With all the cheerful talk last week about a nuclear confrontation with North Korea, a number of people in my social media feeds have been obsessing about how much our collective civil defense skills have eroded since the 1960s. However, a quick trip to the National Archives digital collections has reassured me that we have nothing to worry about even if President Trump’s golf handicap goes up this week and he needs to change the narrative by showing Kim Jong-un a thing or two. In fact, as this pamphlet issued by the United States government in 1955 points out, nuclear fallout “is nothing more than particles of matter in the air, made radioactive by nuclear or thermonuclear explosions.”

Isn’t that a relief?

Now, should you hear that a nuclear war has commenced with North Korea, you must turn on the radio immediately to learn in what direction, if any, you ought to flee. Don’t flee on the New York subway, as trains are running very irregularly nowadays. But fleeing is not always the best idea anyway, as it turns out, so consider sheltering in place. If you are not completely vaporized in the blast radius of a direct hit, the good news is that an ordinary wood frame house can protect you from 50% of the radiation from a nearby blast. Better yet, you can cut those numbers dramatically by going down to the basement (don’t forget to bring to your laundry, a book, a box of granola bars and a bottle of water.) Even better? Pile sandbags around the perimeter walls of the basement. The truly well prepared people, of course, will have “an underground shelter with three feet of earth above it,” which “will give you almost complete protection if it is equipped with a door and an air filter.” But obviously you can only keep so many people down there, so you may want to run over to Walmart to buy a long gun before the Back to School sale ends.

Photograph of a model Fallout Shelter, preferably with three feet of earth on top. (National Archives, RG 311)
Photograph of a model Fallout Shelter, preferably with three feet of earth on top. (National Archives, RG 311)

As the pamphlet explains, you can basically think of the experience of surviving a nuclear attack as similar to surviving a tornado, except it takes a little longer for the all clear to sound. DO: have everything you need for about five days, including reading matter. DON’T: get “panicky” or “discouraged.”

For God’s sake, don’t get discouraged. (But you may have to stop making fun of old Uncle Fred in the tin foil hat and tennis shoes, because it turns out he was right all along.)

To conclude? It’s natural “to worry about the forces science has unlocked. We would not be intelligent beings otherwise. But this problem can be solved — as others have been — by American ingenuity and careful preparation.”

Good night — and good luck!

Claire Potter is Professor of History at The New School and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow Claire on Twitter.