Skip main navigation

Civil Defence

Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.) & Civil Defence in Britain (especially ‘Protect & Survive’) in the '70s & '80s are considered by Emmett Sullivan

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.

This article is from the free online

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

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now