TBT: Preparing for Doomsday

The 1953 Illinois Blue Book includes a list of seven Illinois cities likely to be targeted during a Soviet atomic attack. The next page features a terrifying photo of a hydrogen bomb blast with a city skyline; said to be Chicago; superimposed in front of it.

In the years following World War II, the optimistic belief that the threat of global war had perhaps been eliminated forever began to wane. Europe hardened into distinct eastern and western spheres, the Soviets blocked Berlin, civil war reignited in China, and American forces went into combat in Korea. All the while, weapons became more powerful and their delivery systems became faster and their ranges longer. By the early 1950s it seemed nowhere was safe, even the middle of North America.

The realization that atomic fire could strike any city anywhere in America seized the nation, as did the intense need to quickly prepare to survive in the event of the outbreak of World War III. All over the nation, government officials, military leaders, scientists and everyday citizens sought to find ways to protect their families and communities from the horrors that awaited should nuclear war break out. Illinois was no exception.

In January 1953, newly inaugurated Illinois Governor William Stratton signed the Civil Defense Act, and appointed General Robert M. Woodward as the director of the new Illinois Civil Defense Agency. Woodward had a distinguished military career, seeing action in World War I where he was wounded in action. He then served six terms in the Illinois General Assembly, but resigned to rejoin the military at the outbreak of World War II.

An artist's rendering of a hydrogen bomb blast
over Chicago from the 1953 Illinois Blue Book
The new agency was to be overseen by an advisory council of elected officials, state agency directors and civic and corporate leaders. A joint committee of the legislature was appointed to oversee the many civil defense compacts that would be agreed to between various levels of government. The agency would be responsible for the task of putting together a civil defense plan for every city and county in Illinois, with the help of local leaders and citizens.

“Knowing that Soviet Russia now has the new hydrogen bomb as well as a sizeable stock of atom bombs, our Government, increasingly aware of the danger of a third and most devastating of all World Wars, has urged the states and cities to complete the organization of Civil Defense forces,” Woodward wrote in his report on the creation of the agency. He went on to say that, “Illinois, with its vast population and concentration of important industries will be a Number One atomic target in the event of hostilities.”

The agency would have four primary objectives: preparing plans to “protect the people and property by minimizing the effects of enemy attacks by thermonuclear weapons,” and other means; training and equipping volunteers to assist if they were needed; obtaining and distributing the necessary supplies; and spreading important preparedness and training information to the public.

The civil defense plan was greatly dependent on local officials and volunteers in every community. These local citizens would do everything from watch the sky for approaching Soviet bombers (the “Ground Observer Corps”) to provide fire, police, communications, rescue, engineering and transportation services in the aftermath of an attack. Woodward’s report notes that “a complete Civil Defense will require the participation of one of every eight citizens in Illinois.” In the early 1950s, this meant more than 1.3 million people.

When it came to public information, the state took a very direct effort: making the 1956 film “H-Bomb Over Illinois,” in which Governor Stratton and General Woodward warn the state of the effects of nuclear war on Illinois.

Still from the film "H-Bomb Over Illinois" / YouTube

“With the possibility of war; cruel, devastating war; exploding on our doorsteps, civil defense becomes everyone’s problem,” Stratton says in the film. “Our top military leaders tell us that not only may our cities be destroyed, but that every part of Illinois is vulnerable to radioactive fallout. Each citizen has an obligation to himself, his family and community to know what to do if disaster strikes.”

While Stratton speaks, the viewer sees a mushroom cloud from a bomb test rolling across the screen. Next is a map of the Chicago area with concentric circles tied to specific streets and communities, where the narrator specifies which areas are “pulverized,” or subject to “severe destruction.” Eventually the map extends out to Highland Park, Wheaton and Markham, but the narrator hastens to add that “an estimated 80% of the population could be saved within the Chicago metropolitan area with positive civil defense measures. Without, a grim total: over four million casualties.”

For another ten minutes, the film discusses fallout patterns and casualty rates. Lest anyone become complacent about distance from Chicago, the film goes on to explain the destruction from an atomic attack on the state’s then-second-largest city, Peoria, “a critical target area because of its strategic industries,” but stresses that large numbers of population can be saved by civil defense precautions. Rock Island and East St. Louis are targeted as well.

“Will your city be prepared if H-day comes tomorrow?” the narrator asks. Scenes of panic, followed by an orderly evacuation drill and rescue efforts follow. The narrator then reassures viewers that, “Under Governor Stratton’s able leadership, your state office of civil defense…has worked closely with scientists, industrialists and the military. They and civil defense volunteers have made great strides in preparing the people of Illinois for a day we hope will never come.”

General Robert M. Woodward
The preparations came together quickly. In 1953, Woodward reported that 96 counties out of 102 had already put together a civil defense organization of some kind, as had 435 municipalities. There were already 170,000 volunteers, and 800 “ground observation posts.” By 1955, there were over 300,000 volunteers enrolled. Thirty different Illinois colleges and universities hosted training courses in dealing with radiological emergencies. The state made compacts with neighboring states to assist in the event of disaster. The State Office of Civil Defense accredited local civil defense agencies to make them eligible to receive federal grants for emergency apparatus.

The state’s command post boasted of a “complete communications system,” in touch with cities and counties, as well as the U.S. Air Force. Federal funds were being made available to the state to purchase air raid sirens, rescue equipment, medical supplies and other needed materials. Exercises to determine, “operational capability,” had been run, but the report does not detail their level of success. The civil defense effort encapsulated efforts large and small: from procuring those air raid sirens and rescue equipment for cities to encouraging everyday citizens to have flashlights and battery-operated radios.

While the feared nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union never occurred, Illinois did face its share of other emergencies: floods, tornadoes, ice storms, chemical spills and many others. The preparedness and emergency response planning encouraged by the civil defense effort of the 1950s proved helpful to Illinoisans in many other ways over the following decades. In each case, local citizens benefitted from having an emergency kit in the basement, and local communities benefitted from having an organized, civil defense infrastructure in place to deal with whatever situation occurred.

It was from these roots that in the mid-1970s the mission of the Illinois Civil Defense Agency was formally expanded. The agency was re-branded the State Emergency Services and Disaster Agency (ESDA), and given the responsibility to “plan for and to coordinate the operation of all state and federal agencies, local ESDA units and volunteer agencies when disasters occur.”

The ESDA would still be the lead agency responsible for civil defense in the event of an attack, but it also took charge of handling other emergencies such as hazardous material spills or incidents at Illinois’ nuclear plants, as well as providing training for local coordinators. Under a separate State Disaster Relief Act, the ESDA would be the administrative agency responsible for disbursing disaster preparation and response funds. As federal disaster response planning changed over time, the partnerships between the state and federal civil defense agencies evolved to include assistance in peacetime emergencies and natural disasters, not just contingencies for nuclear strikes.

In the 1990s, ESDA became the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA), the state agency charged with coordinating all state efforts toward preparedness before, in response to, and recovery from a disaster. Today, IEMA prepares for and responds to emergencies large and small in every corner of the state; most recently the flooding which struck Illinois within the past month.

“Disaster does not wait for preparedness,” General Woodward says at the end of that 1956 film. For more than sixty years, Illinoisans have taken that message of preparedness to heart.


For more information from the Illinois Emergency Management Agency on preparing a disaster kit or emergency communication plan for your household or workplace, visit www.ready.illinois.gov.