The Cold War launched a new series of threats on Britain - from invasion by communists to atomic warfare. The military and moral implications of this ideological battle meant that fear was ever-present in the public sphere. My Collaborative Partnership PhD asks whether fear really was the most widely held emotion in 1950s Britain. At the British Social and Cultural History conference, held from 31 March to 2 April, I will be presenting my initial thoughts on this topic, using evidence gained through oral history interviews. Interviewing ‘ordinary’ people who carried on with their lives beneath the increasing Cold War threat offers the opportunity to delve deeper into what society understood by ‘fear’, ‘threat’ and ‘survival’. In the interviews I have done so far, emotion is ever-present; it is the point at which personal experience and collective historical experience overlap.
Crown Film Unit production, The Waking Point, Film still, [00:14:32]; (Britain: Central Office of Information, 1951) IWM Collections; COI 1181.
Some of my interviews are with those who undertook civil defence training as volunteers or as employees. In the event of nuclear war they would have provided a defence service to the nation. Their roles required them to believe in the possibility of nuclear ‘survival’.
In my interviews, these respondents often relate their personal experiences of the Second World War as a prime motive for volunteering in the post-war world. One respondent says: Having lived through the Second World War I knew what war could be like, I’d survived that – perhaps I’ll survive an atomic… warfare. I don’t know [laughs] - let’s hope.
Civil defence respondents certainly acknowledge that the Cold War was happening around them, but avoid admitting to having feared it. Descriptions of emotions towards external threat and general life are varied: from fatalistic to indifferent, mocking to disinterested; from being too ‘busy’ to having too much fun.
… [O]ne read the papers, but… I think we were so busy, sorting out our own problems [laughs]; the same respondent says … there was always a feeling one could never do anything about it, whatever was happening you just had to go along with it.
Such a diversity of emotional experiences reflect the 1950s as a period of post-war readjustment.
Rebuilding the country, it was shattered and bombed and blasted a lot of building going on, people much too concerned, much more concerned with things that were going on at home than… some vague possibility that some, megalomaniac idiot on the other side of the world would set off some bombs…
The memories of the dislocating experiences of the Second World War gave those involved in civil defence similar understandings of fear. The post-war period, one of transition from military to civilian life, though traumatic in some senses is not regarded as one that generated a wartime ‘type’ of fear. As British society changed priorities became personal – people invested more time in their families, careers, and leisure.
I didn’t think too much about it [nuclear war], I had a job to do… of looking after the patients locally… this I did to the best of my ability, I enjoyed it…’
In the conference poster I suggest that memories of the Second World War were central to the Cold War experience of a particular generation involved in civil defence – teenagers and young adults. In the 1950s, they prioritised everyday survival; fear of nuclear war might have been present but intersected with many other emotions that reflected civilian concerns. As I begin interviewing diverse groups I will be listening for how far memories of the Second World War became an emotional reference point for other members of society.