Cinema History from the Cold War!

Atomic Alert

Encyclopedia Britannica Films
1951

Atomic Alert opens in a classroom as children huddle around a Geiger counter.  This scene depicts a tough question early civil defense planners grappled with: how to explain the dangers of the atomic bomb to school aged children?  It was presumed the responsibility for this delicate task would fall to school administrators, teachers, and superintendents across the nation.  These parties in turn sought guidance on the topic.  According to The Education Screen, a periodical which appraised educational films, Encyclopedia Britannica responded to "a great demand for an atomic information film on the school level" by creating Atomic Alert in May of 1951.  Originally titled Atomic Alert: School, Home, Street, the film was designed to teach children where to go and what to do during an enemy attack, whether home alone, walking to school, or on the playground enjoying recess.(1)  While the film was produced privately, Enrico Fermi, Willard F. Libby, Samuel K. Allison, and other scientists with the Institute of Nuclear Studies, a division of the University of Chicago, served as expert advisers.

                               

“To protect yourself, you have to know what the bomb does.  Can we protect ourselves from these?”  Atomic Alert unfolds as an answer to that question, dispelling the myth of total atomic destruction and outlining the structures of defense already in place.  Recognizing their primary audience would be elementary school children, Encyclopedia Britannica utilized several scenes of animation to relate the three dangers posed by an atomic explosion.  When a cartoon bomb blackens a large section of a cartoon city, two children take shelter from the blast, the ensuing heat, and the lingering radiation, by ducking under a work bench in a basement.  The children would not be alone, however, and it is repeatedly stressed that civil defense would emerge as a stabilizing force.  As the film progresses, a metaphor is developed of civil defense as a team effort.  Images of an average American youth, clad in letterman sweater with school books at his side, appear on the screen.  Gradually his team expands beyond the individual youth to include the family, shown standing behind in animated silhouettes. The community in general is included next, shown even farther back in the outlines of doctors, utility workers, and firefighters.  “You are on this team, and so is your family, every member of it.  And in your community, every doctor, every fireman, every policeman, and nurse, every lineman and operator, every civil defense worker.  In fact every community employee is prepared to help you if you need him.”

                            

For most situations, children are instructed to rely on adult authority figures.  When at school, whether on the playground, in the hallway, or in the classroom, the teacher will take charge.  When on the street traveling to or from school, the nearest adult will offer assistance. “Don’t try to make it home, unless home is the nearest cover! Everyone is in on this, strangers will understand!”  But what if the children are home alone when an attack warning is sounded?  The film introduces two characters, Ted and Susie, whose parents are shopping when the radio announces an imminent atomic attack.  Fortunately, the family has trained in previous exercises and Ted is able to lead his younger sister to an impromptu shelter in the basement under their father's work bench.  Although Ted is prepared with food, water, firefighting equipment, and first aid materials, it proves unnecessary.  Shortly after the blast, Mr. Carlson, a local civil defense official, arrives to congratulate Ted on a job well done.  This ending reinforces the notion that adult authority figures would soon take charge of an otherwise horrendous situation.

Atomic Alert may be viewed, in its entirety, HERE.


References:
1. The Education Screen.  Atomic Alert:  School, Home, Street.  Jan. 1951.  p. 148.