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A peek in the LA City Archive: How the city prepped for nuclear war in the 1950s

A not very reassuring booklet found in the LA City Archive
A not very reassuring booklet found in the LA City Archive
Courtesy LA City Archive
A not very reassuring booklet found in the LA City Archive
A hat would NOT have saved your life.
Courtesy LA City Archive

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Michael Holland, Los Angeles city archivist, checks in regularly with Off-Ramp. This time he pulls out a box from the archives that shows how L.A. dealt with the threat of nuclear war.

Los Angeles has been preparing for worst-case scenarios for many decades, from earthquakes to floods to wildfires, and you can find the paperwork for all that prep work here in the city archives. But inside Box B-2196, you’ll find how the city prepared citizens for the worst disaster of all — nuclear attack.

In January of 1951, the L.A. City Council enacted Ordinance 97,600. It defined a disaster as “an act of violence affecting the local, state or national welfare.” It needed to be defined because Southern California had become such a major producer of military technology, not to mention the importance of the seaports at San Pedro and Long Beach, plus all our airports.

The possibility of enemy attack wasn’t at all unreasonable. And of course we knew just how bad a nuclear attack could be — we saw it in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So, we get the mundane plans and nightmare scenarios in the papers in this box.

One example comes from the transcript for “Atomic Attack Survival,” a City Council committee hearing from August 1959. A Mr. J.H. Goodrich, representing Pacific Telephone and Telegraph, described an early version of what we would now call “reverse 911 calling” whereby authorities can call a number of citizens simultaneously in an emergency.

“There are a number of units that can be rung at one time by just energizing the signal,” Goodrich said. “But we would have to charge for that.”

VIDEO: US Nuclear Tests in 1959

Meanwhile, speaking of communication, throughout the 1950s the city increased the strength of the radios in police and fire vehicles, utility trucks and even animal control cars. The City Council approved and spent both local and federal civil defense resources to upgrade infrastructure everywhere. Soon, police and fire departments could keep in contact while inside tunnels and in remote locations.

(An undated photo of a woman at the entrance of a bomb shelter. Image: Ralph Morris/LAPL)

Alongside the rational public safety discussions resides the assortment of materials on what a post-bomb world might look like. The pamphlets and books may have tried to reduce the fear of atomic death by offering resilience as a mantra — but it’s not very reassuring.

One such book is titled “How To Survive An Atomic Bomb,” published in 1950. The paperback cover carried the warning, “If there’s atomic warfare, this book may save your life!” It gives bomb shelter layouts and talks about fallout, and then there’s what we’d call an FAQ. Will food containers be safe to eat from? Page 74 answers that question:

 “Atomic rays can pass through tin and glass very easily. This does not cause them to spoil and make them dangerous to eat. BUT don’t eat anything from a car or jar or package that was opened before the atomic bomb went off or that was broken open. Better to throw it away.” - Excerpt from booklet, “How To Survive An Atomic Bomb.”

After a similar discussion on safe water, page 76 asks, “How about smoking? Is it all right to smoke?” Let’s not even get into the question on page 111 about rural living that goes,  “You said earlier that light-colored materials throw off the heat of the bomb-flash better than dark-colored ones. Does this apply to animals too?” You’ll have to come to the archive to get the answer to that one.

So far, we’ve avoided the real-life fate depicted by these morbid pamphlets, and the widespread fear of nuclear attack has faded into history. I know a guy who turned his backyard bomb shelter into a wine cellar. I suppose there are more enjoyable ways to ride out the end of Los Angeles, but that one is good enough for me.

(Michael Holland's commentary originally appeared in the city employee newspaper, "Alive!")