How the U.S. Government Misled Itself and its People Into Believing They Could Survive a Nuclear Attack
By Susan Roy

Pop Culture / History
May / June 2011
ISBN: 978-0-9823585-7-3
176 Pages / Over 300 Illustrations

$55 USD

$55 USD

Bomboozled: How the U.S. Government Misled Itself and its People Into Believing They Could Survive a Nuclear Attack

An enormous mushroom cloud was created by the Baker atomic bomb test on July 25, 1946 that was detonated over the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. The bomb vaporized one entire island.

Flames engulf New York city in Chelsey Bonestall’s painting for the Collier’s article “Hiroshima, U.S.A.: Can Anything Be Done About It?”

At left, a poster for the 1952 film, Invasion, U.S.A.; at right, a monstrous ant threatens a cowering woman in a scene from the 1954 black-and-white science-fiction film Them!.

A worried young girl asks “Mummy, what happens to us if the bomb drops?” in a public service newspaper advertisement produced by the Advertising Council. The crayon drawings to the right were done by schoolchildren who witnessed repeated atomic blasts because they lived near the Nevada Proving Grounds, the national bomb testing site outside of Las Vegas. These sketches were published in the June 21, 1952 issue of Collier’s.

Children crouch beneath their desks, performing “Duck and Cover,” top left. At right, the June 21, 1952 issue of Collier’s shows schoolchildren in Indian Springs Nevada – twenty-five miles from the government’s atomic bomb testing site – practicing what they have been told to do in the case of an atomic attack.

A helmeted Mr. Civil Defense played the starring role in the 1956 comic book called Mr. Civil Defense Tells About Natural Disasters. In the 16-page publication, the cartoon character gives step by step instructions for creating a local Civil defense unit to save a community in the aftermath of a calamity – whether a “flood” or an “enemy bombing.”

In 1946, a cake of angel food puffs in the shape of a mushroom cloud sparks off a firestorm of controversy at a party commemorating the dissolution of the Army-Navy task force that conducted the Operation Crossroads atomic bomb tests. On May 24, 1957, Lee Merwin, a showgirl at the Copa Room of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, posed for this photograph and was dubbed “Miss Atomic Bomb” by the Las Vegas News Bureau, the city’s publicity agency.

A 1959 Civil Defense poster promoted The Family Fallout Shelter, a thirty-two-page booklet that detailed step-by-step instructions for building a Concrete Block Shelter.

A drawing illustrates a family creating a “covered foxhole,” an instant, inexpensive shelter that was developed by Civil Defense authorities in response to the public complaints about the high cost of other fallout shelters recommended by the government.

Rather than reprint simple line drawings of fallout shelters from Civil Defense publications, Life commissioned cartoon artist and advertising illustrator Elmer Wexler to create illustrations that would be more appealing to readers. One was this drawing of the Pre-Shaped Metal Shelter, which was published in the September 15, 1962 issue.

Emergency life-sustaining rations – “survival crackers” and “carbohydrate food supplements” – were manufactured in the early 1960s to be stocked in public shelters. At left, an unidentified woman prepares to take a bite of a “Survival Biscuit,” a cracker created by Civil Defense authorities, as published in the Chicago Daily News on March 14, 1962.

Having enough water in the shelter was an absolute must. The labels on the privately-produced “U.S. Aqua” and the government-issued “Emergency Drinking” water cans both claimed that the water would stay potable for years. At right, a man served “Emergency Drinking Water” to people in a public shelter.

The object with the handle is a radiation meter manufactured by the Victorian Instrument Company for Civil Defense workers. It was a far more sophisticated device than the pen-sized dosimeter, at near left, which came with a box-like battery charger, at top left. Grim illustrations to the right, from the New York State Civil Defense Commission’s booklet Protection from Radioactive Fallout, graphically depicts the effects of exposure to various levels of radiation during 24 hours.

Subterranean living enthusiast Jay Swayze’s finest expression of underground living still exists. Designed for his client Girard B. Henderson in Las Vegas, Nevada, the ranch house lies buried beneath a small two-story structure on a large corner lot with tract houses on either side.


Conceived by a misguided government seeking to quiet the fears of an anxious public, the concept of the “Family Fallout Shelter” was Cold War paranoia at its finest, a massive bit of “propaganda by architecture”  that has no more truth behind it than the absurd notion of “duck and cover.” Inundated with government-sponsored films, posters, booklets, traveling caravans and exhibitions, the American family bought into the idea, investing millions of dollars in home shelters of every conceivable material and design. Bomboozled charts the panic-fueled evolution of the shelter from a well-stocked basement pantry to a full-fledged (and often completely decorated) home addition, laying bare the buried truths of America’s family fallout shelter obsession.

About the Author

Susan Roy is a writer and editor on architecture, design, and cultural history. The founding managing editor of Allure magazine, she has also held senior editorial positions at This Old House, SELF, Good Housekeeping and Avenue. She holds a master’s degree in architectural history from Columbia University; Bomboozled is loosely based on the subject of her master’s thesis, “The Family Fallout Shelter During the Cold War.”


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