In 1949 the Soviet Union test-exploded its first atomic bomb. In the same year the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was founded, a military alliance of some Western European countries and the USA in the face of the Soviet Union's establishment of communist regimes in Eastern Europe. The Cold War between East and West was well under way.
In January 1951 the US President announced that research on the making of a hydrogen bomb was continuing. The first US H-bomb was exploded on Enewetok Atoll in the Pacific on May 8, followed by another on November 1.
On March 1 1954 an even more powerful H-bomb (codename 'Bravo' and equivalent to over 1,000 Hiroshima bombs) was detonated on Bikini Atoll, whose population had been removed ('the option of staying was not a realistic alternative'). On this occasion radioactive dust was blown by the wind on to three of the Marshall Islands, whose inhabitants became the first victims of fall-out. They immediately suffered burns, nausea and hair loss. Later, women who became pregnant experienced an unusually high number of miscarriages and severely malformed infants, many of whom died. It was established in the following years that even low level radiation can endanger a foetus; it also increases the likelihood of Down's syndrome. Marshall Islanders in the following decades also began to develop leukaemia and tumours of the thyroid gland. The number of people with cataracts of the eye and diabetes increased, and skin problems were widespread. In 1986 radiation survivors were paid compensation but banned from taking their cases to court.
At the time of the 'Bravo' test a Japanese fishing trawler called the 'Lucky Dragon' was catching tuna just east of Bikini. It too was deluged with fall-out. The crew began to experience radiation sickness almost at once. When their illness, and the death of one of them, reached the headlines in Japan, the news spread world wide. The public were now alerted to the dangers of radiation.
People in the NATO countries and in eastern European countries (which with the Soviet Union formed the Warsaw Pact in 1955) also learned more about the dangers of nuclear warfare.
The Frisch-Peierls memorandum (see the introduction to this section), having described the 'properties of a radioactive super-bomb', went on to say that 'it must be realised that no shelters are available that would be effective and could be used on a large scale'.
Nevertheless, in the mid-1970s the British government commissioned films and a leaflet to advise the public on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. The leaflet was called 'Protect and Survive'. (It can be seen on the internet.) The idea was that it would be issued to every household if nuclear war looked likely to break out. The advice provided is both terrifying and absurd in its failure to recognise the real nature of a nuclear attack, and came in for strong and scornful criticism. People were advised to build an 'inner refuge', using tables, doors, bricks and bags of sand, inside a 'fall-out room', a room with the fewest outside walls. The room was to be stocked with food and water for 14 days, and a first aid kit (aspirins and bandages). Other items included a mechanical clock and a calendar, and a portable radio with the aerial pushed in. The radio was vital, to get news of when it was safe to leave. Nothing was said about broadcasting systems being destroyed in the attack (though, interestingly, nowhere in the leaflet is a telephone mentioned). 'If a death occurs while you are confined to the fall-out room, place the body in another room and cover it as securely as possible. Attach an identification.' One of the actions recommended after the attack: 'minor repairs, to keep out the weather.'
That leaflet was prepared well over 15 years after Peter Porter had written his poem. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament published a leaflet if its own, called 'Protest and Survive'.
Official assessment (drawn up in 1955) of Britain's likely fate in a thermonuclear attack was considered so sensitive that it was not published until April 2002. 'Blast and heat would be the dominant hazard, accounting for 9 million out of 12 million fatal casualties.' The other 3 million would die from the effects of fall-out. The initial attack would be followed by a period during which the survivors would struggle 'against disease, starvation and the unimaginable psychological effects of nuclear bombardment.' Emergency plans were drawn up to allow for military authorities to take over from local government.