Communicating the Unthinkable

About

This is a blog where I share documents + artefacts from the Cold War. It focuses on British civil defence and 'domestic propaganda' from 1950-1990, with other bits thrown in from time to time.

It's written and edited by me, Taras Young. I collect this stuff. I try to post something new as often as I can, at least once a month.

To stay up-to-date, follow the blog on Twitter:

@coldwaruk

More info

Categories

1950s · 1960s · 1970s · 1980s · Administration · Advertisement · Analysis · Booklet · Central Government · Central Office of Information · Civil Defence · Civil Defence Corps · Document · Emergency planning · Home Office · International · Leaflet · Local Government · Media · Medical · Military · Ministry of Defence · Postcards · Protest · Public Information · Training and Tools

Recent posts

Airdropped leaflet from the Grapple nuclear tests

This is a leaflet produced by the British government in 1957 and intended to be airdropped over the Pacific Ocean. Unlike most airdropped leaflets, this one isn’t propaganda – it’s a very real warning to get out of the area, or risk being nuked.

Operation Grapple was a series of nuclear weapons tests carried out by the UK in the Pacific from 1957 to 1958. The first tests, Grapple 1, 2 and 3, featured Britain’s first ever thermonuclear weapons – what most of us know as hydrogen bombs. Up to this point, Britain had had fission (‘atomic’) bombs, but H-bomb tests by the U.S. and Russia in 1952/53 meant the UK had to be seen to be up-to-speed. Britain had to test its own H-bomb or risk losing its place on the world stage.

Continue reading →

Protect and Survive – Creating the Campaign

This first blog post is on one of my pet topics, the myth and reality surrounding the Protect and Survive public information campaign. I’d welcome any feedback, especially if you spot any inaccuracies or omissions – drop me a line on Twitter.


“The average person, if given the choice of being blasted or frizzled on the one hand, or taking his chance of dying a lingering death from fallout on the other, would opt for the latter course every time…” – Home Office memo, 3rd September 1975


Protect and Survive is best known today as a 1980s pamphlet offering advice – bad advice – on protecting your family and property if nuclear weapons were ever used against the UK. Met with ridicule by a sceptical media, and derided in popular culture, Protect and Survive has been become lodged in the popular imagination as an unusual, unsettling and ultimately ineffectual campaign.

Influenced by the media, and reinforced by every retelling, a myth developed around Protect and Survive which has created a distorted, parallel version of the campaign. It has even led to false memories – people who claim they were frightened out of their wits by the pamphlet’s arrival in their letterbox, even though it was never actually distributed like that; people terrified by the broadcast of the animated films on TV (of which only extracts were ever shown). Of course, the myth built up around Protect and Survive is often quite far removed from the reality.

Despite looming large in early 1980s popular culture, very little has been done to actually examine or deconstruct Protect and Survive. In this series of blog posts, I’m going back to the origins of the campaign to present a better idea of where it came from, how it was developed, why it ‘went nuclear’, and why we remember it the way we do.

Continue reading →

Welcome

Hello! I’m Taras and I research and collect Cold War documents. That’s me on the right, half way out of a nuclear bunker.

This is my blog, which loosely focuses on British civil defence and ‘domestic propaganda’ from around 1950-1990.

Why?

As a teenager snooping around my grandparents’ attic, I found a dusty copy of an early 1950s Civil Defence booklet called ‘Atomic Warfare’. This piqued my interest, and led – a few years later – to my first purchase: a copy of the infamous ‘Protect and Survive’ booklet.

Later still, as a postgraduate studying communication and public affairs, I based my Master’s dissertation on the items in my burgeoning collection of public information documents. Like this blog, it was titled ‘Communicating the Unthinkable’, and it looked at how the British government chose to communicate large-scale threats to the public.

A decade in the making…

I got a kick out of researching and analysing the documents, and decided to set up a blog. That was back in 2007. Real life got in the way, and I shelved the idea… for ten years. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it – or collecting.

The delay was probably for the best. My collection now contains well over 300 items, ranging from the curious, to the frightening, to the hilarious. Often, as with most Cold War stuff, it’s a bit of all three.

The scope of the items I’ve collected means I can make connections that wouldn’t have been possible when I was just starting out.

Beyond ‘ooh, wasn’t it scary?’

It would be easy, and probably quite boring, to just post scans of documents without any context or thought, perhaps with a bit of stock ‘wow, those were some scary times’ commentary. Instead, I want to share some more useful insight into these artefacts, joining the dots between them, and bringing them to life.

I will try to post often as I can, with the aim of something new at least once a week.

Please follow @coldwaruk on Twitter for updates to this site, and direct any comments or ideas to me. Now that’s out of the way… let’s get started. I hope you enjoy this frequently rather bonkers side of 20th century history as much as I do.


Thanks in particular to Danny Birchall, Prof John Preston, Dr Becky Alexis-Martin and Dr Nick Blackbourn for prodding me into finally getting this thing up and running.