Do you know why the world nearly destroyed itself in a catastrophic nuclear war?

Two words – ‘Cold War’.

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The Cold War was international affairs for the second half of the 20th century. Nuclear weapons testing, civil wars in all corners of the globe and the race for economic dominance were all key spheres of the Cold War, although they were just a few elements of an intriguing global puzzle. More so than the great battles between Carthage and Rome in Ancient times or the Napoleonic Wars, the Cold War defined our world. But, there was one key difference between the Cold War and earlier major wars. Due to advances in technology and communications, the Cold War touched most countries on earth.

This introduction to the Cold War tells the story of the great clash between the communist Soviet Union and the capitalist USA. It covers the period from 1945 to 1991 in one combined edition, neatly breaking the Cold War up into three parts.

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The book starts by describing how two super-powers emerged out of the rubble of World War Two and includes the following:

·      How the Soviet Union and the USA quickly went from war-time allies to enemies

·      Events in East Asia - the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War

·      The most dangerous event of the early Cold War years, the Cuban Missile Crisis

·      The Vietnam War and its impact on the Cold War

·      The shocking power of nuclear weapons – and attempts to control them

·      Uprisings on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain

·      The super-powers as friends? Détente, Richard Nixon, and Leonid Brezhnev

·      The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan

·      The rise of Ronald Reagan and his aggression in the early 1980s

·      How Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader

·      Glasnost, Perestroika, and how the Cold War ended


The approximately 250-page book is the perfect complement to the Cold War History audio series that is available as part of the ‘History in 28-minutes’ podcasts.

So come and join the past – get the book now!

Required History

The aim of the 'Required History' book series is to create approachable, succinct written introductions to some of the most interesting topics in history. They are designed for those:

·      That want to quickly learn about some of the world’s major historical events

·      Studying history. The books act as a perfect complement and overview to those undertaking high school and introductory college courses in history

·      Who enjoyed the audio podcasts and want to reinforce and further their knowledge

·      Learning English. The language and level of detail in the books are perfect for those in advanced English classes

All of the Required History books are designed to build on the audio podcasts available on the publisher’s website. They provide an extra layer of detail to the major historical events that the audio podcasts cover.

In this often light-hearted article Janet Ford considers the famous 1950s Civil Defense film Duck and Cover. The film uses a turtle, Bert, to teach children – and adults - how to respond in the event of a nuclear bomb.


Before you read on, you can watch the film Duck and Cover here.

Bert the Turtle in a still from  Duck and Cover.

Bert the Turtle in a still from Duck and Cover.

During the Cold War, but especially during the 1950s and 1960s, the US Federal Civil Defense Administration produced numerous leaflets and films that informed and educated the American public about the atomic bomb, the damage it caused, and what to do if an atomic bomb was dropped. One of the most well-known Civil Defense films is Duck and Cover, which was produced in 1951 and first broadcast in January 1952. It was produced by Archer Productions in co-operation with the Federal Civil Defense Administration and in consultation with the Safety Commission of the National Educational Association.

In this article, we will consider the film and pick out some of the most famous (and infamous) aspects of it.

So before you read on, why not watch the film here?


The use of a cartoon

Central to the film is the animation. There is animation in parts throughout the film, but especially at the beginning and end. It was used to get the attention of children, and to make the message of duck and cover easier for them to understand. The animated nature of the film also made it markedly cheaper to show a bomb explosion in the film, as shown in the still from the film below.

Animation showing the destruction of the bomb, with Bert the Turtle in the foreground.

Animation showing the destruction of the bomb, with Bert the Turtle in the foreground.

Unless the Civil Defense Administration visited the Nevada nuclear test site and filmed a bomb going off, it would have been nearly impossible to show a live explosion. Another point to note is that showing the damage the bomb caused can make the animation seem a little darker, but as it is a cartoon the destruction appears less real and more abstract.

The most famous aspect of the animation is the character of Bert the Turtle. He is one of the most famous icons of the Civil Defense Administration, showing the nation how to protect itself from the bomb. The main reason for having Bert in the film was to get the attention of a younger audience.

A still of Bert the Turtle.

A still of Bert the Turtle.

Even though the subject matter itself could not be much darker, there is one other menacing part of the film that is found in the animation. This may not have been seen by all viewers, and it took me a few views to see it, but once you see it, you cannot fail to notice it. In a scene towards the start of the film, Bert the Turtle is minding his own business, and suddenly there is some dynamite following him; it is not a magic piece of dynamite though - it is being held by a monkey in a tree. The dynamite then goes off and Bert ducks and covers; however, the monkey that had been holding the dynamite vanishes. In fact, the monkey is blown up by its own dynamite.

Before the dynamite goes off.

Before the dynamite goes off.

After the dynamite goes off.

After the dynamite goes off.


Another famous aspect of the film is the very catchy theme song and music. Indeed, as I am writing this, the song is in my head, and once you have heard the song, it will be in your head for a long time too.

The music itself is quite cheery and upbeat and even the lyrics are not too negative. The most menacing lyrics are 'when danger threatens him', but then it is followed by 'he never got hurt, he knew just what to do.' The images above with the monkey and the dynamite are shown over this music. This makes the theme song, unintentionally, a little darker as you have the image of a monkey being blown up while listening to the song. The song can also seem to lessen the danger of the bomb and even the process of Civil Defense, as they are linked to a cheery song.


How to Duck and Cover

The main purpose of the film was to show the public, and especially children, how to duck and cover in various situations. It shows how to duck and cover in school and at the home. But it also shows you how to protect yourself when there is no shelter around. And this is the most infamous aspect of the film.

One scene in the film features two children, Patty and Paul, who are just walking down the street. The flash of the bomb goes off and they dive into a wall and cover themselves with their coats. What makes this absurd is that ducking and covering would not do much use if the building they were by or other buildings around them fell onto of them. Furthermore, it seems that Paul smashes himself into the wall. 

Patty and Paul ducking and covering by a wall.

Patty and Paul ducking and covering by a wall.

Another seemingly strange part of the film features a young boy called Tony who is riding his bike. He sees the flash, drives into a wall, and covers himself up. The film thus suggests that walls are a good place to go to protect yourself - although the wall would not have given much protection even if a blast was coming from the other side of the wall.

Tony ducking and covering by a wall.

Tony ducking and covering by a wall.

However, even more bizarrely is the scene with a family having a picnic. The family are all having a lovely time until they see the flash. Then the mom and children go under the cloth, while the dad uses the newspaper for protection. It is this idea of using a newspaper or sheet as protection that seems to be the most ridiculous aspect of the film.

The father using a newspaper as protection.

The father using a newspaper as protection.

Walls and covering yourself with a thin object would have given some protection from the bomb, but only if it was miles away and there was not much debris from the blast. In short, they would provide only a very small level of protection. Saying that, while we can of course look back at the film and make fun of it, when nuclear bombs were as big a threat as they were in the 1950s, the idea of an everyday object like a newspaper being used to protect yourself must have given people some hope.

Even so, there would have been those smarter souls who would have realized that a newspaper could never protect you from a nearby nuclear explosion and accepted their sad and inevitable fate.


What do you think of the video? Share your thoughts below!



All stills were taken from the film Duck and Cover here:

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
2 CommentsPost a comment

This is the first in a series of articles that explores the iconic CIA and its use as a tactical weapon by the presidents of the Cold War (1947-1991).

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A unique Cold War tactical weapon, the CIA was created by President Truman who did not like or trust the quality and timeliness of the intelligence he was receiving. The agency was born to serve one master, the president, not the people.  The birth of the CIA was spawned by nasty surprises beginning with Truman’s sudden rise to the oval office upon Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in Warm Springs, GA on April 12, 1945.[1] Truman and Roosevelt were estranged bedfellows thrown together to win an election. For his part, Roosevelt reportedly did not hold Truman’s intellect in high regard and Truman did not like Roosevelt’s politics. Certainly a portion of their mutual disdain was caused by then Senator Truman who chaired the Truman Committee. The committee had exposed considerable waste, fraud, and abuse by government defense contractors during WWII. It is not surprising that the two did not meet often and, in general, Truman was excluded from cabinet and most other high level meetings during his vice presidency.

While Truman knew he was ‘out of the loop’, he discovered just how much he did not know when he assumed the presidency. In his previous life as the Senator from Missouri, Truman had heard rumors of a super-secret defense project. As vice president, he’d caught a scent of it again, but twelve days into his tenure he was fully briefed for the first time on the Manhattan (atomic bomb) Project by Henry Stimson, Secretary of War. The briefing by Stimson and others coupled with the complex bureaucratic Washington, D.C. maze that horded information like gold convinced Truman that he wanted his very own intelligence gathering service. Irrespective of all the excuses he heard from various agencies and departments, Truman was determined to have the intelligence he required to do his job on a daily basis. In January of 1946, the Central Intelligence Group (CIG) was formed and, by September 1947, the National Security Act of 1947, transmuted it into the Central Intelligence Agency, CIA, headed by Rear Admiral Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter.  

It was not smooth sailing for the CIG. Its very existence threatened the military, State, and War (Defense) Departments’ intelligence rice bowls and the governmental infighting was intense. According to John L. Helgerson’s CIA Briefings of Presidential Candidates, 1952-1992, “The President was virtually alone in expecting to receive a daily, comprehensive current intelligence product, whatever the formal charters of the CIG and CIA might say. Needless to say, his expectations carried the day.”[2]  

The go-ahead for broad-based covert activities was on Hillenkoetter’s desk a short nine months later in the form of National Security Council directive NSC 10/2.  The directive created the Office of Special Projects within which it placed covert activities. The Chief of Special Projects, who reported to the CIA director, was appointed by the Secretary of State and approved by the National Security Council. The CIA covert operations authorization was simple: 1. coordination with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2. National Security Council approval of any plans, and 3. provided for action "against hostile foreign states or groups or in support of friendly foreign states or groups but which are so planned and executed that any US Government responsibility for them is not evident to unauthorized persons and that if uncovered the US Government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them.” The directive provides a very broad loose definition of covert activities:

Specifically, such operations shall include any covert activities related to: propaganda, economic warfare; preventive direct action, including sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition and evacuation measures; subversion against hostile states, including assistance to underground resistance movements, guerrillas and refugee liberation groups, and support of indigenous anti-communist elements in threatened countries of the free world. Such operations shall not include armed conflict by recognized military forces, espionage, counter-espionage, and cover and deception for military operations.[3]

Adversity, properly channeled, yields increased resilience and strength. Professional embarrassment, properly channeled, yields a fortified resolve. A government rice bowl filled with taxpayer dollars for continued survival yields strong motivation. The CIA was still young and wet behind the ears when the Soviet Union detonated their first atomic bomb, which the U.S called Joe-1 after Joseph Stalin. While the CIA knew the Soviets were working on the Bomb, it was the Air Force that produced the proof enabling Truman to crow ‘I-told-you-so’ at the top of his voice to the whole world.  The ‘government game’ is replete with players that run, not walk, to the boss to be the first one through the door with new information. It’s called the ‘kibble’ effect. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we in the government and the government contractor community are conditioned to receive treats when we fetch new data ‘the boss’ can use. The boss rewards those who bring the best information with kibbles, or other treats. The boss collects the data, places it in a context his boss can use and runs the information up the ladder to the next boss as soon as possible so he can get his or her kibble.

One can only imagine the pure joy the Air Force felt at being the first through the president’s door with proof of the Soviet atomic bomb test and how professionally embarrassed the CIA was. Sixty four years ago this month the Joe-1 test was conducted at the Semipalatinsk Test Site, STS, in Kazakhstan on August 29, 1949.  Joe-1 yielded a 22 kiloton detonation over twice the estimated yield of the Hiroshima bomb. The STS is about the size of New Jersey, which is five times larger than the U.S.’s former Nevada Test Site,[4] and very remote so how was the test discovered? According to George Washington University’s Nuclear Vault, the answer to that question lies in the direction given the Army Air Force by Dwight D. Eisenhower, Army Chief of Staff, in 1947 to develop an Atomic Energy Detection System (AEDS) to remotely sense nuclear testing through the emissions it released. Between 1947 and 1949, the Defense Department developed and deployed an "Interim Surveillance Research Net" that was fully operational by the spring of 1949.

Harry S Truman

Harry S Truman

Shortly after the Soviet test, on 1 September 1949, a WB-29 ["W" for weather reconnaissance] operated by the Air Force's Weather Service undertook a routine flight from Misawa Air Force Base (Japan) to Eilson Air Force Base (Alaska) on behalf of the secretive Air Force Office of Atomic Energy-1 [AFOAT-1] [later renamed the Air Force Technical Applications Center, or AFTAC]. The plane carried special filters designed to pick up the radiological debris that an atmospheric atomic test would inevitably create.  So far none of the flights in the Northern Pacific had picked up a scent, but after this flight returned to Eilson and a huge Geiger counter checked the filters, the technicians detected radioactive traces. This was the 112th alert of the Atomic Energy Detection System (the previous 111 had been caused by natural occurrences, such as earthquakes). After a complex chain of events, involving more flights to collect more air samples, consultations among U.S. government scientists, consultants, and contractors, including radiological analysis by Tracerlab and Los Alamos Laboratory, and secret consultations with the British government, the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Moscow had indeed conducted a nuclear test. On 23 September 1949, President Truman announced that "We have evidence that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the U.S.S.R."[5]

Joe-1 was a nasty surprise for the U.S., which had no idea the extent of the Soviet penetration into the Manhattan project and really did not expect the Soviets to develop nuclear capability until 1953 at the earliest. And Truman’s revelation of the test was a nasty surprise to the Soviet Union, which had no idea the U.S. had the capability to detect the test. And the test was a nasty surprise to the newly hatched CIA. Director Hillenkoetter contended that "I don't think we were taken by surprise" because of an error of only a "few months".  As you might imagine, Hillenkoetter’s lame excuse signaled the end of his CIA leadership.

By 1950, the Truman Doctrine that would become labeled as the ‘Domino Theory’ was entrenched, the pieces of the CIA puzzle were in place and recognizable as the CIA we know and love today, and President Truman received daily CIA briefings with a sharp focus on Korea and its ramifications. ‘Beetle’, General Walter Bedell Smith, who had served as Eisenhower’s chief of staff during the invasion of Italy during WWII, was selected to replace Hillenkoetter, who returned to active duty commanding a cruiser division in the Korean War.

Can the CIA or any agency be effective at both covert action and intelligence analysis? David Fromkin’s brilliant review of Daring Amateurism: The CIA's Social History authored by Jeffrey T. Richelson in the Council on Foreign Relations book section begins:

In his 1928 Ashenden stories, W. Somerset Maugham, who had undertaken missions for British intelligence in the First World War, portrayed espionage even for our side as morally corrupting, usually incompetent, and more likely to harm our friends than our enemies. Graham Greene and John le Carré later made these their themes. We now know that this body of literature should not be classified as fiction.[6]

Truman breathed life into the CIA and made it his intelligence water bearer. His action has had profound effects on the geopolitics of the world. Truman insisted that no president should enter office as clueless as he had been and used the CIA to brief the primary presidential candidates; a practice still in place. An agency that tends to go rogue, the CIA appears to operate with little or no oversight. Remember, though, it is the President who commands it and one of the CIA operating mission directives is to maintain plausible deniability for the U.S. government for its actions. Over the next several posts, we will explore how various presidents chose to use the CIA and what the consequences have been. When it comes to the CIA, never forget Harry S Truman’s most famous words, “The buck stops here.”


How much has the CIA benefitted the US? Let us know below..


By Barbara Johnson

Barbara is the owner of, a site about the men and women from all the cold wars who worked so hard for something they believed in and played so hard they forgot the pain.


And to find out about more great articles, why not join us?! Click here.


[1] The Truman Library; Eleanor and Harry: The Correspondence of Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman edited by Steve Neal;

[2]  George Washington University NSA Archives; John L. Helgerson; CIA Briefings of Presidential Candidates, 1952-1992;

[3] The Department of State Office of the Historian; National Security Council Directive on Office of Special Projects; NSC 10/2;

[4] Department of Defense; Semipalatinsk Test Site (STS); Posted: March 2012;

[5] George Washington University, NSA Archives, Nuclear Vault; September 23, 2009; Edited by William Burr; U.S. Intelligence and the Detection of the First Soviet Nuclear Test, September 1949;

[6] Council on Foreign Relations; January/February 1996; David Fromkin; Daring Amateurism: The CIA's Social History;

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

“How can you have a war without a war?”, a listener asked me a few months ago. “If the Cold War was a war, can’t any type of diplomatic activity against another country be called a cold war?”

“Touché”, I said, in part being polite and in part as they had a point.

The Cold War is a misnomer if ever there was one.

The battle for the world

The Cold War was probably the most intense, long-term battle that the world has ever known. Only, in ways different to other battles.

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This battle, this war, was between the USA and the USSR and lasted from the end of World War 2 until (about) 1991. The USA emerged from the ashes of World War 2 as the world’s supreme power, but the Soviet Union, although greatly weakened by that war, was the second most powerful. And these two powers had opposing systems – democracy and dictatorship, capitalism and Communism. This great difference is perhaps most famously (and most partisanly) summed up by Ronald Reagan, in his ‘Evil Empire’ speech in 1983:

“They preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the Earth. They are the focus of evil in the modern world.... So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride, the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”

On re-reading that, this led me to a different conclusion.

The term Cold War isn’t a misnomer – what made this Cold War different was its size, reach, and the ideological differences of the two countries that opposed each other. The two powers never came to direct blows, in large part due to the advent of nuclear weapons, but they did battle each other in all corners of the world on an unprecedented scale.

Do the Berlin Airlift, Cuban Missile Crisis, Berlin Wall, Vietnam War, Korean War, nuclear weapons, the SALT negotiations, the Renewed Cold War, and the Prague Spring ring any bells? The Communists and the US faced off against each other in all of these battles, but were ultimately able to avoid war, although equally able to avoid peace.

The Cold War was so much more than a war though. It also involved humor. Well, a bit.

But the Cold War wasn’t all serious

There were indeed some humorous incidents, like the time that Chinese leader Mao, met Soviet leader Khrushchev in the swimming pool, or the time that an 18-year-old German pilot, Mathias Rust, managed to evade Soviet defense systems and land a small aircraft in central Moscow.

But, the scariest and funniest (if you like really dark humor) events of the Cold War were the near nuclear misses. Nuclear weapons radar systems were not terribly advanced, shall we say, meaning that the super-powers came to the brink of launching weapons against each other on far too many occasions. We can and should learn something from all this, right?

Well, let’s hope modern world leaders have read up on their history. And that they think the term Cold War isn’t a misnomer. Better still (if rather cheekily), that they’ve listened to our podcasts..

Who was the greatest figure involved in the Cold War?

We may be asking the impossible here. There are so many choices for so many reasons, but do let us know what you think below!

George Levrier-Jones

This is the first in a regular series of (sometimes) humorous introductions to topics in history as part of the ‘117-second History’ blog. The Cold War History series of podcasts is available by clicking here. Episode 1 in that series is available below.