Brighter Than 100 Suns: Preparing for Nuclear Attack in New York City, 1951

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Five years after the U.S. Army Air Force dropped atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Cold War-era New York officials were preparing for the worst case scenario, an atomic bomb detonation over New York City.

In response to the Cold War threat of nuclear war the New York State Civil Defense Network produced an informational radio series titled Plan for Survival, hosted by Bill Leonard. The program informed New Yorkers of the enduring threat of war and encouraged them to enroll in Civil Defense training. 

This episode, "The A-Bomb and its Effects," opens with the ominous sound of a ticking clock, followed by the Earth-shattering rumble of an atom bomb blast. Guest Martin Caden, technical specialist of the New York State Civil Defense Commission, speaks with authority about the impact of the atom bombs in Japan. He dramatically describes the visual and aural experience of an atomic explosion: an intense searing light that will appear brighter than 100 suns, followed by a tremendous sustained roar that sounds like 1,000 blockbusters exploding all around you.

As reassurance, Caden tells listeners that one of the greatest misconceptions about the atom bomb is that its blast will wipe out a city instantly. Rather, the major cause of damage and causalities will be fire and panic: approximately 50,000 casualties in Hiroshima could have been averted simply through civil defense training. Even those very near the center of the blast, he says, could survive by taking shelter and remaining under cover until the "all clear" siren is sounded.

Caden goes on to describe how an atom bomb would affect New York City: within a half mile of the blast site there will be almost complete devastation. Thankfully, however, he adds, "90 seconds after an atomic air burst there will be no danger from radiation within the City at all." He reassures listeners that only in cases of a water or land burst is there a great danger of radiation. Even those who survived the attacks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki are plagued with inconvenient symptoms such as sterility that lasted "only a few months." And only 40 cases of cataracts were reported. 

In the second featured Plan for Survival episode, the 38th in the series, reporter Lockwood Doty asks men and women of New York state what they would do if the bomb fell; most of the answers are disappointingly incorrect. Once again, listeners are reminded that survival is the responsibility of each individual.


WNYC broadcasts courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives