The Alert America civil defense exhibit convoy of 1952 was what Millard Caldwell, Administrator of the Federal Civil Defense Administration (1951-1952), called “Paul Revere on Wheels.” The purpose of the much ballyhooed tour was to demonstrate to Americans the value of preparing for an atomic attack by the Soviet Union and, perhaps more strikingly, the consequences of ignoring such a threat. The “Alert America!” book prepared by the John R. Morrison Studio of New York functioned as a kind of “Press Book / Play Book” for the campaign. It is a fascinating and heavily illustrated souvenir from a strange moment in America’s history.
1952 was an excellent year to roll out this bold entry in Cold War pageantry: The Soviets had the Bomb, America was embroiled in a stalemate war in Korea and Senator Joseph McCarthy was just hitting his Red Scare stride. The Alert America convoy (which was actually three separate convoys on three different routes) found a receptive audience in the nearly forty-eight states that it visited. Over the eight-month tour, an estimated one million visitors turned out in eighty-two cities to view the exhibit.
The Alert America convoy concept was a sequel of sorts to the hugely popular Freedom Train tour of 1947-1949. The Freedom Train, sponsored by the American Heritage Foundation (AHF), was a rolling shrine to American triumph. Its 130 documents on loan from the National Archives included German and Japanese surrender paperwork from World War II. The Freedom Train became a phenomenon and drew enormous crowds—far more than could be accommodated. But the towns that the train visited also had carefully planned, pro-American celebrations called “Rededication Weeks” to occupy the overflow throngs. These patriotic events included the taking of the “Freedom Pledge.”
The tour inspired a song “The Freedom Train” by Irving Berlin (“inside you’ll find a precious freight…”), the comics (L’il Abner and Captain Marvel), books, postcards and, of course, a rapturous media and public. One reporter noted that he observed a high school girl literally kiss the train while she waited in line.
The impetus for the Alert America campaign was provided by the National Advisory Council of the FCDA. In June of 1951 this body called for a robust initiative to educate Americans about the peril of Russian attack and the importance of civil defense. Representatives of the FCDA approached the [url=http://www.freedomsfoundation.org/]
Freedoms Foundation[/url] to assist in the project, but that group’s president, Kevin D. Wells decided it would be more prudent to create a new organization for the endeavor. Thus the Valley Forge Foundation was born. One executive of the AHF became a Vice President of the Valley Forge Foundation and thus provided a human link between the Freedom Train and Alert America projects.
As it did for the Freedom Train several years before, Edward H. Burdick Associates of New York designed the exhibits for the Alert America Convoy and as with the Freedom Train various companies and governmental agencies pitched in to help, too. For example, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) advised on content, General Motors, Ford and International Harvester contributed trucks and cars, Standard Oil contributed gas and oil, the U.S. Army contributed convoy drivers, and the Advertising Council produced promotional material (as it did for the Freedom Train). The tagline that the Ad Council came up with was fitting for the general hysteria of the times: “IT’S THE SHOW THAT MAY SAVE YOUR LIFE”
On Monday, January 7, 1952 the cargo of the Alert America convoy of ten trucks was set up for the grand premiere in Departmental Hall on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C. As one of the first exhibits, the opening day visitors saw “City X,” a multimedia depiction of a town before and after an atomic attack. A mushroom cloud lit up its darkened panels while audio of an explosion was played through speakers. The words “THIS COULD BE YOUR CITY” flashed over the devastation. Accompanying scale models of blast damaged buildings drove home the danger. There was also a display of drugs and bandages in the booth labeled “Every Bombed City Will Need Help.”
If the first half of the Alert America displays were intended to shock, the second half was intended to sell the hope of civil defense. Exhibits and demonstrations on shelter preparation, radiation detection and rescue work were presented. One booth offered personalized metal survival dog tags (with name, address, blood type and religion) for fifty cents. When President Harry S. Truman visited the “show” on Friday, January 11, 1952 he had dog tags made for himself and his family.
The burgeoning genre of civil defense motion pictures was well represented in the Alert America program. People dressed in poorly fitting Bert the Turtle costumes worked the floor handing out fliers to see “Bert’s” film DUCK AND COVER.
In keeping with the other Cold War pageants of the era including the Freedom Train, the Alert America Convoy was, at its core, intended to reinforce American values in the face of “Kremlin aggression” as one piece of promotional material put it.
The “Alert America!” book includes many examples of the indoctrination efforts that would be part and parcel of the tour’s mission to arouse the patriotic survival instincts of all Americans. Here are just a few. Note that as with the Freedom Train there is a “pledge.”
EXAMPLE # 1 As previously mentioned, the Alert America Convoy was a significant public relations success, if not the cultural touchstone that the Freedom Train became. Of course, from CONELRAD’s perspective, Alert America is the more interesting of the two “shows.” It is easy to imagine cynical teenagers cutting class to see the exhibit to get a cheap thrill from the “Scare” half of Alert America. Indeed, the Haunted House quality of Alert America must have been hard for most people to resist. The even more magnetic lure of the Freedom Train is harder to relate to from the vantage point of the 21st Century.
APPEAL TO AMERICANS by Kenneth D. Wells, President, Valley Forge Foundation
The “Alert America” Convoy Program is based on these critically important facts:
FACT 1: Our self-declared enemy, the Soviet Union, is determined to rule the world.
FACT 2: We Americans stand in the way of Soviet aggression.
FACT 3: The Enemy opposes us in four ways: a) psychological propaganda, b) economic pressure, c) political maneuvering, d) military force.
FACT 4: The Soviet Union is set on smashing our freedom, our ideals, our moral standards, and our religious beliefs. No one knows when its physical violence will crash down on our cities, factories and farms.
FACT 5: We are now in an all-out fight for freedom against Soviet tyranny.
FACT 6: The Soviet Union has a stockpile of atomic bombs.
FACT 7: The Soviet Union has a supply of long-range bombers that can reach any part of the United States.
FACT 8: The Soviet Union has the means for waging intensive biological warfare.
FACT 9: The Soviet Union has the plan and manpower for vast sabotage inside our cities and factories.
FACT 10: General Hoyt Vandenberg, Air Force Chief of Staff, states that in the event of an air attack on this country, 70 out of 100 bombers would get through to their targets.
FACT 11: The Hiroshima bomb in one second killed or severely injured 140,000 people. Bombs have grown greatly in size and destructive force since then.
FACT 12: An adequate system of Civil Defense by skilled volunteers could not cut fatalities in half.
FACT 13: Secretary of Defense Robert A. Lovett states that Civil Defense is a co-equal partner with the military in the defense of the nation and must become a strong co-equal partner if America is to survive.
With these facts in mind, the Valley Forge Foundation, a non-partisan and non-sectarian group of private individuals, has secured the help and funds, equipment and facilities from companies, individuals and organizations, and under contract with the Federal Civil Defense Administration, has developed a campaign to “Alert America.” The campaign will be dramatized by spectacular educational Exhibits brought to our major cities in three motorized “Alert America” Convoys. These Exhibits will be set up in large convention and exhibit halls of our cities.
We believe the “Alert America” Exhibits will touch off an intensive community-wide program of education and special events under the supervision of the state and city civil defense authorities in cooperation with local citizens groups.
The “Alert America” Convoy Program seeks to achieve these five results:
1. To emphasize the fact that Civil Defense is a part of the total defense of our free American Way of Life, based as it is on a fundamental belief in God, on constitutional government designed to serve the people and our indivisible bundle of political and economic rights.
2. To awaken American men and women, boys and girls—no matter who they are, where they are, or what their station in life may be—to the urgency of their personal participation in a vigorous Civil Defense in their own city, factory, and farm, and to encourage volunteers for such specialized training as may be needed.
3. To help inspire in all Civil Defense organizations the highest possible morale and the resolution to meet any danger that lies ahead.
4. To get ever family, factory, business and institution in America to organize itself as a strong center, a true citadel of Civil Defense working harmoniously with in full cooperation with local Civil Defense authorities.
5. To recognize that “Civil Defense is Common Sense,” and to realize that Civil Defense, like accident prevention in normal life, is a critically important personal responsibility.
Here is a challenge that no American with a conscience can or will ignore.
It is urgent that every American rise above all partisanship and, realizing the common danger, prove his citizenship by actively and personally backing Civil Defense. For here in our time, the destiny of the world is being decided.
We can and must individually hold our ideals high. The hard-driving work and power of our ideals will win out in this time of crisis. We have a sacred privilege that no thinking citizen will ignore—the privilege of serving as did George Washington at Valley Forge in 1777 and 1778—the privilege of accepting this opportunity to save and extend what is dearer than life itself—our American Way of Life.
Train—Work—and Pray—for an “Alert America”!
EXAMPLE # 2:
ALERT AMERICA PLEDGE
You can count on me to be an alert American because I want to help protect our freedoms and construct an enduring piece
I WILL… volunteer for one of the local Civil Defense services
I WILL… train myself and my family now in Civil Defense self-protection
I WILL… prepare a family shelter area and equip it with first aid supplies
I WILL… prepare my home against fire and atomic attack
I WILL… take an active part in Civil Defense where I work
I WILL… take First Aid training
I WILL… donate my blood for our war wounded
I WILL… pass along the Civil Defense lessons I have learned to my friends and neighbors
EXAMPLE # 3:
It is suggested that each Mayor proclaim a community-wide “Alert America” week and each Governor proclaim a State-wide “Alert America” month for the period of the Convoy’s visit.
Whereas the United States of America is challenged by a deadly enemy who would destroy our freedoms, our moral standards, our religious beliefs and everything we hold dear; and
Whereas this enemy has a stockpile of atomic bombs and a supply of long-range bombers that can reach any part of the United States; and
Whereas the Defense Department states that in the event of an air attack on this country 70 out of 100 bombers would get through to their targets; and
Whereas a strong Civil Defense, as a co-equal partner with the Armed Forces, can help protect our freedoms and construct an enduring peace; and
Whereas the non-political, non-sectarian Valley Forge foundation in co-operation with the Federal Civil Defense Administration and State and Local Civil Defense Authorities is sponsoring a nationwide tour of three motorized “Alert America” Convoys; and
Whereas these Convoys are carrying to the cities of our nation a dramatic educational exhibit on Civil Defense; and
Whereas one of the “Alert America” Convoys will arrive in our city on _________ (date) to ______________ (date);
Now, Therefore. I, ______________________ (name), Mayor of ________________ do hereby proclaim “Alert America” Week to begin on _______________ and to end on __________ and do call upon every citizen and every organized group to take part in the events of _______________ (city) “Alert America” Week and to cooperate in every way possible with the spirit of the week and of the “Alert America” every way possible with the spirit of the week and of the “Alert America” Exhibit; and to work devotedly to know our freedoms, love our freedoms, and guard our freedoms; to participate actively in Civil Defense; and by every means to train and work and pray for an “Alert America.”
In Witness Whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the City of _____________ to be affixed, this _______________ (date).
Mayor’s Signature __________________
Mayor of the City of ________________
The “Alert America!” book is so rare it deserves a tour of its own and it will fit in a Toyota Prius with room to spare.
The following reference works were used in this book review:
The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming: Pageantry and Patriotism in Cold War America by Richard M. Fried, 1998 (Oxford University Press, New York)
This is Only a Test: How Washington D.C. Prepared for Nuclear War by David F. Krugler, 2006 (Palgrave MacMillan, New York)
“Truman Sees ‘Alert’ Display, Pledges Self,” The Washington Post, January 12, 1952
For more on the Freedom Train, read CONELRAD's review of the Good Citizenship booklet, "an official Freedom Train publication" from 1948.
1952 Sponsored by the Valley Forge Foundation in cooperation with Federal Civil Defense Administration and State and Local Civil Defense Authorities
Book designed by John R. Morrison Studio, New York
Alert America Exhibit Design by Edward H. Burdick Associates, New York