Two worlds of civil defense: state, society, and nuclear survival in the USA and USSR, 1945-1991 Public Deposited

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  • March 22, 2019
  • Geist, Edward Moore
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of History
  • This dissertation provides the first historical study of the Soviet civil defense program from 1945 until 1991, as well as the first comparative account of American and Soviet civil defense. Defined as the use of measures such as shelter and evacuation to reduce damage to civilian life and property caused by enemy attack or other disaster, civil defense evolved over time in both superpowers. Initially, civil defense focused exclusively on the consequences of enemy air attack, yet by 1991, both American and Soviet civil defense oversaw preparations to mitigate the effects not only of nuclear war, but also of industrial accidents and natural disasters. Civil defense presents an ideal opportunity for exploring the impact of the atomic age on Soviet and American culture because it was the means whereby ordinary citizens learned about the prospect of nuclear catastrophe. Bombarding citizens with civil defense propaganda, both governments attempted to inculcate a belief that their nations could survive and win a nuclear war, but the content of these messages contrasted dramatically. While Moscow promised that the state would ensure citizens' collective survival, Washington delegated survival preparations to families and businesses. The two countries' civil defense programs differed as much as their propaganda, with the Soviet Union secretly investing heavily in bomb shelters while American civil defense largely remained on paper--a consequence of the superpowers' radically different attitudes toward nuclear war. While elucidating how civil defense both reflected and shaped Soviet and American Cold War culture, this study makes three interrelated historical arguments. First, civil defense agencies in both superpowers promulgated narratives about nuclear warfare that suited their institutional needs, and as a result civil defense sometimes contradicted other government propaganda. Second, it argues against the contention that the superpowers' civil defense programs constituted a mendacious effort to delude the populace into accepting the dangers of the arms race, as civil defense officials earnestly believed in the possibility and necessity of their institutional mission. Finally, it finds that civil defense made only limited impact on Cold War nuclear strategy, as the USSR did not regard its civil defense as a possible strategic advantage.
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  • In Copyright
  • Raleigh, Donald
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Graduation year
  • 2013

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