Before the Orwellian Homeland Security Agency, the US only had the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Before FEMA, was an array of federal agencies that dealt with disaster management. The most famous of those was the Civil Defense Administration.
In 1954, during the Cold War, the Federal Civil Defense office began an annual nationwide exercise they called Operation Alert. The exercise was basically a civil defense drill to take place on the same day across the United States. Citizens who lived in strategic cities were required to “take cover” for 15-minutes. During the drill, officials were to test their communications systems and assess their communities’ level of readiness.
Leading up to the exercise, federal, state, and local agencies advertised the need for readiness planning in the event of an atomic bomb attack. Everybody needed to know where the nearest fallout shelters were located. Citizens were told what to do and what to expect if a nuclear attack took place. These locations included underground subway tunnels, the basements of government buildings, schools, and private shelters.
On June 14, 1954, the first Cold War civil defense drill took place across the US. The main interests included: 54 “target cities” in mainland United States, the territories of Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Alaska, Hawaii, and much of Canada. The drill purpose was to stage a pretended or mock act of aggression against the US. The faux nuclear attack would be an assault from enemy bombers and submarine forces.
Air raid sirens sounded at 10:00 AM in the targeted cities. At this time everybody was ordered off the streets to seek shelter and brace themselves for the attack. The actual duration of the first drill was around ten-minutes. Afterwards an all-clear blast of the air-raid sirens was sounded and also announced on radio and teevee stations. Even President Dwight Eisenhower participated in the show-attack by shuffling off to his underground bunker.
The next day, newspapers and broadcasters reported the fake statistics of the “attacks”. Supposedly more than 12,000,000 Americans were “killed” in the mock disaster. The public relations news releases also listed the number of “bombs” dropped and how many cities were “destroyed”.
Even though most people followed the orders without panic, there were scattered reports of upset citizens and traffic jams. Amazingly there was no criminal behavior or looting during the ten minute drill. Although there were a few minor problems with broadcasters and dispatchers, for the most part, authorities were officially pleased with the first Operation Alert.
One retired military expert, however, offered a different assessment of the exercise. He noted that the recent development and testing of a hydrogen bomb by the Soviet Union outstripped the progress made in civil defense preparedness. He believed that participation in future air raid drills would be an exercise in futility.
The next year, the State of New York made the failure to take cover during Operation Alert exercises a punishable misdemeanor with fines of $500 and up to one year imprisonment. On Operation Alert day 1955, a group of pacifists protested the heavy handed law by staging a protest at Manhattan City Hall Park.
At the blowing of the sirens, 27 protesters sat down on the park benches. They explained to reporters, who were also present, that they were opposed to the government’s pretense that people could actually be saved in the event of an actual, full-scale atom bomb attack. The activists were arrested and given suspended sentences. I could find no information regarding official treatment of the journalists who also failed to take cover that day.
During subsequent years, progressively larger protests took place on Operation Alert days. A group of young mothers organized a peaceful, large-scale demonstration for the May 3, 1960 Operation Alert day. Several hundred protesters, their children and several celebrities showed up at City Hall Park dressed in their “Sunday best” clothing. Everyone rallied around one slogan. “Peace is the only defense against nuclear war.”
Then, for the 1961 episode of Operation Alert, the young mothers group gathered over 2,500 people to protest in New York City. More protests sprung up in other states, too. In addition, hundreds of college students participated in their own demonstrations at East Coast campuses.
In 1962, the Civil Defense Administration permanently canceled Operation Alert exercises.