CONELRAD brochure cover - 1953
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Those who have ever seen an AM radio made in the 1950s and early 1960s — especially one for a car — have certainly noticed two Civil Defense logos or plain triangles on the dial. These specifically marked 640 KHz and 1240 KHz. Had the United States ever engaged in “nuke-u-ler combat toe-to-toe with the Russkies
,” the CONELRAD system would have been engaged.
To prevent Soviet bombers and even some guided missiles from being able to find their targets by triangulating
far-traveling AM radio signals, most radio stations in North America would have been ordered off the air. Those remaining would increase their power to be heard over a larger area and change their frequency to 640 or 1240. Then, in what would have been a fascinating thing to see attempted — at least for an old radio hand like me — a handful of stations would broadcast the incoming CONELRAD announcements for just a few minutes, then they would shut off and another handful would take over, continually rotating so they could not be located by triangulation. Ideally, while the signal would fade in strength similar to trying to listen to a distant AM station at night, messages would be repeated enough to make sure they got through to the public.
Of course, knowing what we know now, it was pure fantasy to believe this would work. The Soviets had other means of navigation and, oh yeah, there was that little-understood at the time thing called an electromagnetic pulse
(EMP) where any air blast of a hydrogen bomb would have fried the electronics in transmitters and receives alike for miles around, well beyond the blast-affected area.
Other than Bert the Turtle
, I don’t believe there is a stronger symbol than CONELRAD of the lengths the U.S. government went though to try to get people to believe we could survive an all-out nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Then again, it was also part of America’s poker hand that, in retrospect, we know President Eisenhower played so well especially during the time when the USSR was completely bluffing about its supposed nuclear strength.
CONELRAD only lasted until 1963 when it was phased out in favor of the Emergency Broadcast System
which has itself evolved into the today’s multi-purpose Emergency Alert System
…which, based upon its one national test, appears that it would work no better than CONELRAD in the event of a true nationwide emergency.