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The Media and Civil Defence

By Barrie Zwicker


"FINDING SHELTER from the Bomb" was the essentially misleading headline on page B8 of The Toronto Star on June 25.

The Star, as a paper, has done more than any other Canadian daily to give the danger of nuclear war the visibility it deserves, so this is not to criticize the paper in general.

But this particular story, by Jack Cahill, echoes for the most part the emphasis, and creates the tone that Canadian "emergency preparedness" planners want.

The main emphasis is that a nuclear war is essentially an "emergency" that can be "managed." The tone is one of reassurance. Facts about nuclear explosions known to atomic scientists (see, for instance, "The 'Physics Package' " elsewhere in this issue) are downplayed or absent in the talk of the "emergency planners."

The entering assumptions of the planners are debatable in the extreme. One is that a nuclear war would follow a deterioration period of at least 30 days between the nuclear superpowers. The two planners quoted, Frank Jewsbury, chief of plans for Ottawa's directory of emergency preparedness and Bill Snarr, head of Emergency Planning Canada, are quoted by Cahill as saying shelters would be "of tremendous value" even in the "worst possible scenario, in which a bomb is detonated directly over a Canadian city."

It appears that Canadian civil defence officials are taking the same line as their American counterparts. Insofar as they are, and insofar as the media transmit that line uncritically, they are joined in a potentially incinerating deception of the public.

Consider an analysis of the theories, plans and publicity of the American counterpart of Emergency Planning Canada.

South of the border (a border irrelevant to radioactive clouds) the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been granted increased powers and funding by the Reagan administration. FEMA is launching an extensive public "education" campaign which includes providing all newspapers in the United States with camera-ready articles "describing all aspects of evacuation and shelter." These "are to be printed during a 'crisis-buildup' period."

The minds of the young in the United States are to be reached by FEMA through a "curriculum on emergency management, divided into four sections according to grade levels." This curriculum was pilot-tested in 22 states in 1982.

"An incomplete and optimistic assessment pervades this curriculum," write Jennifer Leaning and Matthew Leighton in a special 16-page supplement to the June-July issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. "In the list of suggested readings there is no reference to The Effects of Nuclear War by the Office of Technology Assessment or the report of the UN Secretary General, Nuclear Weapons. Nuclear war is presented as one more in a series of manageable disasters, along with earthquakes, floods, toxic spills and hurricanes." (Leaning is an emergency physician and internist in the Boston area and co-editor of the forthcoming The Counterfeit Ark: Crisis Relocation and Nuclear War. Leighton is a city planner and staff researcher at the Traprock Peace Centre in Deerfield, Mass.)

The supplement's three analyses of FEMA show that Reagan's appointees are proceeding under the following assumptions:

  • "If you've seen one disaster you've seen them all." FEMA claims that "disaster management represents a series of homogenous procedures applicable to any contingency." This was explained to the U.S. House Committee on Armed Services on March 12, 1982 by FEMA's director, Louis Guiffrida, a Reagan appointee. (Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Scheer writes in With Enough Shovels that Guiffrida uses the term "nuke war" in his speech and that he told ABC News nuke war "would be a terrible mess, but it wouldn't be unmanageable.")

  • The "Tinker Bell" Effect. Under nuclear attack people will behave cooperatively and calmly, "staying within assigned role behavior as long as they feel no substantial conflicts with family obligations and (as long as they) retain confidence in the administrative authorities."

    Leaning and Leighton contend that "if transport, communications and life support systems cease to function" (which is exactly what happens in nuclear war, as a growing number of people know or intuit), "people may very well respond to the actuality, regardless of previous belief systems."

  • The best-case analysis. ". . . if you could get most people out of the cities (whereabout two-thirds of our population – about 135-million people – live) and into that other 95 or 97 per cent of the U.S. land area, many millions of people are going to survive who wouldn't, if they stayed in town," states U.S. civil defence Bulletin No. 306.

    "To imply that a full-scale nuclear war on the United States would affect only three to five per cent of the land area," Leaning and Leighton write, "is to ignore all radiation consequences, the potential for mass fires and firestorms and the cumulative and synergistic effects on economic and ecological systems."

  • Nuclear war is familiar. Throughout civil defence literature, references abound to the Plague and to the Second World War as suitable precedents. Because these were survived, the implication is that nuclear war is survivable. But the Black Death took place over three years in a relatively uncomplicated society, left cities standing, social infrastructures in place, and the environment unscathed. On none of these scores is nuclear war comparable.

  • One aspect can be considered at a time. Perspective is fragmented in FEMA planning and literature. Interactive and synergistic happenings are overlooked. This permitted a so-called expert at the RAND Corporation, N. Hanunian, to write in Dimensions of Survival: Postattack Survival Disparities and National Viability:

    "Man's material resources tend to be less vulnerable to nuclear attacks than himself . . . The resource basis would exist for making output per worker larger postattack than it had been preattack. In this sense, then, nuclear war could be expected to increase per capita wealth."

  • Research is solid. As Guiffrida declared in his March 1982 testimony: "The Civil Defence Research Program provides the scientific, analytical and technical basis for the entire Civil Defence program. It is . . . sound, well documented, and thought through properly and objectively."

    But when Leaning and Leighton reviewed this literature they found reports that addressed "the larger and more relevant issues of feasibility and survivability" came from a relatively small number of authors who "cross-reference each other, share a distribution list, attend the same government-sponsored seminars and over time have developed a hermetic consensus."

Here are some of this network's claims:

  • New York City can be successfully evacuated in 3.3 days. Some requirements of this estimate are air transport of 10.7 per cent of New York City's population to upstate New York airfields by conscripting 50 per cent of U.S. commercial Boeing 747's and 75 per cent of the DC-10's and Lockheed 1011's; water transport to Albany of 2.7 per cent of the population via freighters which are assumed to begin the crisis period at the Manhattan docks, unloaded; and car transport of 57.8 per cent of the population, assuming all two million cars begin with full tanks and only one to two per cent will break down en route.

  • People will remain obedient and cooperative. This assumption is based on a review of literature on natural disasters, the worst of which was an explosion which killed 54 persons outright and injured another 400, of whom 27 later died; an earthquake which resulted in a statewide total of approximately 100 deaths; and a hurricane, which prompted the evacuation of half a million people from coastal areas.

  • Urban recovery will be relatively rapid. One study, Post Attack Recovery of Damaged Urban Areas, estimated that debris clearance could begin in some areas "as soon as 2.5 hours post-attack."

Why is the Reagan administration — with our Canadian authorities apparently following in their familiar bowed stance of obeisance — trying to fool the public to this extent?

It is because everything — paradoxically including the very society ostensibly protected — is incidental to the Cold War ideology through which the White House sees the universe. Lest this be considered ungracious rhetoric, ponder the objectives of the U.S. civil defence program, as defined by President Carter in Presidential Directive 41 and then revised by President Reagan in March 1982. Those objectives are to:

  • "enhance deterrence and stability in conjunction with our strategic offensive and other strategic defensive forces. Civil defence as an element of the strategic balance should assist in maintaining perceptions that this balance is favorable to the U.S.;

  • "reduce the possibility that the U.S. could be coerced in time of crisis;

  • "provide for survival of a substantial portion of the U.S. population in the event of nuclear attack preceded by strategic warning, and for continuity of government should deterrence and escalation control fail."

The American public, note, is mentioned only in the third part, and then as incidental (or central, take your pick) to the nuclearist abstractions which the Reagan administration takes for reality.

A question remains. Wouldn't a civil defence plan actually save at least a few lives, and therefore be worthwhile?

John Lamperti responds to this question in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists special supplement on FEMA. "The life-saving, humanitarian argument would be entirely appropriate," Lamperti writes, "if we were preparing for a natural catastrophe . . . But a nuclear attack is not a natural disaster. Whether nuclear weapons are used depends on human acts, judgment and perceptions. Any sort of large-scale preparations for nuclear war, including civil defence, will have an effect on the chance that there will be a war . . ."

In other words, civil defence activities actually place people in greater danger, increasing the very risk of nuclear war while giving the public a false notion they can survive it. This is a wide garden path indeed.

Consider a scenario put forward by Lamperti. An international crisis develops. The United States puts its massive evacuation program into effect. Then no attack takes place. Days and weeks pass with the crisis unresolved. Millions of Americans are living under conditions of great discomfort. The economy is almost at a standstill, food supplies are short and discontent and confusion become widespread.

"Will we decide," Lamperti asks, "to endure these conditions as weeks become months? Will we end the evacuation and return to our homes while the danger of war continues? Or will some of our leaders feel that matters must be resolved quickly; that a showdown would be preferable to continuing the stresses of relocation?

"It is at least possible," Lamperti, a mathematics professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, argues moderately, "that the crisis would be less stable with evacuation than without it, and so the danger of nuclear war could be increased."

Large numbers of physicians are declaring that it is unethical for them to participate in any planning regarding nuclear holocaust. Their reasoning is similar to Lamperti's. Such preparation both deceives the public and increases the risk of the event.

There are at least three areas of ethical implication for journalists and media managers in the current drift in civil defence planning.

First, how ethically bound are journalists to acquaint themselves in more depth on the civil defence issue? If for no other reason than to be ready should a big peg come along?

Second, how big should the issue be played now? Is it as important as the deaths of the babies at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, for instance? Less important? More important? How do media managers decide?

Third, to what extent should the media acquiesce in the thinking of the authorities? To what extent do journalistic ethics require investigation of the thinking of the authorities? Whose welfare is at stake? To what extent are the media the public's detectives and to what extent the state's messengers? How should the notion of "national security" be considered in dealing with these questions?

One role is already clearly envisioned for the media by the authorities. "Emergency preparedness" planner Jewsbury told The Toronto Star's Cahill that a new system to warn the populace of impending nuclear attack "will use TV and radio channels." In one of the proposed electronic systems, given the cuddly acronym CHAT (for Crisis Home Alerting Technique) "radio and TV sets will utter a loud screech if left on low volume during 'quiet' hours," Cahill wrote, "and this will be followed by an informative message."

The time for informative messages about the threat of nuclear war is now. As the lead editorial in the summer edition of Media Development (the quarterly journal of the World Association of Christian Communication) began: "War is the ultimate failure of public communication; peace is its ultimate aim."

It's a life-and-death matter that our radio and TV channels, and our newspapers and magazines, bring us now a great deal of important — even if unwelcome — information about just how deep the needle has gone into the red zone.

Personally, should the screech come, I'm not going to listen to an "informative message" from my local TV station. I'm going to curse it for not having done more to avoid the calamity that will then be much too late to stop.

Published in Sources Summer 1983

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