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"I cannot tell you when or where the attack will come or that it will come at all," President Truman told the nation in 1950. "I can only remind you that we must be ready when it does come." With those chilling words, he launched the Civil Defense Administration--and a challenge that frightened, bewildered, and sometimes amused Americans. They were to think the unthinkable: that they could somehow survive the blast, heat, and radiation of a direct nuclear attack.

Schools added a new subject known as duck and cover. On command, students were taught to crouch, shield their eyes, and seek cover under any available shelter, including their desks. Parents were assured that children would be safe in school and could be picked up when the all clear sounded. Just in case, however, some schools issued military-style dog tags to identify students after an attack.

Civil defense manuals issued by the federal government, with titles such as The Family Fallout Shelter and Education for National Survival, urged homeowners to install shatterproof windows and buy Geiger counters to measure ambient radiation. "Your chances of living through an atomic attack are much better than you thought," reassured one manual. "At Nagasaki, almost 70 percent of the people a mile from the bomb lived to tell their experience." To improve their chances, 1 in every 20 Americans either modified their homes to include basement-based shelters with reinforced framing or acquired the ultimate in family protection by arranging for an underground bomb shelter in their backyards. (86)