Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Golden Age of Homeland Security: Groucho Marx's Civil Defense PSA

Fifty years before we had the Department of Homeland Security, we had a Federal Civil Defense Agency that was charged with promoting measures to protect the civilian population in the event of an attack on the United States.

No one under 60 would remember this, but we used to have bomb shelters in schools and other public buildings - sometimes in backyards - and did duck and cover drills between math and English classes. Ah, wonderful memories!

And so, back in the '50s, major entertainment figures such as Bob Hope, Art Linkletter (who maybe needs an intro today), and Groucho Marx made public service announcements about what you should do in the event an atomic bomb explodes in your town.

Civil Defense strategy in the 1950s was heavy on self-help and education about atomic hazards with the intention of controlling panic. As Groucho told us in 1953, "nobody else will help you" in the event of war but, nevertheless, your chances of surviving an atomic attack are excellent. Both statements were true.

Today, that seems like a remarkable message to get from your government. Nobody else will help you, so you'll have to be prepared to help yourself and your family. To see how much stress the government used to place on self-help listen to this 1961 civil defense message from President Kennedy in which he states that "individual preparedness, which is beyond the providence of government, is essential to an effective civil defense." I can't imagine DHS saying that anything is beyond the providence of government. 

Unlike today, back then the government wanted to reduce public fear about the - then highly probable - threat of an attack, and thought the best way to do so was with education about the threat and the promotion of self-reliance.They even published handy guides full of practical ideas that were even better than the much-ridiculed duct tape and plastic sheeting recommendation DHS put out in 2003.

Self-help booklet (1951), read it here

To quote Yakov Smirnoff, "what a country!"

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