A Modest Proposal to Bring Back Bert the Turtle

The possibility of a nuclear exchange between two countries has driven newspaper editors to anxious fits over the past 12 months. December’s issue of Harper’s Magazine provides a roundup of ideas and literary explorations of our newly resurfaced fear of global nuclear apocalypse, that “takes stock of our nuclear present.” One of those essays stands out. Alex Wellerstein argues that it would serve our national and political interests to revive the much-maligned animated spokesperson for the former Federal Civil Defense Administration, Bert the Turtle. Bert the Turtle’s most famous role was in Duck and Cover, a short film that taught children how to survive a nuclear blast by finding shelter. “But perhaps,” he writes,

we’ve underappreciated the value of the Cold War mind-set nurtured by Civil Defense. Throughout much of the period, Americans felt that the risk of nuclear war was, as political psychologists would say, salient. This means that even if we can’t see a risk directly and with our own eyes, we believe in the danger intuitively and allow that belief to drive both our everyday behavior and our political positions. In the case of nuclear weapons, the actual, physical bombs were generally out of sight, hidden by military secrecy, but they were never out of mind. Nuclear war could happen at any moment, and many felt that it would happen, potentially in their lifetime. In 1983, some 24 percent of Americans identified, without being prompted, nuclear war as the most important problem facing the country — more important than the economy, unemployment, crime, or morality. The generation that Bert taught to hide from the bomb was a generation that took nuclear risks seriously.

Wellerstein goes on to contrast the America of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s with our current state of affairs:

we no longer have any sense of nuclear salience — no sense of nuclear risks being real. The message of Duck and Cover, after all, was only partially about hiding under a desk: most of it was about orienting one’s mind to the idea that nuclear detonations are a part of the world in which we live, like car accidents, influenza, and muggings.

Needless to say, there are many reasons why almighty forces that deter Americans from engaging in serious nuclear preparedness. Bert the Turtle may be waiting for the chance to come out of his shell for some time yet.