Learning From the Past: Survival Under Atomic Attack

Avatar Gaye Levy  |  Updated: June 28, 2021
Learning From the Past: Survival Under Atomic Attack

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A lot of retrospective pieces are being written about the Great Depression.  Between blog articles, eBooks, and the first-hand memoirs of those that grew up during the period, it seems that preppers can not learn enough about how people survived during this period of economic woe.

On the other hand, within the blogging world, I don’t see much being written about the Cold War period.  Perhaps I am not looking hard enough.  Or perhaps it is there but being overshadowed by concerns of the next Great Depression.

Learning From the Past Survival Under Atomic Attack | Backdoor Survival

In any case, back during the Cold War days of 1947 to 1991, the US Government as well as its citizens were apprehensive of a potential nuclear bomb attack from Russia.  That was “the end of the world as we know it” scenario of the era.  It was an era peppered with the do’s and don’ts of survival as well as the commercial proliferation of bomb shelters, survival gear, and survival food items.

Additionally, the US Department of Civil Defense was active in issuing all kinds of educational material to the public.  The twofold intent was first, to educate citizens as to how to shelter in the event of a nuclear bomb attack while.  Secondarily, the OCD (as the Office of Civil Defense was called) spent a good deal of time and effort assuring the public that the likelihood of danger was minimal.

This all seems contradictory to me, but then, over the years the government has not changed much and I am certain that then, as now, contradiction was considered “business as usual”.  You might even call it propaganda.

A Brief History Lesson

Interestingly enough, as I look back in time, right around 1970 and 1971 and at the beginning of my career, I worked at a decommissioned Nike missile base in Bothell, Washington (near Seattle).  The underground building had been converted in to a bunkered office for the then-called Office of Emergency Preparedness.  It was one of six similar centers built during the late 1960s.

The structure itself was totally subterranean and it was designed to be reasonably survivable in the event of natural or man-made disasters.  (It now serves as the Region Eight headquarters for FEMA.)

Little did I know then that I would be totally consumed by prepping and preparedness later in life.

The missile’s housed in Bothell were the Nike Hercules.  These nuclear-tipped anti-aircraft missiles were intended to protect Seattle and environs from Soviet bombers, should war break out. They were removed in 1974.

Today I am sharing with you some of the materials that were published by the Office of Civil Defense during the cold war era.  Depending on your perspective, you may consider the materials to be educational, humorous, silly or simply another instance of control seeking propaganda.  Regardless of how you feel about it, I find the materials to be a fascinating glimpse in to our not so distant history.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.

Survival Under Attack – The Book

Survival Under Atomic Attack was the title of a booklet issued by the Civil Defense Office in 1950. It was broadly released, with many local governments and utility districts distributing copies to their continuants and customers.

The booklet consisted of 32 pages including four pages in the center of the booklet that we designed to be removed and used as a quick reference.

The exact words were:  “Remove this sheet and keep it with you until you’ve memorized it.”

Learning From the Past Survival Under Atomic Attack | Backdoor Survival

Here are portions of the text.


Atomic bombs hold more death and destruction than man ever before has wrapped up in a single package, but their over-all power still has very definite limits. Not even hydrogen bombs will blow the earth apart or kill us all by radioactivity.

Modern A-bombs can cause heavy damage 2 miles away, but doubling their power would extend that range only to 2.5 miles. To stretch the damage range from 2 to 4 miles would require a weapon more than 8 times the rated power of present models.

In most atom raids, blast and heat are by far the greatest dangers that people must face. Radioactivity alone would account for only a small percentage of all human deaths and injuries, except in underground or underwater explosions.

In small amounts, radioactivity seldom is harmful. Even when serious radiation sickness follows a heavy dosage, there is still a good chance for recovery.

Six Survival Secrets for Atomic Attacks

1. Try To Get Shielded

If you have time, get down in a basement or subway. Should you unexpectedly be caught out-of-doors, seek shelter alongside a building, or jump in any handy ditch or gutter.

2. Drop Flat On Ground Or Floor
To keep from being tossed about and to lessen the chances of being struck by falling and flying objects, flatten out at the base of a wall, or at the bottom of a bank.

3. Bury Your Face In Your Arms
When you drop flat, hide your eyes in the crook of your elbow. That will protect your face from flash burns, prevent temporary blindness and keep flying objects out of your eyes.

4. Don’t Rush Outside Right After A Bombing
After an air burst, wait a few minutes then go help to fight fires. After other kinds of bursts wait at least 1 hour to give lingering radiation some chance to die down.

5. Don’t Take Chances With Food Or Water In Open Containers
To prevent radioactive poisoning or disease, select your food and water with care. When there is reason to believe they may be contaminated, stick to canned and bottled things if possible.

6. Don’t Start Rumors
In the confusion that follows a bombing, a single rumor might touch off a panic that could cost your life.


1. Strive For “Fireproof Housekeeping”
Don’t let trash pile up, and keep waste paper in covered containers. When an alert sounds, do all you can to eliminate sparks by shutting off the oil burner and covering all open flames.

2. Know Your Own Home
Know which is the safest part of your cellar, learn how to turn off your oil burner and what to do about utilities.

3. Have Emergency Equipment And Supplies Handy
Always have a good flashlight, a radio, first-aid equipment and a supply of canned goods in the house.

4. Close All Windows And Doors And Draw The Blinds
If you have time when an alert sounds, close the house up tight in order to keep out fire sparks and radioactive dusts and to lessen the chances of being cut by flying glass. Keep the house closed until all danger is past.

5. Use the Telephone Only For True Emergencies
Do not use the phone unless absolutely necessary. Leave the lines open for real emergency

If you are interested in reading the full text or downloading the full booklet, you can find it here:

Full text available to read online (and a good read!):  Survival Under Atomic Attack
Scanned copy of the original booklet in PDF format:  Survival Under Atomic Attack

Survival Under Atomic Attack: The Movie

There is more.

In 1950, The Office of Civil Defense also prepared a short movie in 1950 explaining the dangers of the atomic bomb, the effects of radiation and how to protect oneself if caught in the open or in the home. The movie is, of course, in the public domain so don’t get suckered into buying it when you can view it online or download it for free.

You can also download the movie Survival Under Attack Movie here for free (check out the download options the left part of the screen.)

The Final Word

As cynical as I tend to be these days, I find that some of this information, although dated, is still valid.  Yes, some of it seems kind of silly and misinformed given what we know now.  But still, the slice of history represented in the book and the movie are significant to understanding that back in the day, preparedness was alive and well, albeit misguided by today’s standards.

In closing, I have one more short clip to share.  As you listen, keep in mind that his was produced in 1961.  So perhaps we are not the first generation to prep . . . and also not the first to have a bit of fun!

Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!

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Survival is all about learning to fend for yourself. Here are some of the emergency medical supplies that belong in every household first aid kit – and every bomb shelter!  For more ideas, read Fast Track Tip #10: 8 Uncommon First Aid Items.

iOSAT Potassium Iodide Tablets, 130 mg (14 Tablets):  These were backordered for weeks at a  highly inflated price-wise after Fukushima.  Be sure to get a package now for each family member.  The way these tabs work is that they fill the thyroid gland with potassium iodide, thus reducing the chance that harmful radioactive iodine will enter and cause sickness or cancer.  For more information, see Using Potassium Iodide Following a Nuclear Incident.

The Survival Medicine Handbook: A Guide for When Help is Not on the Way: This book teaches how to deal with all the likely medical issues you will face in a disaster situation, including strategies to keep your family healthy even in the worse scenarios. It covers skills such as performing a physical exam, transporting the injured patient, and even how to suture a wound. This medical reference belongs in every survival library.

Quikclot Sport Brand Advanced Clotting Sponge: A must for any first aid or emergency kit, Quikclot Sport stops moderate to severe bleeding until further medical help is available.

Israeli Battle Dressing, 6-inch Compression Bandage: This is another inexpensive, yet critical item. Combat medics, trauma doctors, and emergency responders all recommend this Israeli Battle Dressing (IBD) for the treatment of gunshot wounds, puncture wounds, deep cuts, and other traumatic hemorrhagic injuries.

New-Skin Liquid Bandage, First Aid Liquid Antiseptic:  I have been using New Skin for years.  It is an antiseptic, invisible, flexible, and waterproof.  It works.

First Voice Self-Adherent Stretch Bandage (Pack of 10):  I first learned about self-adhesive bandages when my dog came home from the vet such a bandage wrapped around his leg.  A light went off telling me I needed to add some to my first-aid kit.  And so I did.  This is a fantastic price and rivals the price at the farm supply.

Emergency Mylar Thermal Blankets (Pack of 10): I do believe in helping my neighbors in the community so a supply of these will be handy to hand out to those in need. You will be surprised at how warm these will keep you. Be sure to test one out in advance so that you have the confidence to trust the blanket in an emergency.

Where There Is No Doctor: Hesperian’s classic manual, Where There Is No Doctor, is perhaps the most widely-used health care manual in the world. Also available as a free chapter downloads at the Hesperian website.

Spark Naturals Essential Oils: My first line of defense for minor ailments and illness is essential oils.A good option to start with is the “Health and Wellness” kit that comes  packaged in a tin and includes a brochure with suggested uses for each of the oils.  As kits, these oils are already discounted but as an added bonus, you get an additional 10% off with discount code BACKDOORSURVIVAL at checkout.


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9 Responses to “Learning From the Past: Survival Under Atomic Attack”

  1. Great article, Gaye! If anyone hasn’t seen it yet, may I recommend “The Day After,” an ABC TV movie released in 1983? We were assigned to watch it in film school; our professor considered it one of the most effective/frightening depictions of nuclear war. He was right…it’s still scary as heck almost 35 years after its release! I believe it’s available on DVD, and you can also watch the whole thing on YouTube.

    • After you’ve watched that, look for the 1984 BBC docudrama, “Threads” – it’s even more realistic and scarier than “The Day After.”

  2. Good article.

    I have read recently -but can’t find it, of course- that a great deal of our Cold War Civil Defense preps were aimed at the Soviet Union to convince them that we believed nuclear war was survivable.

    The idea was that if the USSR believed that we believed in survivability, our threats would be far more credible, our deterrence far stronger. There is something to be said for that, especially since even in the Cuban Missile Crisis, it worked.

    I was one of the kids who were trained to run into the school storage closet, sit down with our heads between our knees and our arms over our heads, waiting for Mr Khrushchev to blow off an atomic bomb over our school. When my parents didn’t seem to take the threat seriously, I filched wine bottles out of the wastebasket, filled them with water, and out them in our pump room, which was off the basement, and had a concrete ceiling. Candle stubs and matches, as well.

    We had Nike sites in on the lakefront in downtown Milwaukee and around the city, ready to detonate nuclear warheads in the air about 60 miles out to destroy incoming fleets of Soviet bombers. We weren’t aware at the time they had nuclear warheads, but they did. Imagine nuclear weapons right downtown in major cities.

    Those were some seriously scary times.

  3. When I was a child they taught us that hiding under our desks at school was going to save us from an atomic bomb blast and we had drills. All this did was frighten me to death and did nothing to keep us safe. People were building bomb shelters and did not have a clue about reality. It was a scary time to grow up, thinking the Russians were going to drop a bomb on your head any second.

  4. An interesting post!

    As someone whose first posting was to a (UK) military unit tasked with protection/transportation of nuclear material I find most of this is identical, although necessarily phrased differently (and with a very different emphasis), to the core (Fighting on the nuclear battlefield) curriculum we were exposed to (and is ‘still’ taught today). With similar advice and core data.

    I’d be interested to know just which bits you feel are ‘misleading’ or ‘have changed’. My own understanding/training has been ‘tempered’ by the knowledge that a great deal (almost all in fact) of the ‘extreme’ scare stories and ‘research’ published over the decades since has been funded/performed/published by ‘anti-nuclear inclined people/organisations’ (with agendas other than ‘truth’ being at the fore).

    Remember all those ‘decades of nuclear winter stories? Despite volcanoes exploding with many times more violence than the entire combined arsenals of the world .. and a year or two of nice sunsets and a few chilly winters.

    The ‘centuries/millennia of no-go highly radioactive zones’? Well as someone who has strolled [in the eighties] in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and [in the mid-nineties] strolled around a certain ‘Exclusion Zone’ in Kiev Oblast I guess we can dismiss that one as well?

    That’s not to dismiss the ‘local’ devastation and suffering but ‘away from ground zero’ effects will be more social/economic.

    Check out Nukemap (nuclearsecrecy.com) to ‘see’ the real effects (blast, thermal, radiation) and the radius of effects. Even in the ‘tiny’ UK (with a majority air-burst, only ‘hardened’ targets hit by ground-burst and with subsequent fallout) most of the country will be entirely ‘untouched’. Most of the ‘actual’ evidence shows that whilst fallout is lethal it will decay rapidly (seconds to days mostly, some possibly a month) and only a few hot-spots will remain so into years (1-5).

    The discussion has been hyped way too much and for reasons other than stated. So read these and accept most of what they still say remains valid (just my opinion). Consider your location (and nearby, and upwind, targets). A shelter (blast hardened) is only really necessary if targets are ‘relatively’ close by (within 50 km at a pessimistic/paranoid maximum). Prep fallout precautions if you’re ‘upwind’. But most people I suspect will need little to no specific preps (but a lot of general ones).

    Radiation? Unless you’re near ground zero (in which case radiation will be the least of your worries) or directly upwind (within 100 km) of a ground-burst I suspect most people will have no problems with fallout (and most areas will that do will experience levels equivalent to living next to a coal-mine spoil heap at worst).

    So? Be realistic and don’t panic! That was the agenda of many of those who ‘exaggerated’ data for their own ideological/political reasons.

  5. Fun to re-read what they used to say in the cold war days about prepping.
    The only real thing I keep in my preps specifically for nuclear events is some packs of Iosat Potassium Iodide. Taking this will block your thyroid from absorbing radioactive iodine, protecting it from serious radiation damage. It won’t help the rest of you, but a dead or cancerous thyroid would seriously complicate survival. More info at:
    But given how active Putin’s Russia has been lately and with the reckless talk from some presidential candidates, I’ve been thinking more on how to create an expedient fallout shelter in my basement. I’ve already got a space that is in a corner, so the basement walls are the start, and with a wooden wall that I’ve stacked canned goods and 5 gallon water containers against (water is a surprisingly good shielding material), so I just need to enclose the fourth wall as an emergency nears. I’m thinking the rest of the bottled water and RedBull cans, then whatever else I have that is heavy. I’ll also have to do something about shielding the roof of the shelter, but that would be last minute since the roof of my planned shelter space is used for living space on the first floor….

  6. Really great article. This information is ALWAYS timely and appropriate because of the world we live in.

    There has been a resurgence of interest in the cold war period or perhaps in spycraft in general. One of my favorite shows is called The Americans. Another one is Deutchland 83. And I loved the Tom Hanks movie Bridge of Spies.

    This article was very helpful, Gaye, because it takes the edge off the fear. My husband and I have done nothing to prepare for a nuclear event because we thought it was all or nothing.

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