or summer holiday morning. Let’s say, I saw them after re-runs of The Banana Splits and before My White Horses. I’m no doubt wrong but that’s how I like to remember these “chilling” ads instructing the plucky British nation on how best to “protect and survive” a nuclear attack. Fat chance, I hear you say, and I would certainly agree—as the government’s suggestion of some quick DIY (taking doors off their hinges to form a makeshift shelter) and stockpiling food, water and medical supplies within the allotted four minute warning before a nuclear attack was highly optimistic.

Twenty of these short Protect and Survive films were made in 1975, and were certainly screened at some point during that decade and during the 1980s. I know because I recall thinking it very unfortunate that my parents had glass doors throughout their house, which meant any unhinging or using of these doors as possible shelter was utterly pointless. It struck me then that such makeshift bunkers made from leaning a door against a wall and reinforcing it with furniture, suitcases, bedding and, er, sandbags (as if anyone had these lying around) were in reality coffins, graveyards for the millions of English, Scots and Welsh who would have been wiped out in an attack.

Of course the UK government knew this as they had secretly run a mock nuclear attack to estimate the actual number of dead and injured. Called “Operation Square Leg,” the exercise assumed that “131 nuclear weapons would fall on Britain with a total yield of 205 megatons: 69 ground burst; 62 air burst.” This would leave 29 million dead or 53% of the population; with 7 million or 12% seriously injured; and 19 million or 35% of the population remaining as “short-term survivors.” In other words, we were all fucking doomed.

Still, perhaps those in charge hoped these little films would offer a tiny glimmer of hope to those who thought the government knew best, or in my case some scary Saturday morning entertainment. The voice-over for these infomercials was supplied by Patrick Allen—-who was also at this time presenting a host of adverts selling timber-framed homes to first-time buyers. Some of his lines from these films were re-recorded and inserted into “Two Tribes” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood notably:

“Mine is the last voice you will ever hear. Do not be alarmed.”

 

Posted by Paul Gallagher
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10.29.2014
10:11 am
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Watch Jean-Luc Godard’s lovelorn post-nuke short film, ‘The New World’
06.18.2014
09:45 am
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Godard fans usually swoon over Alphaville, his 1965 dystopic sci-fi romance noir, but not everyone knows about The New World, its 20-minute predecessor released two years earlier. The New World was one of four films from Ro.Go.Pa.G., an all-star collection of shorts featuring, Godard (the only Frenchman) and Italian directors Ugo Gregoretti, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Roberto Rossellini (the title is a combination of their names). Honestly, all of the shorts are great—Pasolini’s La Ricotta has Orson Welles playing a director reminiscent of Pasolini himself—but Godard’s is arguably the strangest and most lovely, with its non sequitur post-nuclear romance.

The plot is a little more cerebral than your average fallout dystopia: An atomic bomb explodes above Paris, but the city is left unharmed—or so it seems. Our protagonist begins to notice changes in his beloved Alessandra. She is flip, confused, and forgetful, as are other Parisians. What he first assumes are spurned affections turns out to be rapid changes in personality brought on by the bomb. Noticing the changes in himself as well, he attempts to chronicle this strange new world beset by a quiet disaster. 

Part 2 is here.
 

Posted by Amber Frost
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06.18.2014
09:45 am
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The U.S. government tries to convince citizens to stay put after nuclear attack, 1951
05.08.2014
10:12 am
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“You know Fred, actually, staying in a city to help after an atomic attack is not nearly as dangerous as a lot of people think. The danger of, well, lingering radiation is not really very serious. After an atomic air burst, the danger of radiation and falling debris is over within… a minute and a half.”

You don’t say?

The Federal Civil Defense Administration produced a glut of Cold War misinformation and propaganda, but 1951’s Our Cities Must Fight is among the most baffling. An attempt to discourage urbanites from abandoning their fair cities after nuclear attack, the film fictionalizes a conversation between two patriotic newspapermen bemoaning the “take to the hills fraternity.” The men go on to imply that leaving a nuked city would be “pretty close to treason,” and then pile on the insane justifications—you couldn’t get through the traffic anyway! We’ll need you to fight fires and keep going to work! Oh, and my favorite—radiation isn’t really that big a deal!

I’m not sure if there really was a totally unrealistic perception that a post-nuclear city could still function, but I can’t imagine most Americans would stick around to polish the brass on the Titanic after an atomic bomb hit it—assuming of course that there were any survivors. With the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still fresh, it’s difficult to believe the FCDA ever thought anyone would stick around because of a silly government film!
 

Posted by Amber Frost
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05.08.2014
10:12 am
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Before he skewered McCarthy, Edward R. Murrow told US civilians to watch out for Soviet planes
05.05.2014
10:36 am
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Ah, Edward R. Murrow, the staid, chain-smoking voice of reason with a haircut you could set your watch by! Most famous for his 1954 See It Now exposés on Joseph McCarthy, Murrow produced the first major media critique of the Senator’s Red Scare witch hunt. Not a man to pull punches, he concluded the first of his three episodes on McCarthy with this condemnation: 

“His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between the internal and the external threats of Communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men.”

The next episode focused on Annie Lee Moss, a black army clerk brought to trial by McCarthy under accusations of communist activity. The absurdity of his charges catching up to him, McCarthy made an appearance on See it Now a few weeks later, only to accuse Murrow of communist collusion, accelerating the wane of his creditability. That December, his reputation shot, he was effectively censured by the Senate, thanks in no small part to Murrow’s critical work.

However, like most Americans at the time, Murrow was not immune to the pervasive fears of the Cold War, and was a frequent participant in US civil defense propaganda. His 1953 film, One Plane, One Bomb was made just a year before his indictment of McCarthy, and although the film uses the name and format of his trusted newsmagazine program See It Now, it was commissioned by the The US Air Force and only aired in theaters. For anyone familiar with the genre, the film is a fairly predictable simulation of a terrifying doomsday scenario—New York is bombed for lack of adequate citizen vigilance.

One Plane, One Bomb “encouraged” every day Americans join the Ground Observer Corps, a civilian volunteer program put together in World War Two. Though the Ground Observer Corps reached 750,000 in ranks by 1952’s Operation Skywatch, it’s a little baffling that the US invested so much in training private citizen volunteers to sit at posts and basically “look up,” in hopes of alleviating (or perhaps even preventing) nuclear attack. The film is one of a slew of civil defense videos produced at the time, and while it’s not the only one Murrow had a hand in, it was the only one that conflated a piece of paid military propaganda with actual broadcast journalism. Aside from the obvious conflict of interest in associating a military film with the journalism of See It Now, it’s fascinating to watch Murrow, a man most revered for his cool-headed critique of Cold War panic, producing the very material that exacerbated nuclear anxieties.
 

Posted by Amber Frost
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05.05.2014
10:36 am
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‘The House in the Middle’: How to survive a nuclear war through good housekeeping!
06.04.2013
11:38 am
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I hadn’t realized, until seeing this 1954 PSA The House In the Middle, that the possibility of nuclear apocalypse was apparently welcomed as an opportunity to bolster American housekeeping. “A house that’s neglected,” it explains, “is the house that may be doomed, in the atomic age.” No surprise then, is there, that the film was sponsored by the National Paint, Varnish and Lacquer Association?

“In the house on the right are all the hallmarks of untidy housekeeping—newspapers and magazines lying about. And cluttered tables. Now the house on the left is identical to the other but spic and span. Trash has been thrown away. Tabletops are tidy. Two homes, one a firetrap, even under ordinary conditions, the other cleaned up and fresh with better, safer housekeeping, both ready for the test bomb.”

Guess how they fare in the blast..?

It really does appear, watching this, that there was a Fifties effort to slyly substitute God with the atom bomb—and use the latter’s constant shadow to enforce almost Victorian values, as if a nuclear blast could be counted on to perform a kind of reverse rapture, ripping the sinful from the face of the earth (presuming that those who like to play it fast and loose with old newspapers and magazines could be described as “sinful”), and leaving behind, if not the good, then the irreproachably anally retentive, who would surely know the very zenith of schadenfreude when their neighbors were incinerated upon the sword of their own slovenliness!
 

 
Hearty thanks to “Dr” Ian Klinke

Posted by Thomas McGrath
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06.04.2013
11:38 am
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CONTAINS NO NARCOTICS: The Legend of the Civil Defense Boxes
05.06.2013
11:48 am
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Here’s a little quiz for you: What’s the less obvious message this fallout shelter sign communicated to early-to-mid-60s Jazz musicians and Beatniks? Psst, it has very little to do with the Cold War…

That’s right, to more bohemian types, these once familiar signs were a loud and clear dog whistle that there were very likely government-issued narcotics, free for the taking, inside that building. I come from a family that includes professional musicians, and so I had heard of this “legend.” Is it true?

Back in the 60s and even into the 70s, we all wondered not if we’d die in a nuclear holocaust, but when. With both Soviet as well as American nuclear arsenals pointed at each other, a loud sneeze by Dr Strangelove could set everything off and then, before you know it,  those of us unlucky enough to survive would all be plunged into the middle of nuclear winter a la Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

As a kid in Washington Heights I remember hearing them testing the air raid sirens along Riverside Drive towards the end of summer, and man was that creepy. Our building had one of these signs and our basement was indeed equipped with radiation-proof walls. Under President Kennedy, an idea was hatched to provide radioactive fallout-proof shelter for all Americans, along with at least two solid weeks of food, water and medical supplies. Before this enormously expensive plan got scrapped, perhaps as many as 100,000 “fallout shelters” were built, and in New York city there are still thousands of them left, in the basements and sub-basements of apartment buildings and elsewhere.

In the event of the air-raid sirens going off for real, citizens were supposed to ensconce themselves deep within the fallout shelters. After the bombs had been dropped due to a Soviet counter-assault (which seemed inevitable given the amount of hardware we had deployed in Europe), there’d theoretically be at least a few survivors that would be kinda bummed out and in need of some serious chemically-assisted chillin’ (if not actual pain relief), so certain special types of those civil defense boxes came equipped, legend had it, with powerful narcotics that were of a very high quality. Not a lot of people knew this at the time, particularly as the narcotics-containing boxes were cleverly disguised by Federal masterminds (keep reading).

Operationally, when visiting the home of another druggy friend, if the fallout shelter sign was seen on the outside of the building, an expedition would often be mounted straight to the basement. After the likely door was identified, the arc of a claw hammer might briefly be seen knocking off a lock, or some other means utilized to open that door, accompanied by muffled laughter and a quiet susurrus. If the location of the civil defense barrels and boxes was verified, those boxes labeled NO NARCOTICS INSIDE (no, I’m not shitting you) would be shortly thereafter opened and the government-issued narcotics inside removed and consumed.
 

 
Could it really be true that the basements of apartment buildings throughout New York and other cities once housed civil defense boxes stuffed with high-grade government-issued drugs? Well lo and behold, today I discovered that the legends were true.

Trolling the Internet thingy I ran across the website of the Civil Defense Museum and spent several hours pouring over the photos and data pertaining to the good ole’ nuclear civil defense days. As it turns out, “Medical Kit A” (serving 50 to 65 persons) contained a bottle of 500 phenobarbital pills, while Medical Kit C (serving 300 to 325 persons) contained three bottles of 1000 phenobarbitals EACH. 3000 phenobarbitals could keep a musician and his “fallout boys” cool for, like, a solid week or two. At least.

Amusingly, the boxes also contained alcohol, and this would certainly have been considered a nice bonus for someone trying to score. And yes, the boxes did contain actual medical supplies in addition to the drugs, though what happened to those the legends never described.

What I still find amazing is the naivety expressed by those who ran this program, that they believed their diabolically clever NO NARCOTICS INSIDE box-labeling would actually PREVENT hardened druggies from cracking open the boxes, instead of the far more likely result, basically ADVERTISING the presence of powerful narcotics. No doubt there must be all sorts of conspiracy theories to explain this, but it seems easier to me to believe that the folks running the civil defense program just weren’t that bright.

Posted by Em
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05.06.2013
11:48 am
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Dr Strangelove for Real: Inside the Apocalyptic Soviet Doomsday Machine
09.22.2009
06:13 pm
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Almost the flip-side of this post, How the Soviet Menace Was Hyped, Wired’s Nicholas Thompson takes us inside the Soviet Doomsday Machine so we can see how our Neo-Conservative fueled paranoia about them started a feedback loop that could have killed us all:

The point of the system, he explains, was to guarantee an automatic Soviet response to an American nuclear strike. Even if the US crippled the USSR with a surprise attack, the Soviets could still hit back. It wouldn’t matter if the US blew up the Kremlin, took out the defense ministry, severed the communications network, and killed everyone with stars on their shoulders. Ground-based sensors would detect that a devastating blow had been struck and a counterattack would be launched.

The technical name was Perimeter, but some called it Mertvaya Ruka, or Dead Hand. It was built 25 years ago and remained a closely guarded secret. With the demise of the USSR, word of the system did leak out, but few people seemed to notice. In fact, though Yarynich and a former Minuteman launch officer named Bruce Blair have been writing about Perimeter since 1993 in numerous books and newspaper articles, its existence has not penetrated the public mind or the corridors of power. The Russians still won’t discuss it, and Americans at the highest levels?

Posted by Richard Metzger
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09.22.2009
06:13 pm
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