Civil Defense, or Homeland Security in another Era

By Megan Kautz

“Alert today, alive tomorrow.” This warden’s helmet serves as a reminder of a time of fallout shelters, air raid drills, and the once active Civil Defense.  Civil Defense was first established one hundred years ago, in 1916, as a response to European bombing in WWI. This non-military, auxiliary effort was created to educate Americans, and prepare them for enemy attacks.  Since there was little threat to the American homeland, the organization was used to encourage men to join the armed forces, support Liberty Bonds, and keep up the morale of soldiers.  

In 1941, when the Office of Civilian Defense was created in response to bombing campaigns in Europe, Americans feared that the U.S would soon be under attack. They continued the same activities as they had in the previous war. However, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, volunteers were also trained in first aid, and how to respond to chemical attacks and other emergencies.

At the end of WWII, the need for a civilian defense program dwindled-- until the Soviet Union began to test their nuclear weapons. With the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, the need for Civil Defense arose once again. It was organized and administered by state and local governments; this helmet has a “La Cross” badge on the front and despite the embarrassing misspelling, it confirms that the Civil Defense was indeed active here.

Civil Defense began a nationwide campaign in the 1950’s dedicated to air raid warnings, bomb shelters, and the stockpiling of supplies. All of this was preparation for an anticipated nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Many of these campaigns were implemented in the schools through drills, movies, and pamphlets. This fiberglass helmet probably dates from that era.

Over time the public’s interest in civil defense waned, and many of the organization’s efforts were shifted from nuclear to natural disaster preparedness. In 1979 the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was created to deal with disaster relief on a national level, and the blue FEMA tarp became as recognizable a symbol as this Civil Defense helmet once was. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Civil Defense fell into disuse and was entirely replaced by FEMA.

 FEMA itself was absorbed by the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. 

This article was originally featured in the La Crosse Tribune.