Representations of National Identity in Cold War UK and US Civil Defence Films

Jacquelyn Arnold

Propaganda is a central weapon in the arsenal of modern conflict and Cold Wars especially are fought with images and words. The forty-year tension between East and West after the Second World War was responsible for the creation and distribution of national propaganda on a previously unprecedented scale as US and Soviet nuclear stockpiles increased exponentially and leaders shied away from the prospect of mutually assured destruction. The result was to be a war played out through increasingly sophisticated communications, which led to the cultural politicisation of artillery and munitions in a worldwide ideological battleground.

Ostensibly created by governments to educate the public on the threat of, and possible protection against, nuclear war, civil defence films were nervous hybrids of propaganda, political inculcation and continual image buttressing. Often coated in the a thick varnish of Hollywoodesque bravado in the US and a colonial authoritarianism in the UK, their function was to soothe the population and encourage a unifying portrait of a powerful and cohesive state while bolstering politically and strategically advantageous concepts of national identity in the population, often at the expense of genuinely informing or encouraging participative discourse. In these short but historically and aesthetically significant pieces of political filmmaking a country’s self-image is laid bare and its national identity manipulated and state managed in the face of cultural and social annihilation.

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Hollywoodesque bravado in the nuclear age: the discourse of civil defence in the US and UK in the 1950s was glossed with strategically advantageous conceptions of national identity

[Image by James Vaughan under a CC BY-NC-SA license]

It can be argued that American nationalism was the underpinning ideology behind the broad public consensus supporting US foreign policy during certain periods of the Cold War (Fousek 2) and certainly civil defence in the US was a subsection of a much wider ranging political effort to revitalise citizenship in the post Second World War period. This was a long term commitment which, while concerning itself with defence of an active, physical kind, was also a moral and ideological entity, cherishing a comforting past while confronting a potentially catastrophic future (Fried 46). Civil defence was one of the instruments chosen to convince the American people to pay the ultimate price of deterrence by persuading them that, by their own hand, they could survive nuclear war with both personal and national identities intact. The US portrayed itself as vulnerable and exposed to outside aggression, a reluctant participant in a war that had been unwillingly thrust upon them and that attack could come at any minute.

The mass civil defence information programmes of the 1950s and 1960s were often domestic propaganda exercises intended to secure the moral underpinnings of a national defence policy, the main purpose of which was to govern a blueprint for emotional management, constructing a useful but controllable level of fear in the public’s reaction toward atomic weapons and to motivate citizens to civil defence preparation with a carefully controlled mixture of information, appeals to patriotism and hyperbolic reaffirmation of positive national characteristics. The success or failure of civil defence was closely tied to moral obligation and often articulated as the difference between slavery and freedom.

President Truman aligned civil defence firmly within “the American tradition, dating back to the frontier days” likening the threat of Soviet aggression to “marauding savages” against which property, liberty and the America way of life must be defended (Truman n.pag.) The interpretation of the American front under attack articulated the main thesis of US Cold War civil defence planning, that survival is achieved through sound planning and organisation which leaves American values and institutions of society intact. The Day Called X is a thirty minute dramatised documentary, filmed and broadcast in 1957 and narrated by film actor Glenn Ford. It shows a mock civil defence exercise in Oregon in which the actual citizens of Portland enact the evacuation of their city following an attack warning.

The people of Portland, labelled the “typical American city,” are shown to be uniformly white and prosperous and impeccably presented, without a thought that does not involve duty and betraying no emotion that shows they are concerned with anything but the autonomous performance of their well practised responsibilities, the many arms of one single organism. As a Time magazine review later noted, the actors behave with absurd and unsettling tranquillity and efficiency, mobilising “quietly, with caution, but without panic” (67) to the soporific narration rendering somewhat unnecessary the slides the broadcaster periodically superimposed over the film to explain “AN ATTACK IS NOT TAKING PLACE.” Nuclear preparedness has been so successfully normalised and integrated into the national psyche as to be indistinguishable from the customary workday world and this seamless continuity between crisis and routine suggests that the threats of atomic catastrophe had been reconceptualised as an aspect of national behavioural normality (Oakes 101).

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Preparing for the bomg: The Day Called X dramatises the US’s civil defence and preparedness programmes in Portland, Oregon

[Images used under fair dealings provisions]

It is insisted throughout the film that all responsibilities, both strategic and operational, fall to the citizens themselves and the obvious rhetoric of community spirit, self-reliance and personal sufficiency play on the self-perpetuating myth of American local autonomy. And if The Day Called X stops conspicuously short for fear of the experience of the bombing itself shattering that carefully crafted self-image, it does not fall shy of hypothesising the future, an uninterrupted extension of conservative American identity.

Unlike equivalent American conventional cinema of the time, very few British feature films made during the Cold War sought to portray the nature of a Third World War or speculated on life and living conditions after an attack. As such, the majority of the images of nuclear war to be seen on British screens during the 1950s and 60s were there as part of the government’s civil defence programme.[1] Successive British governments also worked on the assumption that a national defence policy based on deterrence would only work in the long run if the public could be convinced of the possibility of survival after attack and as such when civil defence information was made available to the public, it was geared towards persuading the people that the results of a nuclear exchange would not, with a little citizen-led action and self-reliance, be catastrophic. While national and local governments often provided plans, training and education, British civil defence differed from American planning in that it offered no state shelters or evacuation policy but gave greater emphasis to the responsibilities of the individual to protect themselves and placed special value on the role of the family as an agency of the state (Shaw 133); the defence of the public by the public and not the defence of the country by governmental institutions.

1951’s Central Office of Information short film The Waking Point, one of a handful of fictional accounts produced in the first two decades of the Cold War with the intention of forging community spirit with public interest, served dual purposes. Primarily it served as a recruitment film for the struggling volunteer Civil Defence Corps but it also sought to allay increasing fears about the threat of nuclear war by demonstrating the civil defence programme as simple and effective. Joe is keen to join the Civil Defence Corps but is scolded by his wife to relax instead, having done his duty in the Second World War. But she quickly changes her mind when their child gets trapped in a local sand pit (an unsophisticated analogy for the dangers of burying your head when national crisis looms) and is rescued by members of the local civil defence unit. Rapidly but crudely expressed allusions between family values, personal responsibility and public obligation are drawn as the film progresses and we see Joe learn, as the viewer learns, of the apparently simple but effective defence measures that can be taken – but only if the self is surrendered for the good of the whole and the call is heeded in time. Consequently, but indirectly, this sacrifice will preserve both Britain and valued models of Britishness, represented in this film by exclusively white, suburban families differentiated only by age, gender and well defined boundaries of class.

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The Waking Point: Using film to recruiting for the UK’s Civil Defence Corps

[Images used under fair dealings provisions]

In the mid-70s, the Central Office of Information was tasked with preparing a series of short instructional films whose purpose was to educate the population on what to do in the event of a nuclear war. Numbering twenty in all, Protect and Survive is an animated series which gives the public precise information on the steps they should take to maximise their chances of surviving a nuclear strike on Britain, including recognising warning sirens, preparing a fallout shelter within the home, and improvising sanitary facilities within that shelter using a tray of sand and a dining chair with the seat removed. These films were never broadcast, but had an attack been deemed imminent by the government, they would have been transmitted continuously on the television and radio.

Protect and Survive represents a complete break in style and political purpose from earlier attempts at mass public education and support for civil defence. This change in policy, also seen in the US, was a move away from the idea of civil defence as the immediate life-saving response to an air raid, to one where the priority was the protection and preservation of national institutions. Civil defence for the population was reduced to little more than a public relations exercise, primarily concerned with informing the public on how to make and survive within improvised shelters in their own home. Protect and Survive was in itself dictated by the need for it to induce some sort of compliance with the imperatives of national survival (Stafford n.pag.)

It was recognised within government at the time that the information contained within Protect and Survive was of such inadequacy that it might be “unwise to actively promote [sales of] Protect and Survive.[2] Unlike The Waking Point, which proved immediately popular with the public on release and was equally well received in the United States, Protect and Survive was met with widespread derision.[3] Britain may have sought to limit the damage caused by placing the image of nuclear war into the public sphere, but unlike the debate surrounding the nuclear issue of the 1950s and 1960s, it was significantly less easy to control public and media discussion around the realities of nuclear conflict in the 1970s and 80s (Shaw 136) as arguments surrounding public protection were increasingly shaped by deeply-rooted ideological and political agendas, raising fundamental questions about the relationship between the state and the individual in the thermonuclear age (Stafford n. pag.)

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Protect and Survive pamphlets offered people practical advise on building nuclear shelters in their home

[Images used under fair dealings provisions]

Except for modernising the style of the film to use simple still photography and an ascetic stop motion animation technique, the design of Protect and Survive is essentially incrementalist and there is minimal change in the tone or content behind information here and the series known as Advice To Householders published in 1964, itself little changed since the Second World War. As in The Day Called X, there are implicit assumptions made about who should be protected, based on the deeply held assumptions by policy makers which were ideologically beyond question in their focus on the protection of public property and conservative societal roles.

Unlike its US counterparts and to a limited extent, The Waking Point and Protect and Survive offered no political or community rallying or appeals to unite behind desirable facets of national character and the moral dimension so inextricably intertwined with survival in US films is in every respect absent here. British civil defence measures during the later Cold War were wholly reliant on the fundamentally self-governed preparations of private citizens and offered no state shelters or evacuation policy, but gave greater emphasis to the responsibilities of the individual to protect themselves and placed special value on the role of the family as an agency of the state (Shaw 133). In the face of mutually assured destruction all advantageous concepts of national identity have been stripped away; survival of the nation now dependent not on the population but on the continuity of the state apparatus. In direct contrast to the deliberate and carefully detailed humanisation of the individual residents of Portland in The Day Called X, this is a message reinforced by the absence of human intervention or detailed representation of life or society in the films. At the end of each film the Protect and Survive logo is imposed, a homogenous nuclear family removed of all identity, simultaneously protected and isolated by the white shield of government advice.

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Widespread derision: The UK’s Protext and Survive series represents a complete break in style and political purpose from earlier attempts at mass public education and support for civil defence

[Images used under fair dealings provisions]

Television and cinema films have historically been an important source of information during times of national crises. During the Second World War citizens of both the US and UK would have spent considerable time glued to their wirelesses for the latest civil defence instruction or learning about the work of the civil defence services in cinema fillers. It can be argued that the need for wartime intervention into the everyday activities of the public nurtured a greater acceptance of state propaganda in the post-war era. This tolerance was compounded as the Cold War gradually took hold of the West in the 1960s and 70s and the nuclear threat lingered darkly in the shadows, bringing its own atmosphere of collective unease amid rapidly fragmenting social identities.

Cultural definitions of national identity stress shared traditions and their role in shaping a sense of belonging, but the consummate destruction promised by the hydrogen bomb meant a necessary shift in the focus of civil defence. The model of public protection seen in the post-war era with its emphasis on community-based, humanitarian functions was slowly replaced by a policy of total self-reliance. Common identity is a lubricant that helps a nation achieve collective goals and provides an illusion of security, and in the face of the shattering of both state and individual, these concepts irretrievably broke down. It was with this shifting focus that civil defence films acted as motivating and revealing self-portraits, constructing and deconstructing representations and reconceptualisations of identity while facing down and uncertain future of a nuclear “other.”

CITATION: Jacquelyn Arnold, “Representations of National Identity in Cold War UK and US Civil Defence Films”, Alluvium, Vol. 5, No. 3 (2016): n. pag. Web. 29 July 2016. DOI:


[1] For examples of the representation of nuclear war in British film and TV during this period, see Roy and John Boulting’s Seven Days to Noon (1950), Silvio Narizzano’s Doomsday for Dyson (1958) and Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1965).

[2] TNA: CAB 148/149 Minutes of Cabinet and Overseas Policy Committee (20 March 1980).

[3] For examples of how Protect and Survive was criticised by the media, see The Times (1-4 January 1980), the BBC programmes QED – Nuclear War: A Guide to Armageddon (26 July 1982) and Panorama – If the Bomb Drops… (10 March 1980) which both attempted to follow the advice contained within Protect and Survive, The Young Ones’ 1982 episode “Bomb” (30 November) and the BBC television drama Threads (1984).

Dr Jacquelyn Arnold completed her doctoral research at London Metropolitan University in 2014. Her PhD, British Civil Defence Policy in Response to the Threat of Nuclear Attack 1972 – 1986, analysed the genesis and development of civil defence during the last two decades of the Cold War by examining the ways in which policies were shaped by economic, ideological and political factors.

Works Cited:

Fousek, John. To Lead the Free World: American Nationalism and the Cultural Roots of the Cold War. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Fried, Richard. The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!: Pageantry and Patriotism in Cold-War America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Oakes, Guy. The Imaginary War: Civil Defense and American Cold War Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Protect and Survive film series. Central Office of Information, produced by Richard Taylor Cartoons, 1976.

Review of The Day Called X. Time Magazine, 16 December 1957, Vol. LXX, No. 25: 67.

Shaw, Tony. British Cinema and the Cold War. London: I.B. Tauris, 2001.

Stafford, James. “‘Stay at Home:’ The Politics of Nuclear Civil Defence, 1968-83.” Twentieth Century British History, Vol. 33, No. 3 (2012): 383-407.

The Day Called X. Directed by Harry Rasky, performance by Glenn Ford, CBS, 1957.

The Walking Point. Central Office of Information, Crown Film Unit, 1951.

Truman, Harry S. “Statement by the President on Civil Defense.” 12 January 1952, (accessed 27 July 2016).

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