Draw the curtains, bury the dead: Cold War advice for nuclear attack

The original cover of the UK government's 1980 guide to surviving a nuclear attack

Story highlights

  • Don't forget can opener and toilet paper, booklet recommends, and cover dead bodies securely
  • The guide was satirized by anti-nuclear campaigners who called the advice futile

London (CNN)A stark guide to surviving a nuclear blast that was first published during the dark days of the Cold War is being reissued by the Imperial War Museum in London.

The 1980 pamphlet opens with this warning: "Read this booklet with care. Your life and the lives of your family may depend on it." Its republication coincides with a new exhibition exploring 100 years of the anti-war movement, the first of its kind at the museum.
"Even the safest room in your house is not safe enough," the "Protect and Survive" guide warns in the opening pages, before explaining how to create a fall-out room and inner refuge using bricks, boxes or bags of earth, pieces of furniture and even books and clothing.
Illustration from "Protect and Survive" shows a family entering their inner refuge in the fall-out room.
Stock enough food and water for 14 days, it advises, and don't forget your can opener. Use a polythene bucket and an improvised seat to make a toilet, it recommends, and make sure you stock enough toilet paper.
Humdrum advice -- wipe your shoes, draw the curtains, listen to your radio for information -- is juxtaposed with more chilling instructions. "You may have casualties from an attack, which you will have to care for, perhaps for some days, without medical help. Be sure you have your first aid requirements in your survival kit."
But since the list for stocking this kit comprises little more than aspirin, cotton balls, bandages and Vaseline, it's unclear how citizens were expected to treat more serious casualties.
"If a death occurs while you are confined to the fall-out room," the pamphlet continues, "place the body in another room and cover it as securely as possible ... If no instructions have been given within five days, you should temporarily bury the body as soon as it is safe to go out, and mark the spot."
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As Matt Brosnan, senior curator at the Imperial War Museum, explains in the foreword to the reissued booklet, in 1980 "the possibility of a nuclear war was as high as at any time since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962."
In the late 1970s, the Soviet Union began installing new SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe that were "more accurate and reliable than their predecessors," according to Brosnan. NATO responded with plans for an expansion of nuclear missile capability in Western Europe -- nearly 600 new US ballistic and cruise missiles were to be stationed in Europe, with 160 in Britain alone.
It was in this climate that the UK government produced "Protect and Survive." Officials intended to distribute it publicly only in the event of a crisis, Brosnan told CNN, but the guide was leaked to the press, forcing the government to make it available to the public.
"That sort of information could have a big impact on the country's mood," said Brosnan, suggesting this as a reason why the pamphlet wasn't made public immediately. "The advice in it was very similar to that given in the 1950s and 1960s, but the relative strength of nuclear weapons had increased."
An image of a mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion printed in the original booklet.
The government was likely also concerned that the guide could be satirized, Brosnan explained. Indeed, as he explains in the foreword, "it was immediately lampooned by anti-nuclear campaigners who highlighted its potential futility," arguing that nuclear disarmament was the only realistic means of avoiding an attack.
It may seem surprising that the advice for surviving a nuclear attack changed little during the decades-long Cold War. But the guidance published on the website of the US Department of Homeland Security is eerily similar too, suggesting that the 1980 guide may not be totally outdated.