Posts Tagged ‘Civil Defense’


“Mortuary Services in Civil Defense” (1956)

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Civil Defense is easy to mock, and I've done a little mocking of it on here myself. I don't have strong feelings on the topic. I don't really buy the argument that it was totally just cynical (or duped) propaganda, but I am also dubious that it would have had a truly significant effect in the event of a full nuclear exchange. I remain fairly on-the-fence on the question about whether it placated people into believing that nuclear war was survivable, or whether it instead scared the bejesus out of people. Did Civil Defense make the bomb seem more acceptable, or more horrific? Or, perhaps more likely, some kind of amalgam of those contradictory emotions?

But it's hard to argue that Civil Defense wasn't behind some of the most surreal products of the Cold War. It makes sense that it would: anything that involves trying to make "rational" and "calm" sense of nuclear attacks ends up looking like a bad Dr. Strangelove impersonation when put up against the horror of nuclear war.

Case in point: this week's document is a pamphlet, "Mortuary Services in Civil Defense," produced by the Federal Civil Defense Administration in 1956. It's not your standard "after the bomb falls" guide: it's not about re-starting a new civilization, it's about disposing of the mortal remains of the previous one.1

Click to see the full PDF.

The pamphlet sets up a dichotomy between "natural disasters" and "nuclear bomb disasters," which is an interesting linguistic decision. From the pamphlet:

In natural disasters, facilities available in every city can usually take care of the dead. Following an enemy attack with modern nuclear weapons, however, particularly in densely populated areas, existing facilities could not handle the large number of casualties. ...

To plan and organize for the disposal of the bodies of millions of civilians killed in an enemy nuclear attack is a grim business, even for those trained and accustomed to the work of mortuaries. The individual care we traditionally bestow on our deceased will not be physically possible when the dead must be counted in the thousands. However, FCDA, with the assistance of its Religious Advisory Committee, is planning for suitable memorial services for the dead in areas devastated by enemy attack.

The pamphlet is essentially a manual for disposing of extremely large volumes of (radioactive) corpses.

For the first few hours after a nuclear bomb disaster, there will be little time for attention to the dead. Later on, after the injured have been cared for and are beginning to be moved out of the devastated area, work with the dead may start. In case of a high degree of radioactive contamination, precautions are advisable to protect mortuary service personnel.

The part I personally found the darkest was a discussion of how to dig appropriate amounts of mass graves:

Mortuary and burial areas selected should have space to accommodate about 25 percent more than the maximum expected number of bodies. ... A method of rapid, mechanical grave digging and filling will be needed for the large number of graves required. ... If conditions permit, mechanically dug continuous trenches offer the best solution to the burial problem. If the machines available are capable only of digging narrow trenches, bodies can be placed head to foot instead of side by side.

And hey, if you thought you'd seen disturbing government flowcharts before, few compare to this one:

That's a lot of corpse "holding areas." And a lot of DEAD arrows. Well. It is a grim topic — and anytime a government publication admits it is a grim topic, you know you're in trouble.

Maybe I was wrong about it being surreal -- there's a way in which it's hyperreal, more real in its clinical matter-of-factness than farce could ever be. There's a very wrong trope out there that depicts the victims of atomic attacks as being "vaporized" or instantaneously disposed of. They're not. They are crushed, burned, and irradiated. They leave corpses that must be disposed of. I think people find that more disturbing than the "vaporized" idea, because it emphasizes the corporeal suffering that the bomb brings with it.

The unusually artistic "Join the Health Services!" image from the back of the pamphlet.

It's hard to claim that this particular pamphlet would make anyone feel sanguine about the effects of nuclear weapons. Of course, this particular pamphlet wasn't really designed for the "general public" — it was a relatively narrow technical manual.

In any case, I think Bert the Turtle would have been a lot more disturbing if Bert, having done his duck-and-cover thing, had immediately started digging trench-graves for his less fortunate animal compatriots...

  1. Citation: Federal Civil Defense Administration, Mortuary Services in Civil Defense (TM-11-12), (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, April 1956). This scan was taken from here and cleaned up a bit. []

Nuclear Bombs, Soviet Style (1958)

Friday, February 17th, 2012

This set of Friday Images comes from an obscure Soviet publication I tracked down on a trip to the Library of Congress a few weeks ago. I had been searching for this for awhile, since I knew that the Army had paid to translate it quite some time ago, but the Army translation was itself a bit hard to track down. I really just wanted it for the images — it's one of the few Soviet books that I've seen which purports to explain how nuclear weapons are designed, and I'm always curious how they went about that sort of thing.

The book is titled Termoyadernoye Oruzhiye (Thermonuclear Weapons) and is by M.B. Neiman and K.M. Sadilenko. Neiman (or Neyman, depending on your transliteration preferences) is listed on the frontispiece as a doctor/professor of chemical science, and Sadilenko is listed as some kind of "research associate" (научный сотрудник) of the Soviet Academy of Science. The volume was published by the Ministry of Defense for the USSR, in Moscow, 1958.

The two bomb drawings I'm most interested in are their depictions of implosion and the hydrogen bomb. The basics of the implosion design had been declassified in the United States as early as 1951, and by 1958 there were lots of depictions of its more-or-less correct operation (using chemical explosives to compress a solid or hollow core). In the Soviet Union, though, they usually drew implosion differently. Here's the Neiman and Sadilenko version, which is more or less the only way I've seen it depicted in the Soviet literature:

"Fig. 9. Schematic diagram of the atomic bomb (the charge is split into several parts): 1 — explosives; 2 — plutonium; 3 — neutron source; 4 — neutron reflector; 5 — shell (tamper)"

It's a curious design — almost implosion, but not quite. It depicts shooting a plutonium core together into a spherical configuration, not compression through explosive lenses. It's actually quite similar to the "pre-implosion" design depicted in the Los Alamos Primer (second from the top here).

The hydrogen bomb diagram is even more amusing:

I'm not going to type this caption out, but basically the idea is that this is a fission-fusion-fission weapon, where you have multiple fission primaries surrounding a large amount of fusion fuel. See the image below for a more-or-less similar English translation.

Now this isn't the world's worst H-bomb drawing for the time. The Teller-Ulam design wasn't known publicly until 1979, so for 1958, this is pretty good. The key feature that sticks out as wrong is the fact that there are at least seven fission primaries here, which is a bit excessive (the real Teller-Ulam design uses one). But other than that, not too bad — it has the final "dirty" U-238 fission stage, and seems to get that external compression (rather than internal compression, as most H-bomb designs from the period show) is a key thing.1

But this drawing isn't Soviet at all in origin — it's a complete rip-off of a drawing that appeared in a 1955 issue of Life magazine:

"3-F" here means "fission-fusion-fission."

This drawing derives, I believe, from Ralph E. Lapp, who was really the first to popularize the idea that the fallout from the Castle Bravo accident (1954) implied that about 50% of the yield of hydrogen bombs was from a final, "dirty" uranium-238 fission stage.

This underscores an interesting dynamic throughout the Neiman and Sadilenko book: most of the drawings they have are ripped off of American sources... because the United States has long been the major producer of extensive speculation about how atomic bombs work!

There are also lots of charming Civil Defense drawings in this volume, which I'll post more of at a later time. But for the moment, I'll leave you with this wonderful little drawing of a Soviet street-washer decontaminating a bombed-out, post-apocalyptic city:

The little sign in the picture with "УБЕЖИЩЕ" written on it can be translated as refuge or shelter, but it can also be translated as asylum. Fitting, that.

  1. I'm using the terms "external" and "internal" a little idiosyncratically here, but what I mean is that the fission primary here is distinct and "outside" of the fission fuel. Contrast this with versions where the fission primary is surrounded by fusion fuel, or has "shells" of fusion fuel around it. The latter is like the Teller "Alarm Clock" model and the Soviet "Sloika" design, and was much more commonly depicted when people were speculating as to how H-bombs might work in this period. Before someone gets too picky, I'm aware that this lacks physical separation of the primary and secondary, that there is neutron shield for the secondary, that there isn't an interstage, and that, of course, there's no mention of radiation implosion in any of this. There's still more wrong than right here. []

“If an A-bomb Falls” (1950)

Friday, February 10th, 2012

John Cloud, an historian at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), sent me scans of a really wonderful precursor to the NUKEMAP. It comes from a 1950 publication by the National Industrial Conference Board titled, If an A-Bomb Falls:

John reports that the pamphlet was some 20 pages long and was designed to help apocalypse-minded executives figure out how impending nuclear war might affect their bottom line.

The mapping connection comes from the fact that the pamphlet also included a overlay acetate sheet that, if you had your maps printed to the right size, could be overlaid on top of them to show you various nuclear effects:

As the overlay explains,

By placing this insert over a vital target in your community you can judge the effects of an atomic explosion, either air or underwater, on your plant and community. Air burst effects are based on Japanese explosions, with detonation at 2,000 feet. Underwater burst effects are based on Bikini, with wind velocity of 5 mph. Higher winds would carry the surge front downwind more quickly and increase the area and volume of the surge cloud.

The radii don't quite match up to the NUKEMAP calculations, but they're close. They're a bit larger on the whole because they include some more moderate effects, like "moderate skin burns." It's also probably the case that even in 1950, the AEC hadn't released full information on the effects radii. But other than that, they seem to match up well with 20kt explosions.

Of course, by 1950, the US had already increased its standard yields to around 49kt. And the yields would only go up from there. The Soviets had 20kt bombs in 1950, but by 1951 would be testing weapons in the 40kt range. And the yields would only go up from there. (And so it goes.) So this sort of overlay would have had, let us say, some planned obsolescence built into it.

Still, it's pretty amazing, with its brilliant colors and highly "busy" rings. No simple circles here!

For your amusement, I whipped up a very simple Google Maps simulation of what it would be like to use ones of these. Nothing fancy -- just drag your location and the "air burst" image will remain centered (and at the right size for a 20kt blast):

If you have trouble viewing the map as embedded above, click here to view it as a stand-alone page. Per usual, it attempts to center in on wherever Google thinks you are accessing the internet from, based on your IP address. (This particular function is not super accurate, but there you have it.) No logs are kept of where you move it to. Playing with it a bit, I've noticed that the image gets a bit distorted depending on your latitude and longitude. This has to do with plotting an essentially square overlay (the PNG image that makes up the explosion) onto the surface. It looks more or less fine if you stay at around the same latitude as the continental USA. If you start changing latitude the little circles will either compress or expand along one dimension. Things get very strange near the poles. You have been warned: this isn't science! I'm sure there is some kind of correction I could put into the latitude measurement to keep this from happening, but I'm not too shook up about it.

John (who is known to historians of Cold War secrecy as the author of a number of articles on the CORONA satellites) came across this in the Coast and Geodetic Survey Library during his long-running research into the origins and practices of analog map overlays, the genesis of what are now called geographic information systems. Pretty interesting stuff.


Declassifying the Ivy Mike film (1953)

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Every good nuclear wonk has seen the delightfully over-the-top film that the government made about the Operation Ivy test in 1952. If you've seen any films involving nuclear test footage, you've probably seen parts of it, even if you didn't recognize it as such. It ranks probably second in the all-time-most-viewed nuclear weapons films.1

Ivy Mike was, of course, the first test of a staged, multi-megaton thermonuclear weapon: the first hydrogen bomb. With an explosive yield of 10.4 million tons of TNT, it was a grim explication how tremendously destructive nuclear arms could be. Even Congressmen had difficulty making sense its power.

A 17-minute version (down from 28 minutes, which is already down from the hour-plus version now available from, embedded above) of the Operation Ivy film was released for American citizens on April 1, 1954. The domestic and international reactions were immediate. The Soviet Union warned its people that these weapons could destroy "the fruits of a thousand years of human toil"; Premier Nehru of India called for the US and USSR to cease all hydrogen bomb tests. It was replayed two days later in the United Kingdom with an estimated 8 million viewers, even though supposedly the film was not meant to be distributed overseas, to avoid inflaming international opinion against nuclear testing.

The New York Times' television critic, Jack Gould, reviewed it negatively: "A turning point in history was treated like another installment of 'Racket Squad.'"2 The problem, Gould explained, was that it used "theatrical tricks" to talk down to the audience. Now the irony here is that the Operation Ivy film wasn't made for a television audience. It was made for the President of the United States and top military brass and folks like that. Which makes the "talking down" even more disturbing, no?

This week's document concerns the internal deliberations by the Atomic Energy Commission regarding the declassification and sanitizing of the Operation Ivy film. This report, AEC 483/47, outlines the opinion of the AEC directors of Classification and the Information Service about whether the film could and should be declassified.3

Click the image for the full PDF.

This isn't the story of how it ends up on American television, but it is moving in that direction. The document goes over a proposal to release an edited (sanitized) version of the film for usage at a Conference of Mayors that President Eisenhower had assembled. The goal was to convince the mayors that Civil Defense was important: you'd better act now, before your city gets nuked.

The problem: the AEC didn't really want to release the precise yield of the Mike shot. That's a hard thing to hide when you're obliterating an island with it. They also weren't keen on releasing the fact that this wasn't a deliverable weapon yet, but they couldn't see a way of getting around that without seriously cutting it down to nothing. But at least they managed to cut out everything about its design, and the Ivy King shot (the largest pure-fission explosion, at half a megaton).

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  1. First likely goes to the Crossroads Baker test, which aside from being used everywhere is featured very prominently, repeatedly, at the end of Dr. Strangelove. []
  2. Note that the Operation Ivy narrator was Reed Hadley, from the aforementioned "Racket Squad." []
  3. Citation: Report by the Directors of Classification and Information Service regarding the Film on Operation Ivy (AEC 483/47), (8 December 1953), copy in Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, NV, document #NV0074012. []

More from the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

A few weeks ago, I spent some time at the Legislative Archives in downtown Washington, DC, looking at the files of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE). It was my first time over there since I had moved to the area; I had been there a few other times over the years, but it's really quite different when you actually live in the same town as the archive. It's a less hurried, less harried, and less targeted experience: you can take the time to really look at things you might otherwise not have time for. Case in point: I actually got to spend some time talking with one of the archivists there, Bill Davis, who knows about the JCAE records. And last Thursday, Bill called me up to tell me that a new batch of newly-declassified JCAE Executive Hearings had arrived. How's that for helpful? Of course I couldn't resist, and swung by last Friday on my way to work.

JCAE members Sen. Vandenberg (l) and Sen. Hickenlooper (r) look over various documents at a 1949 hearing regarding the AEC.

The eight newly-declassified JCAE hearings are all from 1953, ranging from March to December. NARA isn't in charge of declassifying them -- these ones seem to have been declassified by someone at the CIA who is apparently just working his way through the decades-old queue.  I imagine some poor declassifier sitting there with a 100 foot pile of paper next to him. In reality, these appear to have been scanned and are redacted using what looks like Adobe Acrobat. But it is just a single fellow doing it, apparently -- his name (Alan Lipton) is on every one of them as the declassifier.

1953 was an important year. For one thing, the Cold War was pretty hot right about then. The Korean War was still going on for most of it; the US had tested a hydrogen bomb prototype, but not an actual usable weapon; the Soviets set off a "thermonuclear weapon" (not Teller-Ulam, but still not very nice) that August; McCarthyism was still going strong. Tough times.

So what are in these files? Here are a few notes from them -- they cover some interesting topics. Many of them deal with CIA in particular, which is of some inherent interest.

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