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What is a Duck and Cover Drill?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 17, 2024
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For millions of people who grew up during the Cold War era, a drill known as "duck and cover" was just as familiar as a school fire or tornado drill is today. Students were urged to duck under their desks and cover their heads to protect themselves from the dangerous debris and radiation associated with a nuclear detonation. The federal government even sponsored a short educational film with this title that featured Bert, an animated turtle with a civil defense helmet, and various schoolchildren demonstrating the proper way to protect themselves in case of an atomic bomb.

Considering the general atmosphere of paranoia concerning the menace of communism and the Soviet Union's possession of nuclear weapons, the US government's suggestion to "duck and cover" seemed to be a logical one at the time. Those outside of the epicenter of a nuclear explosion would stand a better chance of survival if they protected their exposed skin from radiation and their bodies from the shards of debris scattered by the inevitable shock waves.

Drills generally began with the imagined sighting of an extremely bright flash, thought to be the first sign of an unexpected nuclear attack. Upon seeing that light, students were to immediately dive under their desks and position themselves away from windows. Students who saw the flash in a hallway were to cover themselves against the wall. Anyone caught outdoors was to immediately take shelter in the nearest building.

One of the more inadvertently humorous scenes in the official "Duck and Cover" film shows a family enjoying an outdoor picnic when the dreaded flash appears. Immediately, some family members dive under the picnic blanket, scattering food in the process. The father, who had been busy grilling hamburgers, grabs a single sheet of newspaper and dives under the grill for protection. While certain types of radioactive materials can indeed be thwarted by a single sheet of newspaper, it is highly unlikely anyone would survive a nuclear bomb's powerful effects protected by nothing more than paper or a picnic blanket.

This battle between the harsh realities of nuclear war and the government's efforts to downplay the threat ultimately put an end to the drills. Civilians soon became aware of the fact that a thin wooden school desk would offer very little if any real protection against a high-yield nuclear bomb. The entire program became the object of some ridicule as the Cold War era ended without major incident. The government's advice may not have been entirely accurate, but it did serve to heighten awareness of a real nuclear threat.

Some school systems did keep the duck and cover drills as part of their overall emergency preparedness routine into the 1970s and even 1980s, but the threat of a nuclear attack has decreased significantly since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Those drills have largely been replaced with fire drills, tornado drills and "drop, cover and hold on" drills in earthquake-prone areas of the country.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to America Explained, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By Melonlity — On Mar 01, 2014

As add as it sounds, such drills did seem logical at the time. You'd think anyone who knew anything about the devastating impact of nuclear weapons on Nagasaki and Hiroshima would have realized that hiding under a school desk wouldn't do much to protect kids from nuclear attacks.

That was even more true during the Cold War era where nuclear weapons became considerably more powerful and plentiful.

The Cold War was a strange chapter in world history.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to America Explained, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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