Back in 1980, Margaret Thatcher’s government — the safety and well-being of UK citizens being always their main concern — issued a small pamphlet. This new arrival on the literary scene, entitled Protect and Survive, advised the public what to do in the event of all-out nuclear war.
“Read this booklet with care. Your life and the lives of your family may depend upon it.”
Top tips: how to make a fallout room; why you need to fill the bath with water; what foods to stock up on; what to do with a dead body (“cover it as securely as possible. Attach an identification”). Here, you can read the full text of the document.
The booklet complemented a series of Public Information Films which also helpfully explained what to do when the world was hurtling towards mutually assured destruction. (Don’t forget to draw the curtains.)
The advice was timely, as nuclear war seemed both likely and imminent.
In June 1980, the British government announced that cruise missiles would be installed at RAF Greenham Common (leading to a long-lived peace camp). This was in response to the USSR’s deployment of SS-20 missiles, which had the capacity to destroy all of NATO’s bases with little warning. President Ronald Reagan, in 1983, warned of “the aggressive impulses of an evil empire“.
That same year, the Able Archer NATO exercise led some members of the Soviet Politburo to think that the whole “exercise” malarkey was a ruse, and the United States was actually on the brink of a pre-emptive nuclear first strike. In response, the Soviets readied their nuclear forces for strikeback.
We knew it was when, not if. We saw Threads, after all.
William J Perry, the former US Secretary of Defence, still thinks that during the cold war, “we avoided a nuclear holocaust as much by good luck as by good management”.
He’s the William J Perry who, when at the Pentagon in 1980, received a telephone call at 3am. The watch officer at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) informed him that 200 missiles were winging their way towards the United States from the Soviet Union. Should the US retaliate?
No missiles were on their way, of course. The scare was a computer glitch. Still, a bit of a middle-of-the-night conundrum. Die before you retaliate? Or retaliate before you die?
The build-up of nuclear weapons by the United States and the USSR ended in 1991, when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics officially dissolved. Since then, we’ve been less concerned in our daily lives about what to do in the event of fallout.
Not that we shouldn’t be concerned. There are about 15,000 nuclear weapons still lurking in the world. Any single one of them could be launched by mistake or misinterpretation. The Abel Archer war game in November 1983 showed that.
Yet we have reason to hope. The fact that London’s Imperial War Museum is staging an “anti-war” exhibition is in itself a reason to hope. To link with that exhibition, they’re republishing Protect and Survive.
So, if the need to build a fallout room and fill the bath with water suddenly becomes urgent again, you now have the luxury of reading your instructions from a hardback copy of the survival manual.
We just had a booklet. How sturdy is that in the event of a firestorm and its inevitable consequences?
Beat the rush. Buy your copy of Protect and Survive now, in glorious, sturdy, longer-lasting (if not exactly firestorm-proof) hardback for just £6.99.
People Power: Fighting for Peace is at the Imperial War Museum in London between 23 March and 28 August 2017.