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Arts & Culture

The Chilling Reality Of Cold War Nuclear Survival

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERATION ALERT DRILL)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: New York City's teeming millions prime target for an atomic attack go about their normal affairs.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sixty years ago today, America took cover. Ten a.m. Eastern Time, sirens sounded in 54 cities, including New York and Washington, D.C. for Operation Alert, the nation's first civil defense drill. People were told to get to their nearest civil defense shelter. So bank clerks, factory workers, shopkeepers and store clerks went down into basements and subway tunnels. President Eisenhower took a helicopter to an undisclosed location. School kids did the duck and cover in their classrooms. The drill lasted about 10 minutes, and a newsreel at the time showed empty streets and silence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANNOUNCER: All clear. New York's first civil defense drill is a tribute to its citizens and defense organizations.

UNIDENTIFIED SIMON: The drill was proclaimed a success because people were calm, orderly and civil. But post-drill analysis estimated that 2 million people in New York would have died in a nuclear attack and 12 million across the country. The Cold War had chilling statistics. More public figures began to say, in President Kennedy's phrase, that in a nuclear war, the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth. Operation alerts were canceled after 1962. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.