By Sarah Eilers ~
Three-inch type and spinning fast, the headline hurtles toward the viewer. When it comes to a stop, you know: the Soviets have tested a hydrogen bomb, and it’s a time of high anxiety in the United States.
The fear addressed in the 1954 film Let’s Face It took root in the 1940s, in the aftermath of the development of the atomic bomb. More than 70 years ago on August 6, the United States dropped two such bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, followed by a Japanese surrender and the end of the Second World War.
It was understood that this would be the start of something else.
“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
— J. Robert Oppenheimer, considered the father of the atomic bomb, quoting the Bhagavad Gita.
Civil defense—the knowledge and skills that citizens must develop and deploy to protect their health and lives at a time of catastrophe—was not a new concept. It’s essential to surviving natural as well as man-made disasters, but Let’s Face It makes clear that the threat of all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union made it a top priority in the 1950s. In 1950, President Truman launched the Federal Civil Defense Administration (which produced this film in 1954) to prepare the public for a nuclear attack. According to this timeline from www.atomictheater.com, more than 50 safety and civil defense-themed films for the public were produced in the next 15 to 20 years, not only by the federal government but also by corporate entities such as the Bell Telephone Company and the Institute of Life Insurance.
This film features the Red Cross, piercing air raid sirens, and townspeople hurrying into shelters, drilling for the real event, but in a more interesting sequence, we see a fake town under construction in the Nevada desert. This massive scientific experiment involved the construction of office buildings, a rail line, bridges, streets with vehicles, a fully furnished home, and more—all raised for the purpose of leveling them in a spectacular nuclear test explosion. Why? Because effective civil and military defense are dependent on knowing what it is you might be facing. A synthetic forest is erected at the edge of town to assess the protective value of foliage and trees. Fabrics, paints, and other materials are set at varying distances from the blast site. Will they melt? Burn? When the mushroom cloud dissipates, trained “radiological safety agents” will measure the radiation left behind. Our narrator is clear: “Every bit of twisted steel makes its contribution.”
Let’s Face It quickly became obsolete as missiles overtook planes as the most likely method of warhead delivery. The notion of an early warning evaporated. Regardless, the film packs more than a little punch, closing with an eerie image. Another mushroom cloud rises against a darkened sky as silhouetted humans gather to watch from a distance. “Let us recognize the threat to our way of life. The threat to our survival. And…let’s face it.”
Sarah Eilers is the Manager of Historical Audiovisuals in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.