Images of Nuclear War and the Public in British Civil Defense Planning Documents


Department of Psychology, University of Manchester, M13 9PL, England.


British civil defense plans for nuclear war embody selective and misleading images of nuclear war and of the public. Official documents intended for public mass consumption depict nuclear war as survivable, without discussing the meaning of “survival.” Planners' internal documents show more detailed and realistic appreciation of probable effects, but survival is still imagined in predominantly physical terms, and social or psychological impact is not seriously analyzed. Attempts at planning for administration of post-attack society present contradicting conceptions of the public: as a pro-social “us” and an anti-social “them.” Together with a series of elisions among such concepts as law, order, life, property, control and persuasion, this enables planners with limited imagination to assume the role of guardian of the public interest. There are potential anti-democratic consequences for present-day British society as plans are enacted in civil defense exercises and preparations. Civil defense planning is not just about saving lives in the future, but is also closely linked to national defense policy now.