Stages of Emergency

Cold War Nuclear Civil Defense

Stages of Emergency

Book Pages: 432 Illustrations: 58 illustrations Published: June 2007

Author: Tracy C. Davis

American Studies, History > U.S. History, Theater and Performance

In an era defined by the threat of nuclear annihilation, Western nations attempted to prepare civilian populations for atomic attack through staged drills, evacuations, and field exercises. In Stages of Emergency the distinguished performance historian Tracy C. Davis investigates the fundamentally theatrical nature of these Cold War civil defense exercises. Asking what it meant for civilians to be rehearsing nuclear war, she provides a comparative study of the civil defense maneuvers conducted by three NATO allies—the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom—during the 1950s and 1960s. Delving deep into the three countries’ archives, she analyzes public exercises involving private citizens—Boy Scouts serving as mock casualties, housewives arranging home protection, clergy training to be shelter managers—as well as covert exercises undertaken by civil servants.

Stages of Emergency covers public education campaigns and school programs—such as the ubiquitous “duck and cover” drills—meant to heighten awareness of the dangers of a possible attack, the occupancy tests in which people stayed sequestered for up to two weeks to simulate post-attack living conditions as well as the effects of confinement on interpersonal dynamics, and the British first-aid training in which participants acted out psychological and physical trauma requiring immediate treatment. Davis also brings to light unpublicized government exercises aimed at anticipating the global effects of nuclear war. Her comparative analysis shows how the differing priorities, contingencies, and social policies of the three countries influenced their rehearsals of nuclear catastrophe. When the Cold War ended, so did these exercises, but, as Davis points out in her perceptive afterword, they have been revived—with strikingly similar recommendations—in response to twenty-first-century fears of terrorists, dirty bombs, and rogue states.


Stages of Emergency provides a highly critical view of the anti-nuclear defence measures adopted in the US, Britain and Canada at the time. Tracy Davis unearths the extensive social effects of Cold War civil defence policies, and their considerable impact on public and private life. It would be comforting to think that some members of the current US administration would have the insight to learn some lessons from this book.” — Tim Roberts, M/C Reviews

“[An] inspired reading of the cold war. . . . The historical reach of Davis’s study, from the defense planning f the early 1950s and 1960s to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, is as impressive as her ability to move with subtlety between civil defense in the United States and that in Canada or Britain.” — Martin Halliwell, Theatre Survey

“Based on an impressive array of declassified documents form archives in the United States, Canada, Britain, Belgium, and Ireland, Stages of Emergency is exhaustively researched and international in scope. Wonderfully illustrated with dozens of fantastic photographs and rich with detail, the book illuminates the full complexity and futility of planning for a cataclysmic nuclear war. The result is a fascinating and disturbing story that is—as with all things civil defense—occasionally laughable.” — Kenneth Osgood, American Studies

“Davis presents meticulous discussions throughout the book, with extremely well-endnoted references, helping her to paint clear and in-depth pictures of these various exercises. These stories are surprisingly amusing to read, despite the seriousness of their underlying logic.” — Joshua Abrams, TDR: The Drama Review

“The most impressive aspect of Davis’s methodology is her ability to use extensive archival research to draw out the differences between the three nations’ approaches to civil defense based on economic factors. . . . Stages of Emergency is an important and accessible book for any scholar interested in the Cold War or the performance of politics. Tracy C. Davis’s exciting new text marks a significant departure from her previously published work, opening up new possibilities for the ways that performance studies can be transferred from the stage to all aspects of life.” — Noe W. Montez, New England Theatre Journal

“With this book, Davis has made a powerful contribution to the literature on the Cold War and modeled how to apply a new set of theoretical tools to the cultural history of civil defense.” — Patrick B. Sharp, Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

“Tracy C. Davis is a leading performance historian, and in Stages of Emergency she applies her considerable skills to a kind of ‘play’ that permeated the consciousness and determined much social reality in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom during the Cold War. The story she tells, and her analysis of it, goes to the very heart of what these societies were and are.” — Richard Schechner, author of Performance Studies: An Introduction

“Tracy C. Davis’s highly original cross-cultural study represents the most perceptive analysis of Cold War–era civil-defense theory and practice written to date. As a theater scholar, she focuses on the ‘rehearsal’ and performative aspects of civil-defense planning in a way that is brilliantly illuminating.” — Paul Boyer, author of By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Tracy C. Davis is Barber Professor of Performing Arts and Professor of English and Theatre at Northwestern University. She is the author of The Economics of the British Stage 1800–1914; George Bernard Shaw and the Socialist Theatre; and Actresses as Working Women: Their Social Identity in Victorian Culture.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Abbreviations xiii

Introduction 1

Part I: Directing Apocalypse

1. Civil Defense Concepts and Planning 9

2. Rehearsals for Nuclear War 58

Part II: Act Your Part: The Private Citizen on the Public Stage

3. The Psychology of Vulnerability 105

4. Sheltering 127

5. Get Out of Town! 158

6. Communications 181

7. Acting Out Injury 198

Part III: Covert Stages: The "Public Sector" Rehearses in Private

8. Crisis Play 223

9. International Play 247

10. Disaster Welfare 261

11. Continuity of Government 287

12. Computer Play 312

Afterword:Dismantling Civil Defense 331

Appendix: Cold War and Civil Defense Time Line 339

Notes 351

Works Cited 401

Index 429
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3970-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3959-5
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