In 1948, in response to the perceived threat of atomic war, the British government embarked on a new civil defence programme. By the mid-1950s, secret government reports were already warning that this programme would be completely inadequate to deal with a nuclear attack. The government responded to these warnings by cutting civil defence spending, while issuing apparently absurd pamphlets advising the public on how they could protect themselves from nuclear attack. Historians have thus far sought to explain this response with reference to high-level decisions taken by policymakers, and have tended to dismiss civil defence advice as mere propaganda. This paper challenges this interpretation by considering the little-known role of the Home Office Scientific Advisers' Branch, a group of experts whose scientific and technical knowledge informed both civil defence policy and advice to the public. It explores both their advisory and research work, demonstrating their role in shaping civil defence policy and showing that detailed research programmes lay behind the much-mocked government civil defence pamphlets of the 1950s and 1960s.
(Online publication October 08 2009)
† This is an expanded version of the essay awarded the Singer Prize of the BSHS for 2008.
I would like to thank Dr Jeff Hughes and Dr James Sumner for their support, guidance and many constructive suggestions, and my anonymous referees for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. Thanks also go to attendees of the CHSTM Physical Sciences and Technology Reading Group, including Professor Graeme Gooday and CHSTM postgraduate students, for their valuable criticism and stimulating discussion.