Bert the Turtle was merrily walking on the street when a monkey that’s hanging from a tree held out a lit firecracker tied to a fishing rod near Bert’s head. Being the alert turtle he is, he quickly ducked and covered himself in his shell. The monkey and the tree were destroyed in the explosion, but Bert was perfectly safe because he ducked and covered.
This story isn’t from a children’s book but the summary of Bert the Turtle film that was created in 1951 by the US Federal Civil Defense Administration to teach children what to do during a nuclear blast in a cute, optimistic, fun way. Animation plus lively music and tone were used to capture the interest and attention of its intended audience, the children. If you’re one of those audiences at that time, the theme song is still probably haunting you today. You can watch it here.
Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, three generations of Americans lived under the near-constant threat of nuclear war with the USSR. People stockpiled emergency supplies, the government required public bomb shelters be incorporated into urban planning and millions of Americans built their own concrete bomb shelters in their back yards. In the public schools, an attempt was made to instruct children on what to do if a nuclear attack occurred without terrifying them out of their wits. To try to make this horrific subject easier for children to process, it would need a spokesman that kids could relate to and remember. The answer to the question was Bert the Turtle.
Nuclear Bomb Threat
The threat and danger of nuclear bombing alarmed the country at that time after the Soviet Union detonated its first nuclear device in a remote area in Kazakhstan. It was a part of the nuclear tests that they were conducting. The Soviets had been working on an Atomic bomb of their own for years but were able to accelerate their program because of the assistance of two Americans spying for the Russians: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were part of an extensive spy network in the U.S.
The Bert the Turtle film was shown in elementary schools for years. In the video, it shows that shelters were built (marked with S), and drills were held. According to the United States Library of Congress, it “was seen by millions of schoolchildren in the 1950s.”
Will ducking and covering yourself help you against a 50 megaton explosion?
Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science and nuclear weapons, thinks the answer is yes. On his blog, he wrote, “Hiding under your desk probably wouldn’t help you much if the bomb went off right over your head, but could be significant for all of the people who were within a mile or so of the blast.”
A team of American doctors conducted research after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They asked survivors where they were when the explosion happened.
The Diefen-Bunker, the Canadian Cold War Museum made from a gigantic, four-story underground bunker system relates that “the researchers found that those who had been sheltered had survived and appeared to be in better health compared to those who weren’t. In fact, something as simple as standing behind a tree or being in the water made a significant difference in the effects to the body.”
Some other critics also pointed out that the animation and the theme song’s lyrics were disturbing. For instance, History Is Now Magazine wrote, “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.”
These critics seem to miss that there is a distinction between trying to give useful children information without leaving them terrorized in the process.
Was there really a threat of nuclear war with China or was the country just gripped in paranoia?
Fortunately, we haven’t had the chance to test the effectiveness of duck and cover yet in a real-life scenario. But as the narrator in Bert the Turtle said, “Be sure and remember what Bert the Turtle just did, friends because every one of us must remember to do the same thing. That’s what this film is all about. Duck and cover.”