At 2:18 p.m. on Oct. 3, most Americans who own cellphones felt their pockets buzz or purses shriek with the first ever wireless “Presidential Alert.” Though it was only a test, the alert was an unprecedented government intrusion into our collective consciousness. It brought to mind the now sidelined color-coded “Homeland Security Advisory System” of the Bush era, which cable news networks breathlessly broadcast to televisions across the country, warning of “elevated,” “high” or “severe” risk of terror attack. Now, a president with authoritarian tendencies has the ability to broadcast similar messages directly to the 95 percent of the population that owns cellphones. There is no way to opt out.
Of course, there is an analog precedent for such alerts. In the early 1950s, as the Cold War reached a fever pitch, the federal government began requiring Americans to take part in an annual civil defense drill called “Operation Alert.” While air raid sirens wailed, residents of 60 cities had to stop what they were doing and “take cover” until the drill was over. They crammed into basements and tuned into civil defense radio transmissions that would provide instructions in case of an actual attack. Federal officials hunkered down in secret bunkers outside Washington.
Civil defense drills have now become a part of our national lore. Those who lived through the time impart stories to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren about what it was like ducking under their desks or rushing into subway entrances. What isn’t part of the national lore, however, are the stories of those who protested such authoritarianism, eventually stopping “Operation Alert” in its tracks. As historians Dee Garrison, Tracy Davis and Joanne Meyerowitz have shown, the earliest protesters were women and children.
When New York State passed a law directing citizens to obey Operation Alert in 1955 or pay $500 and/or spend a year in jail, women who believed the drill reinforced the idea that their children would have to grow up in a nuclear-armed world, swung into action. On the day of that year’s drill, they printed and handed out flyers that read, “We will not obey this order to pretend, to evacuate, to hide. In view of the certain knowledge … that there is no defense in atomic warfare, we know this drill to be a military act in a cold war to instill fear, to prepare the collective mind for war. We refuse to cooperate.”
At 2 p.m. on June 15, 1955, as the sirens echoed through the concrete canyons of New York City, a handful of female protesters sat calmly on benches outside City Hall. They prayed and meditated as television and newspaper reporters swarmed around them. The police moved in. They handcuffed 28 protesters and pushed them into police vans. That evening, they came before the judge, who ordered each to pay $1,500. Then, he ordered one of the protesters, 29-year-old Judith Malina, to Bellevue Hospital for “psychiatric treatment.” This set the tone for seven more years of protest.
Newspaper and television coverage of the protests inspired more women to disobey the drills. Mary Sharmat, a young mother, was one of them. She declared to her husband, “Nuclear air-raid drills [teach] fear and hate towards an enemy. No enemy [is] coming to attack New York City. … I will disobey a bad law.”
She knew she and her young son Jimmy would be arrested. She withdrew $500 from her bank account for bail, packed an overnight bag with baby food and diapers, then strolled Jimmy to the corner of 86th Street and Broadway, where she sat on a bench in the median. When the siren sounded, civil defense officers in white helmets streamed about. An officer screamed, “Operation Alert!” You must take cover immediately!” Mary refused.
The same day, Janice Smith, another young mother and her two kids refused to take cover. As police took them into custody, she told them, “All these drills do are scare birds, babies and old ladies. I will not raise my children to go underground.”
By 1960, the movement, which became known as the “Civil Defense Protest Committee,” achieved wide publicity. When the sirens rang that year, thousands stood in City Hall Park, singing “America the Beautiful.” This time, they were joined by “fathers with mutual deep concerns, bachelors” and “maiden aunts who had no children but were taking care of the rest of us.”
Newspaper coverage of the protests spread across the nation. College students jumped on the bandwagon. By 1962, under sustained pressure and roiled by internal divisions, the Federal Civil Defense Administration stopped funding Operation Alert.
What will happen now if there is a terror attack or if an immigrant deemed to be “illegal” perpetrates a mass shooting? Will the president declare a national emergency, sending alarmist messages into our pockets? Will people go to their cellars, get their guns and prepare themselves? That outcome is much more likely now than it was just one week ago.
And who will stand up and say no? History tells us that it will be women who don’t want their children to grow up in such a fearful world.
Eric S. Singer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an expert on Baltimore’s civil defense history and the adapter of “The Untold History of the United States, Young Readers Edition, Vol. 2, 1945-1962.”