The anniversary of 11th September made me think about how to cope if terrorists do manage to get hold of a nuclear weapon? Looking on the internet I found advice from the government issued during the Cuban Missile crisis. This wrote off people living in the immediate vicinity of an attack and focused on improving the chances of those who lived through the initial blast. Anyone leaving the house after an "H-bomb" was advised to take a "travelling rug" with them and drivers are asked to offer a lift to their neighbours. Gumboots or stout shoes, a hat or headscarf, coat done up to the neck, and gloves were also recommended.
Householders were told to use the cupboard under the stairs as a "core shelter" and that whitewashing the windows would "greatly reduce the fire risk by reflecting away much of the heat" Although if you only had a four minute warning would you waste your last moments looking for a paintbrush? Government advice was designed not to panic the public and gave the impression that nuclear weapons would not disrupt everyday life for long. Hardly the message Tony Blair gave out in his now infamous speech claiming Iraq could launch weapons of mass destruction in only 45 minutes.
Of course official preparations were under way out of the public gaze with confidential forecasts that 12 million would die in the initial attacks, with many more to follow The public were told to stock up on sensible clothing and food for two weeks but local government was making preparations for "disposal of the dead", mass homelessness, house demolition and maintaining the water supply.
Preparations for government to continue were also underway with around 6,000 civil servants identified ready to take shelter when a nuclear attack was imminent. They received instructions for travelling to an undisclosed "headquarters” which would probably be one of the twelve seats of regional government (yes they had them in the 60’s, even then Regionalisation was underway!) from which the country would be run. Those selected to survive were told to go straight home, collect a few personal belongings and to say goodbye. How many of the staff selected for working in the bunkers would really have left their families and gone underground is not known.
The location and purpose of their work was to be kept secret, with communication with their families to be only by post. That assumes of course the postman could deliver such letters, or even collect them from the “secret” location. Just in case anyone thought they were in for a jolly holiday they were also advised that "facilities for entertainment or recreation at the headquarters will be limited" and that people travelling to the secret "headquarters" should bring a packed lunch.
The Treasury argued that civil defence was a waste of money on what could only be a "cosmetic" exercise. Anyone looking for parallels with today’s terror fears shows the on-going dilemma for governments to find ways to advise the public about threats, without panicking them by showing how vulnerable they really are to disaster. Of course today’s governments have a couple of huge advantages over their 1960’s counterparts. Surveillance equipment and computers mean we are all being watched much more closely than we were 40 years ago and the average Britain today accepts erosions of their civil liberties and privacy that would have been unthinkable then. The numbers of official organisations that can enter your home, read your mail, listen to your telephone conversations, and of course now intercept your e-mail are many, many times more numerous than 40 years ago. Can you imagine your average local council in the 1960’s using private investigators to snoop on potential dog foulers? Well Hartlepool Council has admitted that they have done it!