Home / Issue 15 / Fear then and now.

Fear then and now.

During Counter-terrorism week in 2014, police nationwide distributed leaflets to commuters on how to behave in a terror attack, with advice such as “run, hide and tell”. It ignited a debate vacillating between sardonic criticism of this anodyne phrasing and outrage at government fear-mongering. Despite living in an ‘age of terror’, many of us consider self-defence in anticipation of a comparatively unlikely and unstoppable event, pointless. Yet society is fearful enough to support government initiatives to ‘crackdown’ on ‘terror networks’ and ‘breeding grounds of evil’. What is it that engages us with national threats on one level; yet sceptical on another? Are terrorised? Or are we living normal lives occasionally distracted, disrupted and confused by government posturing?

1950s Cold War Britain faced a new terror of an unprecedented magnitude: the hydrogen bomb. In the same way that current governments seek to inoculate the public against hysteria in the event of a terror attack, 1950s governments sought to prepare civilians to survive nuclear attack – an unknown and unimaginable atrocity. In this context a voluntary corps of ordinary men and women sacrificed their spare time to train as civilian experts prepared to smoothly assist in a nuclear emergency. My research will be exploring how individuals interacted with imposed and external threat, by finding out what it was that compelled ordinary 1950s people to give up their time to the Civil Defence Corps in the era of nuclear fear.

On the surface it may appear that compared to contemporary standards, Civil Defence Corps volunteers were willing to back another war; but there were other reasons for wanting to belong to the Corps besides patriotism and terror. Volunteers found a new hobby to do in their leisure time, enjoyed its associated social activities and learned transferable skills. Perhaps after all, they shared some of the less pliant attitudes, the more cynical perspectives that characterise some perspectives on government terror guidance today. Through my interviews I hope those subtle aspects of involvement will be revealed.

What makes citizens scared, patriotic, and assertive enough to take a lead in preparing to take training for nuclear war, and how do they internalise this experience? What is the psychological impact of threat on society and individuals? If the government attempted to set up a Civil Defence Corps now, to prepare their communities for a terrorist attack, what would the response be? As David Mitchell says, these days “fear is a trendier emotion than gratitude”. Perhaps we are scared enough to take note of the terror guidance – or perhaps it makes us more fearful. Or perhaps it is so removed from our daily lives as British citizens that it doesn’t figure in our imaginations.

When the narrator of this newsreel says “the Civil Defence Corps… believe that while always hoping for the best we must never again be so ill-prepared for the worst” how did viewers imagine the ‘worst’?

About Jessica Douthwaite

PhD candidate, specialising in Cold War oral history. She has an AHRC-funded CDP studentship between the Imperial War Museum & Uni of Strathclyde.

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