Duck and Cover – Propaganda for the Atomic Age

Seminar Paper, 2010

12 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Content

1 Introduction

2 Source description

3 Source analysis

4 Pretext and Production of Duck and Cover
4.1 Federal Civil Defense Administration
4.2 Archer Productions Inc.
4.3 National Education Administration

5 Conclusion

6 Sources

7 Bibliography / Filmography

1 Introduction

“[..] the bomb had transformed not only military strategy and international relations, but the fundamental ground of culture and consciousness.” – Paul Boyer in by the Bombs Early Light

The dropping of two US nuclear bombs on Japan ended World War II in the Pacific. By then little was known about the pathological implications such an act of war would have on the Japanese civilian victims. The weapons had barely been tested before deployment and the potential consequences of the radioactive fallout were not yet fully understood. The first practical use of the bomb together with all its casualties initiated a future policy of deterrence. It was apparent what can happen if you go to war with a nuclear power. Still, no other nuclear weapon has ever since been deployed as an act of war.

In this research paper I will analyze the Duck and Cover propaganda short1 issued by the Federal Civil Defense Administration in the early 1950s as the primary source. I will focus on the content of the episode, its structural and cinematic means, and its desired and achieved affects toward its target audience. What were the reasons and goals behind this far-fetched and committed civil defense operation? Is it seen as an outspoken domestic act out of moral obligation from the government that comes with the responsibility of being a nuclear power? Was the nuclear fallout – which the film thoroughly neglects as a danger – really not known to the government at this point in time or was this knowledge deliberately held from the public? This last question defines greatly the core meaning of the film in historical terms. Eventually it determines whether Duck and Cover was merely a naïve piece of safety education or just a good excuse for conditioning a whole generation (as well as its parents) to the ideological challenges of the forthcoming decades of the Cold War.

This humble paper alone cannot answer all these questions but rather build a basis for extended research on the topic. Sources indicate that in government circles the secondary dangers that emanate from a nuclear blast like radioactive fall-out were at least partially known if not already scientifically proven at the time. The question about the decision to keep such knowledge from the broad public goes beyond the primary analysis this paper can provide.

2 Source description

The film Duck and Cover was produced by Archer Productions Incorporated through the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) in New York and officially published on January 7th, 1952. The black and white educational and/or training film was shown in and distributed to schools throughout the USA as well as the “Alert America Convoy Exhibit” which was visited by about 1.1 million people2, as well as broadcast on public television. The original version lasted 9 minutes and 15 seconds. Archer Productions Inc. was an advertisement agency based in New York that wanted to break into new markets. The script for the film needed the blessing from the National Education Administration (NEA), which is well documented in the credits at the beginning where this is officially stated3. The film was aimed at school children and their parents. Public schools were an easy to access target for this kind of propaganda. As Brown states in her essay on civil defense in American public education: “[..] public schools were a channel for the mass education of parents as well as children.”4 Distribution of films like this via the still young medium of television was not yet a focus, partly due to the indefinable coverage of TV sets throughout the nation. The official purpose of the film was to raise awareness for the nuclear threat during cold war times, to both calm and alert about the topic, and to give useful advice for behavior in case of a nuclear attack. Independent from what knowledge about the long-term effects of an atomic explosion might have been available to the filmmakers it was to give the impression that people can do something to help themselves when a nuclear blast happens. Subtextually it also serves the purpose of creating support for the military programs of the time in an effort of defense, and to bring the youngest of the country in line against the opposing political system, so to speak a classic piece of propaganda. The means of conveying the message through film other than through pamphlets or mere traditional classroom education takes into account the still awe-striking nature of the relatively young medium of film on children, which at the time was still mostly only to see in theatres. Film as a teaching method in schools was an extra-ordinary measure that supported the urging message and transcended the rather simple safety instructions into a nationwide civil defense context.

3 Source analysis

The cartoon character of the film – Bert, the turtle – is introduced by the theme song of Duck and Cover. The cartoon easily suits the objective of drawing the attention of the target audience and establishing friendly and trusting emotions towards the “hero” and his experiences. Bert not only draws attention and sympathy towards himself, but at the same time displays a good example for the things to follow. The live footage following the cartoon introduction then forms a classic educational succession of questions it wants the audience to be aware of and learn from. First, why is knowledge regarding behavior in case of a nuclear attack necessary? Second, what happens during a nuclear attack? Third, what are suggested tactics to keep one safe? However, all three questions are to some extent already answered in the initial cartoon scene and later answered in detail during the live footage montage.

During the cartoon scene the film works with the means of audio chorus and repetition to get the message across immediately whilst building a strong sense of recognition for later use of key phrases as well as the musical theme. Song and narrator address the audience directly. The choice of turtle combines a few important character traits that make it a preferable messenger to transport the information to children. The figure of the turtle is culturally charged with synonyms as wisdom and care5. The species has survived the ages because of its superior defensive shell design, and to make that point even stronger Bert is wearing a helmet. However, scriptwriter Mauer of Archer Productions Inc., who invented character Bert, apparently chose this animal because a turtle is as good as any other figure to amuse children and was a good way to illustrate the exercise6. Bert also shares phonetic similarities with Turt-le7. The film starts by showing us Bert walking down an alley slowly, plucking and enjoying flowers until a roll of dynamite sneaks into the picture from behind him. The proceeding shot reveals the source of the danger. It is an ape hanging from a tree with the dynamite on a stick. Bert immediately ducks and covers his extremities under his shell so the explosion will not hurt him. The dynamite explodes. The ape is gone and the tree is broken but Bert remains unharmed in his shell. The ape apparently undergoing its “monkey business” may be interpreted as a symbol for the foolishness with which it attacks the prepared turtle. The scene is underpinned by the theme song with the lyrics:

There was a turtle by the name of Bert, and Bert the turtle was very alert, when danger threatened him he never got hurt, he knew just what to do, he’d duck and cover, duck and cover, he did what we all must learn to do, you and you and you and you, duck and cover.

The introduction is followed by live footage of school children mimicking the turtle’s behavior in the event of an external threat, which is shown as an example of how all children in the US are being prepared for the worst case scenario during classes. The atomic bomb is only mentioned here as a danger “we all know about” and which “may be used against us”. The narrator then compares the importance of the safety instructions with those to prevent injuries from fires or automobile crashes. The logic behind this comparison implies that civilization is ready to meet the aforementioned threats and now must prepare for this new threat. The danger of the atomic bomb is described as a strong blast “that can smash in buildings and break windows all over town”. It can be identified by a bright light, which is “brighter than the sun”. The consequences of an atomic blast are again supported by cartoon images of a house and a tree partially breaking while Bert hides unharmed under his shell not far from the site. As the narrator points out: “If you will duck and cover like Bert, you will be much safer.” The second threat that is to be avoided by the audience is the possibility of severe skin burn: “[..] the atomic flash can burn you worse than a terrible sunburn.” Following this brief description of the indications of an atomic explosion the narrator goes on to explain the two scenarios in which an incident like this may occur. Again, the nuclear blast with warning is said to give the audience time to go back to safe places like their homes or the school. Such safe places are to be reached as fast as possible when one hears the warning siren. Repeatedly the narrator informs that an atomic bomb may strike at any time. In the event of an unwarned attack – identifiable by the flash of the blast – the children are advised to duck and cover quickly towards walls or under tables. The passage is supported through examples for suggested behavior by children on screen filmed at two New York public schools. Like the films target audience these children are apparently in between 6 and 14 years of age. Whenever exemplary children are picked to show a specific form of safety measure the names are repeated several times, supposedly as a means to make the scene stick with the audience. Further examples show the duck and cover drill by children in the street, while on their bike, in the school bus, even during a family picnic. Finally the narrator suggests exploring the topic in classroom discussion after the screening of the film to make sure everyone has fully understood the principle of duck and cover.

Apart from the overall use or value of the advice regarding behavior in case of an atomic attack the film serves the educational aim to give its audience a behavioral structure and at least to prevent minor injuries for the few people who might actually be in the blast radius which would be affected in the depicted way, meaning far away from ground zero not to be immediately vaporized and close enough to still be in danger of being hit by debris. The filmmakers make a point not to include alarming or threatening words like war or death. The tone throughout the film is calm. We see friendly faces, parents waving at their kids on sunny days, and of course everyone’s favorite turtle Bert. The image of a real or drawn mushroom cloud is avoided; rather the filmmakers use short pieces of overexposed film to mimic the “flash effect” of a nuclear blast. The film certainly conveys that the extraordinary incident will probably not happen but the audience may better be prepared.

4 Pretext and production of Duck and Cover

Three players with differing interests have to be named in the analysis of the pretext that led to the result which is Duck and Cover: the FCDA, the National Education Association (NEA) and the teaching profession in general, and Archer Productions Inc.

4.1 Federal Civil Defense Administration

The Federal Civil Defense Administration was directly appointed by President Harry Truman and founded on January 12, 1951 in the aftermath of the Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950. The FCDA was the first in a row of organizations that dealt with the issue of civil defense and acted as a supervisory and inspirational agency. The first measures taken to outfit the citizens with means of civil defense against a now possible nuclear attack by Soviet Russia were the Duck and Cover educational series and the evacuation route program. Later, after the successful testing of thermonuclear weapons by the USSR, fall-out shelter and bomb shelter programs followed as extended means of civil defense. The overall objective of civil defense is to minimize civilian casualties during times of war or a military attack on the US and to educate the public so this goal can be accomplished as well as possible. The FCDA’s funding was relatively weak compared with its task, so it mainly used its literal power as a government agency to access the public and spread the message about civil defense. Duck and Cover was therefore not to be made a huge ad campaign throughout the conventional media but aimed cost and task effective at school children and respectively their parents, the former being “America’s future”. Beside the necessity to educate the public towards behavior in case of an attack, the FCDA certainly wanted to show that something was being done to meet the concerns of the time and to diffuse the anxiety that had spread after the USSR obtained nuclear technology. However, an educational film regarding the bomb would also be a good messenger to extend the knowledge about who is actually threatening the US, as well as to rally support for the national defense strategy. The best choice for producing a film that would meet all those expectations therefore lay in the expertise of an advertisement film studio, people whose very job it is to convince their audience of the advantages of the advertised product.

4.2 Archer Productions Inc.

Duck and Cover was produced by Archer Productions Inc., a private advertising house. The initial meeting of Archer Productions, the FCDA and about 50 members of the NEA8 heavily influenced the final outcome of the educational film. One of the utmost principles in handling the matter of civil defense was to “eliminate any panic possibilities” as Archer Productions Inc. executive producer Leo M. Langlois stated9. The company approached the task at hand professionally and was largely responsible for the overall graphic quality of the film, meeting the demands of the FCDA and the NEA agreed to at the initial conference. Soon after the release of Duck and Cover, the company vanished from the market due to mismanagement in July 1952.10

4.3 National Education Administration

Early on schools11 were identified as the ideal carrier for the civil defense message, which more or less attained its immediacy from the Russians’ first successful launch of a nuclear weapon in 1949. As Brown states, “teachers, principals, educational planners, and education reformers used civil defense [..] as a political symbol to advance their more immediate professional concerns”12. So while the agenda for the civil defense films was clearly to raise awareness of the nuclear threat and teach instructions to minimize civilian casualties, Brown roots her argument on this meeting as an early and deliberate step of the NEA towards the National Defense Education Act which came into being in 1958 shortly after the Sputnik shock: „The new civil defense ultimately allowed educators to demonstrate the importance of the nation’s schools to national security, thereby justifying federal aid to education.“13 The jumping of the civil defense bandwagon by the majority of the teaching profession is also bound to the fact that after a rather liberal post-war mood in the gloom of the One World theme and the institution of the hopeful instrument of the UN, with the Russians gaining nuclear power, there was a conservative backlash in education in the shadow of the Red fear14. Eventually even progressive elements in the NEA would appreciate the seemingly harmless effects of using the schools for civil defense purposes as to avoid being accused of un-patriotic intentions. The public uniformity in this matter is striking in terms of the educator’s response to civil defense in the 1950s. “Civil defense in the schools [..] deflect both kinds of criticism of education: By its overt patriotic appeal it answered the anticommunist critics; by its embodiment of the principles of life adjustment in the most serious of contexts, it absorbed the criticisms of Bestor and like-minded individuals.”15


1 Initially planned to be a series of nine films.

2 Conelrad: All Things Atomic – The Golden Age of Homeland Security., 1999-2007. Last accessed 07/28/2010, The Citizen Kane of Civil Defense Pt.2.

3 Written and read out on screen by the narrator: “This is an official civil defense film produced in co-operation with the Federal Civil Defense Administration and in consultation with the Safety Commission of the National Education Association.”

4 Brown, JoAnne. “A Is for Atom, B Is for Bomb: Civil Defense in American Public Education, 1948-1963”, in The Journal of American History, Vol. 75/1, 1988, p.70.

5 Applied to the cultural realm of the US.

6 Conelrad, Interview with screenwriter Ray J. Mauer.

7 Conelrad, ibid.

8 Conelrad, The Citizen Kane of Civil Defense Pt.2.

9 Conelrad, Interview with Archer Productions Inc. executive producer Leo M. Langlois.

10 Conelrad, The Citizen Kane of Civil Defense Pt.4.

11 Truman’s slogan made it undeniable: „Education is our first line of defense“.

12 Brown. p.69.

13 Brown, p.70.

14 Brown, p.72.

15 Brown, p.74. Arthur Bestor criticized the so-called “life adjustment education” of the time – including teaching dressing and dinner manners – as distinctively “anti-intellectual”.

Excerpt out of 12 pages


Duck and Cover – Propaganda for the Atomic Age
Free University of Berlin  (John-F.-Kennedy-Institut)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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417 KB
Duck, Cover, Duck and Cover, Atom, atom bomb, h-bomb, Paul Boyer, FCDA, education, NEA, Conelrad, Bert, turtle, PSA, civil defense, propaganda
Quote paper
Andreas Schwarz (Author), 2010, Duck and Cover – Propaganda for the Atomic Age, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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