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Top 10 Cold War Propaganda Films On Nuclear Fallout

by Shannon Quinn
fact checked by Jamie Frater

The Cold War is a name given to the years following World War II up until the collapse of the Soviet Union. During that time, the United States and the Soviet Union had a tense standoff.

The two sides began an arms race, making as much advanced technology as possible to beat the other. When the threat of potential nuclear attack from the Soviet Union became a possibility, the Office of Civil Defense created a number of films aimed at educating the American people about the dangers of nuclear fallout.

Despite the fact that the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, the aftereffects of the devastating damage caused by radiation were still a new phenomenon that needed to be studied. Many of these films are labeled as fearmongering, misleading propaganda, while others will argue that the government was simply trying to do the best they could with the information they had at the time.

10 Duck And Cover

Duck And Cover (1951) Bert The Turtle

This 1950s federally funded film was meant to be shown in elementary schools to educate children on how to protect themselves during an atomic bomb attack. It compares atomic bomb blasts to common disasters like house fires and radiation flashes to a bad sunburn.

The entire point of the movie is to encourage people to “duck and cover” if there is ever an atomic bomb explosion. It explains that if there is a warning that the bomb is coming, people should go to their homes and hide inside hallways, duck and cover against a wall, and keep away from doors or windows.

Obviously, with everything the public knows about atomic bombs today, ducking and covering is not enough to protect yourself from a radioactive blast. This film is a perfect example of how little people knew about the dangers of atomic power in the early 1950s.

For years, Duck and Cover was considered to be an example of the misguidance given to citizens from the government. However, in 2010, the United States government advised citizens yet again that if there was any attack from an enemy force, they should stay indoors

Critics of this advice have compared it to the uselessness of Duck and Cover. However, in modern times, aside from TV series like Doomsday Preppers, average US citizens are not preparing for nuclear fallout.

9 Fallout Shelter Life

fallout shelter life – part 1

This film shows what people can expect if they need to live in a community fallout shelter. During the Cold War, the Office of Civil Defense offered free supplies to buildings that were willing to provide their basements as community shelters. It is clear that this movie pushes the audience to want to build their own fallout shelters at home, which could be outfitted for months of survival rather than only two weeks.

The food that the government provided was part of their “emergency mass feeding” plan for these community shelters. They contained rations adding up to only 700 calories per day.

The daily meals were actually just biscuits and crackers that were infused with nutrients. There were also candies that were meant to be carbohydrate supplements. The red dye used in the candy is actually banned today because it was discovered to cause cancer.

The second half of this film gives terrible advice about what to do after canned goods are gone. They say that eating the rotting vegetables and moldy bread is okay as long as the rotting bits are cut out. In reality, poisonous mold spores contaminate the entire area surrounding it. The US Department of Agriculture now advises against eating any type of moldy food.

The film also tells people that eating livestock should be fine, too. In reality, we can see the aftereffects of livestock in Fukushima, Japan, after being exposed to radiation from the nuclear factory explosion in 2011.

By the end of this film, the group hears a radio announcement that they can safely leave their shelters two weeks later. This is also totally unrealistic as we learned from Fukushima, which still has harmfully high levels of radiation even years later.

8 Survival Under Atomic Attack

Survival Under Atomic Attack 1951 NUCLEAR BOMB SHELTER FILM 29180 HD

This movie was made by the Office of Civil Defense and featured the information in their 1950 booklet called Survival Under Atomic Attack. The goal of both the booklet and this film is to tell the American people, “You can survive atomic attack!”

The film downplays the seriousness of the effects that radiation had on the population of Hiroshima, Japan, after the nuclear bomb hit. Showing documentary clips of the recovery in Japan, the film explains that shadows forever cast on the pavement on the Yorozuya Bridge from the blast are proof that you can survive if you hide behind a cement object. In reality, it means the exact opposite because the shadows are permanently cast as a form of thermal radiance.

This movie discourages people from evacuating their cities and tells them to continue with their daily lives, especially continuing production in factories. It is clear that the government wanted people to keep working. Without factory workers, weapons would stop being produced and it would be unlikely that the US could bounce back from an attack.

The tips given in this film are general fire, safety, and emergency preparedness tips that apply to tornadoes and hurricanes, like keeping flashlights on hand and making sure your garbage can has a lid on it. The advice was ultimately useless for an atomic attack. It would only serve the government to keep citizens feeling safe so that society continues to function.

7 Town Of The Times


This film talks about the statistics of the average American town only having five finished fallout shelters built in the basements of private homes. Local politicians are hesitant to spend thousands of taxpayer dollars to build massive fallout shelters underneath public buildings like schools.

This movie goes through a scenario of what towns can do to create fallout shelters with their available public spaces and how life can continue in the event of an attack.

The government strongly preferred that individual families build their own fallout shelters rather than rely on state and local governments to spend taxpayer dollars on larger ones for the community. The government even offered lifetime guaranteed tax credits if families built fallout shelters in their basements that met the standards set by the government.

The last remaining up-to-code fallout shelter in New York City belongs to Francisco Lago, who now uses it as a storage area in the basement. Another woman named Edith Fetterman commented to The New York Times on her reasons for building a fallout shelter in Queens, New York, in the 1950s.

She is a Polish immigrant who survived the Holocaust as a young girl, but her parents and sister were killed. She grew up, got married, and had two kids. After knowing such evils existed from her childhood, the threat of nuclear war only made sense. Many Americans felt there was nothing to worry about, but building a personal fallout shelter was the logical thing to do for Edith.

6 Walt Builds A Family Fallout Shelter

Walt Builds a Family Fallout Shelter

This film was sponsored by the National Concrete Masonry Association, teaching a do-it-yourself method of building a fallout shelter in your basement. People are encouraged to build the shelter with the idea that it could double as a guest bedroom, a photography darkroom, or a playroom for children if a nuclear attack didn’t happen.

In 1959, the government circulated a booklet called The Family Fallout Shelter which gives blueprints on DIY shelters, ranging from very simple ones that would only cost $150 all the way to the more elaborate ones costing several thousand dollars.

By the end of this instructional film, Walt explains that it just makes sense to have a shelter in your basement in the age of nuclear threat. Author Melvin E. Matthews Jr. explains that while the fear of possible attacks was not irrational, much of this propaganda was funded by companies who would benefit from the sales of construction goods and the hiring of contractors to make these simple shelters, which they described as “just a swimming pool, only upside down.”

5 To Live Tomorrow


This film gives the appearance of a helpful public service announcement, although it is actually clever marketing to exploit society’s fears. At the beginning and end of this film, we see that it was sponsored by the Life Insurance Institute.

The plot of this short movie shows a man working as an insurance executive as he tries to come up with a way to let customers know how to be prepared for a nuclear attack. He keeps going to the conclusion that the key to survival is leadership. In panicked situations, people tend not to think clearly unless they are trained on what to do. The movie suggests that the viewer prepare to take action and become a leader.

One example they show is a grease fire in the kitchen of a family home. The children are frozen with fear until the mother instructs them to run and get the fireproof blanket from the other room. Meanwhile, she throws baking soda on the flames. As the leader, she delegates tasks to the children and they are able to put out the fire together.

Without explicitly saying it, this movie seems to be hinting at fathers that they have a responsibility to be prepared for absolutely anything as leaders of their households. One of those things would be the possibility of death during a nuclear attack, and they should probably think about purchasing life insurance.

4 Ten For Survival


In 1959, the Office of Civil Defense realized that jumping under tables and a two-week supply of crackers and candy wasn’t enough to protect the American people from atomic bombs. The government realized that they had made a huge mistake in all the films they were using to educate the public.

The TV series called Ten for Survival was an attempt to make up for the mistakes of the past and give correct information to the public. These episodes aired once a week for 13 weeks straight.

They also advertised an accompanying Family Fallout Shelter booklet. Multiple TV stations requested that they show Ten for Survival on their channels as well to make sure that all Americans had a chance to see it.

In an eerie interview in this episode, two ordinary citizens from Staten Island, New York, predicted that any attack on the United States would happen in New York City. In a survey by NBC, the vast majority of Americans agreed. They also agreed that it would be a surprise attack. Although it took many years, that prediction came true on September 11, 2001.

3 The Day Called X

A Day Called X (1957)

This film demonstrates a scenario of what would happen if a nuclear bomb was dropped on Portland, Oregon. During the Cold War, Portland was designated as one of the potential target cities. In 1955, there was an evacuation drill of the entire city. So this was a documentary that included a narrator and some dramatized scenes. This aired on CBS, which means that most people in America would have seen it.

During the drill, the entire city had to evacuate. The community shelter for normal citizens could only hold 300 people and only had enough supplies to survive for a week. So they were encouraged to evacuate instead.

Meanwhile, the members of local government moved to a bomb shelter 10 kilometers (6 mi) away from Portland, tucked away in the mountains with their families. “Government must survive if its people are to survive,” they said.

Author Brian Johnson analyzes The Day Called X and mentions that the people are calm in this film because it is only a drill. Normal citizens really had no idea how much nuclear warheads had advanced since World War II.

He also says that the film talking about the importance of people carrying out their civic duties during an attack is laughably unrealistic and clearly just pro-government propaganda. The truth is that, even if they were given notice, the people of Portland were doomed.

The only thing this film accomplishes is to potentially keep society running long enough for the members of government to get to their bomb shelter. This was the only place that was actually equipped for people to survive.

2 Three Reactions To Life In A Fallout Shelter


Sponsored by the Department of Civil Defense, this film goes over the variety of psychological reactions people may have while living in the confinement of a fallout shelter. Actors play out several scenarios, ranging from anger and fighting among the men to hysterical denial from a woman to depression in a man who believes his family was killed by the blast.

By the end of the film, the only advice from the government is to be organized and keep busy in fallout shelters. It leaves an open-ended question for the audience, “What would YOU do to prevent issues like this?” If the film accomplished anything, it was to encourage people not to act like the troubled people in this movie and to become mentally prepared before a nuclear attack occurred.

The Department of Civil Defense left out some of the gorier details of their research. Documents of these studies were only recently declassified so that the public can read them.

The conclusion of the government study was that community shelters would likely be overcrowded in the event of a nuclear attack. The air would become toxic with atmospheric contaminants and disease. The psychological turmoil alone would be enough to cause civil unrest among the survivors. Essentially, the situation would devolve into chaos.

1 Atomic Attack

Atomic Attack – The Motorola Television Hour

Sponsored by Motorola in 1954, this full-length movie is about a suburban housewife who learns that there was a hydrogen bomb dropped on New York City. She was living in nearby Westchester County, which is 80 kilometers (50 mi) from the city.

The housewife ends up hosting refugees, including her daughter’s high school science teacher. The teacher had quit his job working on atomic bombs because he is a pacifist.

The housewife and the teacher debate the issue, and the movie concludes that America will only respond to an attack by returning the attack on the enemy’s major cities as well. In this way, the movie serves as propaganda in favor of continuing the arms race against the Soviet Union.

This movie is credited as the original inspiration of much apocalyptic fiction that was created in the years following the 1950s. At first, this movie was spread to give people information on nuclear attacks in an entertaining way.

However, just three years after its release, the film was removed from circulation by the Federal Civil Defense Administration when they realized that it was teaching incorrect information. In the film, they claim that nuclear fallout debris was only spread through rainwater, and the characters are walking outside within days of the blast. In reality, radiation can travel through the air, and it lasts for far longer.

Shannon Quinn is a writer and entrepreneur from the Philadelphia area. You can also find her on Twitter.

fact checked by Jamie Frater