When America issued dogtags to kids to help identify their nuke-blasted corpses

Matt Novak hits some highlights from Joanne Brown's 1988 Journal of American History paper A is for Atom, B is for Bomb (paywalled link), which discusses the weird, grim stuff that America contemplated at the height of the cold war, and worried about how it would identify the charred corpses of children after a nuclear blast:

In February of 1952 the city of New York bought 2.5 million dog tags. By April of that year, just about every kid in the city from kindergarten to fourth grade had a tag with their name on it. Kids in many other cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Las Veagas and Philadelphia also got dog tags, allowing for easy identification should the unthinkable occur.

But educators weren't considering just dog tags to identify the scores of dead and injured children that would result if the cold war suddenly turned hot. They also considered tattoos.

That Time American School Kids Were Given Dog Tags Because Nukes


  1. Maybe it’s just the alienness of ’50s culture; but their always seems to be this totally weird element of optimistic domesticity to global-thermonuclear-holocaust-preparedness material of the era. Junior is getting a dog tag; because after The Bombs fall there will totally be enough surviving family members who have the time and leisure to take possession of his charred remains and bring them to the family plot for a funeral… Or those bomb-shelter cutaways, where Mother and Sister are preparing a home-cooked meal of canned goods while Father catches up with the world of events on CONELRAD…

    1. Even weirder was the British “Protect and Survive” videos from the 1970s (check youtube if you haven’t seen them). Not only was it even more absurd to think nuclear war was survivable by then, but there was this odd cheerful overtone to such things like “if someone in your shelter dies, place a label with his or her name and address on the corpse, wrap it in a plastic bin liner, place another label on the outside, and if it is safe to leave your shelter, take it outside for collection”.

      1. True, though I think my perception of the tone of British civil defense material has been too altered by ‘The War Game’, ‘Threads’ and ‘When the Wind Blows’, for me to have as easy a time taking their absurd cheer seriously.

    2.  In the 1950s, there were still many people who thought nuclear war was winnable or survivable with some semblance of civilization remaining. Both Stalin and Mao tried to put on a bold face against the threat (Stalin: “Atomic bombs are meant to frighten those with weak nerves.”. Mao: “I’m not afraid of nuclear war. There are 2.7 billion people in the
      world; it doesn’t matter if some are killed. China has a population of
      600 million; even if half of them are killed, there are still 300
      million people left. I’m not afraid of anyone.”… that’s from 1957). Robert Heinlein proposed massive decentralization as a defense against atomic bombs.
      This was before the poisonous nature of fallout was fully appreciated, and before the Soviets had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, and before the production of the devices had reached such a pace that each side could readily deploy a thousand warheads. ‘On the Beach’ was written in 1957, and by the early 1960s I think that few people still believed that nuclear war was something you could somehow strategize around.

      1. Correction: Heinlein actively refuted massive decentralization as a defense against atomic bombs. In “On The Slopes of Vesuvius”, an essay from the Expanded Universe collection, Heinlein wrote about various proposals of the time to defend against nuclear weapons. One of those proposals was to embrace urban sprawl, using LA as a model.

        Heinlein did the math and found that doing this would use almost all of the continental US. He also touched on the social difficulty of forcibly evacuating densely-populated areas. I’d say more, but I don’t have the story here with me and I’ve probably already gotten some details wrong.

        1.  I don’t think Heinlein was necessarily a partisan for or against the idea; by ‘proposed’ I meant something more like ‘explored’, in the context of science fiction. I’d have to revisit the chronology of his works to see exactly when he wrote about it.

      2.  As a kid in the 70s/80s I generally thought I would either be vaporized and not even know it, or if “lucky” survive in some kind of “The Day After” type scenario. Kids today have different worries, but I’m glad they don’t have to go to bed honestly thinking that the Earth might be laid to waste the next day.

        1. The children in my neighborhood (built in the mid-1950s) used to play in a bomb shelter, and everyone worried abut nuclear war.

          But in 1981, I saw a documentary that made me realize that things might turn out just fine.

  2. The paper in question is 25 years old and JSTOR is still charging admission? Aaron Schwartz is a hero.

  3. February 1952 was not the world you are think it is.  The first thermonuclear test didn’t occur until November 1952 and the first semi-practical thermonuclear weapon didn’t occur 1954.  The only long range bombers we had were still piston driven propeller planes.  ICBMs were still years away.  A early 50s atomic war, as horrific as it would have been, would still have had plenty of survivors.  The specter of global thermonuclear holocaust that we grew up with did not yet exist so their preparations were not quite as quaint as they appear to us.

    1.  Even a nuclear war today would have plenty of survivors, I think… if by ‘plenty’ you mean ‘tens of millions worldwide’…

      1. What did Buck Turgidson say about it: “I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed! But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.”

        Dr. Strangelove was released in 1961, a year after Princeton published Hermann Kahn’s influential book, “On Thermonuclear War.”

        Kahn worked for RAND as a military strategist from 1948 to 1959. As early as 1953 or ’54, he introduced the concept and coined the term “Doomsday Machine”. He was reckoned an expert on the realities of fighting and winning nuclear war and his opinions were extremely influential among many US politicians and members of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. He considered his work practical, and the inspiration for the title of his magnum opus was Clausewitz’s classic book on strategy and tactics, “On War.”

        He was also one of the main inspirations for the character of Dr. Strangelove.

  4. There was a lot of “nuclear war is survivable” hype from conservatives during Reagan’s time, when that smarmy old fucker was giving grandfatherly talks about Peacekeeper missiles, and showing concept art of ICBMs rolling around a gigantic specialized railway network in the Midwest.

    Near exact paraphrasing: “Just dig a hole in the back yard and put a couple of doors over it and pile the dirt on top. Stay down there a week and you’ll be fine!”

    Note that this assumes you have a back yard.

    1. I’m willing to bet that if you didn’t have a back yard you probably weren’t among the people who got Reagan elected.

  5. I remember being issued tags by the local Civil Defense authority when I was in elementary school in Detroit in the 50s. Like military dog tags, they included name, blood type, and, optionally, religion. But oddly, as I recall, they were plastic, leaving them unlikely to survive an actual attack. We also had regular air raid drills where we went down into the school’s cellar. These at least had the advantage of doubling as tornado drills, and tornados were a somewhat more realistic threat in Michigan than a nuclear attack.

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