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From Civil Defense to FEMA


by Mike Corrigan

Though the nation toyed with the idea of civil defense prior to World War II, the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the realization that the territorial United States was vulnerable to enemy attack prompted President Roosevelt in 1941 to establish a Civil Defense office, which was linked to a nationwide network of 44 state and 1,000 local defense councils. In 1949, President Harry Truman established the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA), the director of which would report directly to the President. Though it was again controlled at the federal level, the operational responsibility of civil defense ultimately rested with state and local governments with the federal government assisting in ways it considered to be appropriate. Through a 1961 executive order, President Kennedy moved Civil Defense functions into a new Office of Civil Defense (OCD) within the Department of Defense.

A peacetime preoccupation with enemy attacks on American soil -- and the fact that the Soviets were developing a nuclear arsenal as fast as we were -- fueled the drive to get America prepared for worst-case scenarios. Public fallout shelters, the Emergency Broadcast System, food stockpiles, evacuation drills and laughably inadequate instructional films like Duck and Cover (featuring a jittery, watchful cartoon turtle named Bert) began to infiltrate the popular culture. In public school civil defense classes, students learned about radiation, fallout and basic survival techniques. More often than not, they were told that their best protection in the event of an imminent nuclear attack was to drop to the floor and cower under their desks.

But the attacks never came. And by the mid-'60s, as information about the devastating effects of nuclear war became more readily available, public confidence in Civil Defense was waning. Later in the decade, members of the anti-war movement actively opposed the OCD and its mandates, labeling them as futile and counter-productive to the pursuit of arms control. By the early 1970s, Civil Defense had almost completely receded from the national consciousness.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter, acting

on a recommendation from the National Governor's Association (which sought to decrease the many agencies with whom state and local governments were forced to work) centralized the federal emergency functions -- including the Defense Department's Defense Civil Preparedness Agency, formerly the OCD -- into the newly created Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA -- tasked with "responding to, planning for, recovering from and mitigating against disasters" -- became a part of the Department of Homeland Security in March 2003 and considers its mission in the wake of 9/11 to be of more importance to the country now than at any other time in its 24-year history.

Publication date: 05/20/04

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