Skip to 0 minutes and 6 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: In the late 1970s, the government put together a series of public information films, Protect and Survive. And I believe in the early 1980s a pamphlet was delivered to most British households giving them an idea of how they might survive a nuclear attack. And it is going back to very practical levels of defence that you might see from Second World War advice. Buildings, shelters within the home, making sure you have provisions. Now that ends up being ridiculed by the left in the political scene in Britain and actually by quite a few people who have an understanding of what nuclear weapons can potentially do.

Skip to 1 minute and 2 secondsSo if you look at the pamphlet written by the historian Professor EP Thompson, Protest and Survive, he advocates support of the campaign of nuclear disarmament because he can see no future that is in any way tolerable should nuclear weapons be used. Further, you get to 1982, and Raymond Briggs, who is well known for Fungus the Bogeyman and The Snowman, produces When the Wind Blows, which is a parody of, if you like, the belief of a 'Blitz spirit' as applied to Protect and Survive. So we actually have official government policies in terms of what individuals might do should the Soviet bombers get through being widely ridiculed.

Skip to 2 minutes and 5 secondsAnd I think you need to consider that The War Game in 1965 was pulled by the BBC, fearing that it was too realistic to be shown on British television at that time. It had a limited release in America and actually won the Oscar for Best Documentary. 1984, again the height of Cold War tensions between Reagan and the Soviet leadership, the BBC show Threads, which details a fictional attack on Sheffield and follows on from the American The Day After in 1983. I would argue that probably the most disturbing and depressing two hour drama documentary the BBC have ever made.

Skip to 3 minutes and 2 secondsAnd it portrayed a frighteningly realistic landscape, both figuratively and literally, as to what Britain would be like if atomic weapons fell on us. Now during this week's topics, we're talking about defending the skies. And one of the things that you might want to just consider is how the tactic of offence or defence is used during this time. Now principally, we've been talking about intercepting bombers or shooting down bombers. But for many people the doctrine of mutually assured destruction was critical to stop any nuclear strike or any conventional war breaking out with the Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact. Now this is, I think, a problematic stance.

Skip to 4 minutes and 2 secondsThere are a number of people who argue now that, because we did not have a major war with the Soviet Union, mutually assured destruction was successful. I think mutually assured destruction was only successful in avoiding war with the Soviet Union. Please look at the record of conflicts all the way from 1945 through to Gulf War I and you will understand that the presence of nuclear weapons did not deter armed conflict around the world, including involving the superpowers. Now the fact that Britain had a strategic nuclear deterrent, whether by the Air Force or otherwise, may have been the best form of defence.

Skip to 4 minutes and 47 secondsBut it's an almost perverse form of defence, and you can think of it in terms of Robert Oppenheimer's analogy of two scorpions in a jar. One stings the other, the other will have the opportunity to sting back, both die. And the concept of mutually assured destruction is associated with a number of individuals, principally Americans, Johnny von Neumann, the Eastern European scientist who emigrated to America, and Robert McNamara, Kennedy's secretary of defence. Now we've talked about nuclear weapons. We haven't really talked about the devastating effect of nuclear weapons. We're not going to dwell on it too much now. But I'd just like you to think on this. The warhead that was atop the Thor intermediate-range nuclear weapon was 1.5 megatons.

Skip to 5 minutes and 44 secondsThat is 100 times bigger than the bomb that devastated Hiroshima. The Yellow Sun weapon had a 1-megaton yield. Red Beard as a tactical nuclear weapon had a dialable yield but would be the equivalent at the bottom end of the Hiroshima bomb. And when we look at WE 177, the final free-fall bomb that the RAF used into the 1990s, the last version of that had a yield of 190 kilotons. So that's putting it in the region of about 12 times the size of the Hiroshima bomb. Now what we might mean by a tactical weapon when the yield is 12 times the devastating effect of Hiroshima is something we might want to debate further in the course.

Skip to 6 minutes and 44 secondsSo there is a certain issue about the escalation of nuclear development, whether it be through the delivery systems or the size of the weapons, that really put the world at risk and genuine risk through the Cold War period. And I don't think personally that risk has ended. Combined, the Soviet Union and America have about 15,000 nuclear warheads. Now I think in Britain's case, there was never any intent for first strike. But we had a particular role within the NATO alliance, and certainly the strategy with Polaris was largely to destroy Moscow.

Skip to 7 minutes and 35 secondsSo one of the arguments in terms of defending Britain's skies has been put forward that, during the Cold War period, the fact we had a credible retaliatory force discouraged the Soviet Union even considering hitting us with nuclear weapons in the first place.

Civil Defence

Civil defence and M.A.D.

In this step we consider the following:

  1. Centrally organised civil defence was formally ended in 1968. In its place the Government’s ‘Protect and Survive’ civil defence provision was widely derided in the 1970s and 1980s.
  2. Did the nature of any Soviet strike on the UK render civil defence redundant?
  3. The doctrine of MAD dominated the 1960s and 1970s. Strategically, there was never any question of first use of strategic nuclear weapons.
  4. How about in a theatre role and the use of ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons?
  5. With conventional armaments, the RAF were committed to both first-strike of Warsaw Pack forces, and airspace defen

This section will provide a completely different perspective of what we have so far been considering - how the public was informed of potential threats and also how the media portrayed what a nuclear attack might entail.

The ‘Protect and Survive’ series, which you can view here, was to be broadcast across Britain in the prospect of an imminent nuclear attack. You can also view the full pamphlet here. Critics understandably attacked both the pamphlet and the films for being vastly unrealistic, proposing the idea that a nuclear war could easily be survived. The series was notably ridiculed by academics, but more strikingly in popular culture. Similarities can be drawn with the American film ‘Duck and Cover’, which was screened across schools in the 1950s onwards. This is just two examples of public broadcasts showing how to ‘survive’ a nuclear attack. There were more realistic discussions of what might happen in a nuclear war – particularly in America – but ‘Protect and Survive’ and ‘Duck and Cover’ have stuck in the collective consciousness.

In response to the official governmental stance, many television and film producers sought to portray a much more realistic and emotive narrative of how a nuclear attack might unfold. All of the examples mentioned in the video, are powerful accounts of nuclear war, and show the ludicrous nature of civil defence.

Whilst we have considered how the media sought to portray the threat of nuclear weapons through television and film, there existed a prominent symbol throughout the entire Cold War age that influenced much of this apocalyptic rhetoric; the Doomsday Clock. The symbolic clock has moved closer and further away from midnight since its establishment in 1947, and although purely metaphorical, it represents the nuclear paranoia of the Cold War in an illuminating manner and is present in an array of popular culture. Even today the clock is still used, not only to reflect on the threat of nuclear weaponry, but also the dangers of climate change.

It is important to assess the doctrine of M.A.D (Mutually Assured Destruction), and whilst this concept may have already been covered, just to reiterate; this entails the idea that because both the East and West have the nuclear capability of completely wiping out each other, and if one side attacks first, the other will retaliate, the use of nuclear weapons will always almost certainly end in the complete destruction of both sides. Now, many argue that this concept alone was enough to keep the Cold War ‘cold’, and although it came close, conflict never did break out, at least not directly between the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. What we cannot ignore is the string of proxy wars across the globe, including the Chinese Civil War, Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and many more.

Recaps and terms

‘We may be likened to two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life’
J Robert Oppenheimer

John von Neumann (1903-1957)

  • Had been one of the key scientists working on the Manhattan Project, and continued working with the development of nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War.
  • Recognised as coining the term Mutually Assured Destruction

Robert McNamara (1916-2009)

  • Served as Secretary of Defence under Kennedy and Johnson
  • Rejected the dependency on massive retaliation as a defensive strategy and sought to promote other means of defence aside from nuclear weapons.

  • Thor Missile – 1.5 megaton yield
  • Yellow Sun – 1 megaton yield
  • Red Beard – Variable yield between 5 and 20 kilotons
  • WE177 – Two designs, the high yield strategic versions (200-400 kilotons), and the lower yield tactical version (10 kilotons).

Just for comparison, the yield of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 14 kilotons, and the one dropped on Nagasaki was 22 kilotons.

It seems absurd to even be making the differentiation between a tactical and strategic nuclear weapon, if we consider for one moment the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and they were much smaller weapons in comparison to those later built.ce.

Further references

The Civil Defence Association produced a pamphlet in 2005 covering Britain’s history of the service, which can be downloaded here.

The ‘Protect and Survive’ public information films have been declassified, and The National Archives has mounted one of them here. The BBC ten years ago also mounted a summary of the films, which can be found here.

If you remember ‘Protect and Survive’, please comment below.

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This video is from the free online course:

From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War

Royal Holloway, University of London