By Sarah Eilers
Vulnerability to Covert Attack. The film title seems as relevant today as it must have when it was made, in the Cold War days of 1959.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the United States government produced, or supported the production of, scores of films concerning the threat of atomic, biological, and chemical weapons, their likely physiological and health effects, and recommended civil defense tactics to protect civilian populations against them. Many of these films were oriented to the public and to local officials who might have to engineer mass evacuations or handle large numbers of casualties. Others were intended for a military audience only, with the protective tactics to be applied to soldiers in the field or sailors at sea. These films were classified as “for official use only” or “not for public distribution.”
Vulnerability to Covert Attack is one such film. The public is permitted to see it today as a historical piece, but not so at the time it was made. The film documents tests conducted near a coastal airbase—exact location not disclosed—in which possible covert attack scenarios are enacted. In one, men ostensibly fishing on an ordinary motorboat spray a biological agent along the shore; the weaponized spray is indistinguishable from the churn of water behind the boat. In another, a car winds along local roads, similarly dispensing a debilitating or fatal agent that blends in with the automobile exhaust. The tests demonstrated the ease with which enemy agents could attack targets while arousing no suspicions.
The film aims to show how chemical agents, such as nerve toxins, could be distributed through a variety of weapons. The camera documents the precise physical effects, relying on footage of animal experiments which may be disturbing to some. Small rodents and primates are situated in stockade-like structures with their heads exposed; goats are placed in trenches, dying immediately when a deadly chemical agent is fired from a nearby howitzer; and an experiment to determine the exact number of seconds required to kill a rabbit with a toxic gas is recorded. In one test, human volunteers stand alongside the monkeys, also subjecting themselves to the harmful, though in this case not fatal, agent.
Jake Hughes, curator of Atomic Theater, provides history and context for civil defense and other Cold War films. In a recent conversation, he noted that he had never seen this full-length film, though he recognized segments of it from other civil defense titles. Hughes commented in an e-mail:
“Vulnerability to Covert Attack uses footage recycled from another Federal Civil Defense Administration film. The animated scenes which describe the effects of nerve gas on human brain cells were first used in Nerve Gas Casualties and Their Treatment, a 1957 film created by the F.C.D.A. and E. R. Squibb and Sons (now Bristol-Myers Squibb). Reusing footage seems to have been a very common practice with these instructional short films….What makes this case unique is that, while each film has a different narrator, they read the exact same lines during that particular scene.”
Atomic Theater’s discussion of another film NLM holds—Let’s Face It—mentions how abruptly some civil defense titles became obsolete when authorities realized an attack would likely come from long-range missiles rather than bombers, affording less time to recognize the threat and get people into shelters.
Unlike other films of this genre, Vulnerability… also addresses the danger of non-lethal agents, in particular a psychedelic drug, LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide). We see LSD’s effect on a cat, and on servicemen who have volunteered for the experiment. The soldiers march in formation, then receive LSD in their coffee, and again attempt to march. Instead, the soldiers stumble about, laughing. The 1940s and 1950s were a time of considerable curiosity about LSD. Clinical researchers in fields ranging from migraine research to alcoholism treatment to couples’ therapy conducted thousands of experiments to discern its effects. Watching this film, it’s not difficult to imagine the military’s concern that the powerful mind-altering substance could be used disruptively, perhaps devastatingly.
Another “knockdown” agent mentioned in the film is CS-4640, which at the time was in development as a non-lethal chemical weapon. In Vulnerability…, CS-4640 paralyzes a dog for an hour, but the animal recovers. More scientific details about CS-4640 are provided in the October 1980 (Vol. 7, No. 3) newsletter of the International Primate Protection League. The newsletter reveals that although this agent passed tests on some animals, it was found to be fatal to primates, and presumably to humans, an outcome that perhaps had not been discovered at the time the film was made.
The Cold War ended around 1990, but concerns about chemical and biological weapons have only deepened, with current fears centering around poisons or disease agents in the hands of extremist groups or unscrupulous dictatorships, rather than a fleet of Soviet bombers sweeping across the United States.
Check NLM’s LocatorPlus catalog or contact the Historical Audiovisuals Collection for more information on our mental health related films and videos.
Sarah Eilers is the Manager of Historical Audiovisuals in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.