The Grim Truth about Nuclear War

In 1951, a Saturday Evening Post article reviewed your chances for surviving a nuclear strike in dispassionate detail.


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A nuclear strike in the United States has been a threat, at varying levels of urgency, since the Soviets exploded an atomic bomb on September 29, 1949. The recent tensions with North Korea have many Americans considering what exactly they would do in the event of a nuclear blast.

People were wondering the same thing in 1951, and with alarm: A Soviet nuclear attack appeared inevitable, and imminent. In April of that year, The Saturday Evening Post issued a two-part series on your chances of survival during an atom bomb strike.

Titled “The Grim Truth about Civil Defense,” the authors half-heartedly paint silver linings on a picture that is, indeed, grim. A dispassionate recitation of facts and figures leads to the conclusion that with a proper early warning system, American casualties could be cut from 12 million to 4.5 million. Cold comfort for a cold war.

While we can hope that mishaps like mid-January’s false missile alert in Hawaii will be the last time a nuclear threat strikes fear into the hearts of Americans, it certainly wasn’t the first time. On December 6, 1950, the White House was informed that 40 unidentified planes were about to attack the northeast United States; surely it was a Soviet nuclear strike. Unfortunately, when officials tried to open the door of the White House bomb shelter, they found it jammed shut. While still frantically pulling on the door, they received word that there had been a mistake. There weren’t 40 planes, only one: a U.S. Army C-47. Luckily, “The story’s ending is ridiculous rather than tragic.”

Read Part I of “The Grim Truth about Civil Defense,” from the April 14, 1951, issue of the Post.


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