Operation Doorstep (1953)

The first nuclear blast broadcast live on television took place March 17, 1953, in northwestern Nevada. The Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) called this weapons test Operation Upshot–Knothole Annie. In conjunction with it they also conducted a civil defense test they called Operation Doorstep.

Operation Doorstep was meant to determine the effect of a 16-kiloton nuclear explosion on fifty automobiles, two wood-frame houses, eight backyard bomb shelters, and a goodly number of mannequins. The houses were built specially for the test, and the other objects were carefully arranged, as though for a dollhouse. The ostensible purpose of all this was “to show the people of America what might be expected if an atomic burst took place over the doorsteps of our major cities”.

In the booklet published in 1953 (which can be read above), FCDA administrator Val Peterson reported on the findings. He assured his fellow Americans that “the family automobile would be relatively safe outside a ten-block radius…provided that some windows were left open to prevent the roof from caving in on the passengers”. The wood-frame houses, built at various distances from ground zero, “performed” as predicted: The one built 3,500 feet away from the blast was destroyed (though the basement was found, as predicted, to provide protection) and the other, built 7,500 feet away, was charred and damaged but remained intact.

To measure levels of gamma radiation and “excessive temperature”, film badges and fusion strips were placed in the houses and shelters. The many mannequins, weighted with sand — except for a child mannequin — were also placed in these structures, as well as in some of the cars.

“Lack of funds prevented instrumentation of the…interiors for air pressure, mannequin motion, and wall and roof displacement,” the booklet tells us. (Lack of funds is one of the booklet’s much-repeated themes!) However, based on the evidence provided by the badges, strips, and the post-blast distribution of dummies, the FCDA concluded that, while persons on the upper floors of the house at 3,500 feet would have been critically injured or killed, either by flying debris or radiation sickness, persons in the house at 7,500 feet and in most of the basement and backyard underground shelters. In the end, these backyard underground shelters were most highly recommended.

The photographs taken of the Operation Doorstep sites, before and after the explosion, were made available to the public in a booklet sold for twenty-five cents. These photographs, especially the ones of aftereffects, are eerie to say the least. Some of them are also slightly absurd — for example, the photograph of the mannequin at the window of one of the houses, which features the caption: “This mannequin can only stay in the position in which he was placed, staring through the window at the coming disaster. A real occupant of this house could prepare — and survive.”

Obviously, the idea of Operation Doorstep was to inform the American public about “the coming disaster.” But as with many similarly intended Cold War projects, one wonders whether the effect wasn’t to make people more terrified than ever. The sight of a charred car in a desert landscape being tended by a man in a radiation suit and a gas mask is not exactly reassuring.

You can see more photographs from Operation Doorstep below and watch a US Department of Energy film about the operation (as well as the 1955 Operation Cue) here.

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