FELIKS BANEL

Cold War film ‘A Day Called X’ imagines Soviet attack on Portland

Jan 25, 2023, 7:17 AM | Updated: 9:53 am
Day Called X...
Portland, Oregon's underground civil defense headquarters at Kelly Butte featured prominently in the 1957 film "A Day Called 'X'"; this image is circa 1960. (Courtesy Oregon Historical Society)
(Courtesy Oregon Historical Society)

A TV docudrama that first aired on CBS in 1957 shows what the people of Portland, Ore., would do if Soviet bombers were on their way to launch an atomic attack.

The Cold War is over, right? But maybe it’s worth a look back anyway at the film known as “A Day Called ‘X.’”

Back in the early 1950s, Portland had the best-funded civil defense program in the United States. Locals had passed a ballot measure to fund preparations to be ready in case of a nuclear attack by the Soviets. They even built a bunker in the hills outside of town at a place called Kelly Butte, with an underground operations center where city government could relocate in case of a threat and where hundreds of people could shelter and survive for several weeks.

In September 1955, civil defense authorities staged an exercise called “Operation Green Light.” This was a big evacuation drill in downtown Portland – where they practiced one-afternoon getting thousands of cars and tens of thousands of people out of the city in about an hour. Routes were marked and shared in advance on printed maps, and law enforcement helped direct traffic on streets temporarily made one way out of town.

Because the big threat to the United States in the 1950s was from long-range Soviet bombers, exercises like “Operation Green Light” were based on a scenario where a city like Portland might get a warning of incoming enemy aircraft as much as a few hours before an attack.

The Portland drill was deemed a success, and CBS decided to make a half-hour film about the city’s efforts to plan for the worst. New footage was shot during the summer of 1957, and actor Glenn Ford signed on as narrator. “A Day Called ‘X’” premiered on TV during the first weekend of December 1957; CBS affiliate KOIN aired the program in Portland, while in the Seattle area, KIRO TV was not yet on the air. Newspaper clippings from that era indicate that KTNT, the Tacoma TV station which was the CBS affiliate before KIRO – and which was home to Brakeman Bill – opted not to carry it (for reasons that are unclear).

“A Day Called ‘X’” is an artifact of the early years of the Cold War, and it also presents some rare motion picture images of the Rose City in the mid-1950s.

“I recognized some of the familiar archival faces, so that’s the kind of the thing that kept me more entertained than maybe the scenery,” said Brian Johnson, a freelance archivist who worked for the Portland city archives for many years. “The Director of Civil Defense, Jack Lowe, who was a captain in the Fire Bureau, and … one of the battalion chiefs, he shows up. And then, of course, the mayor Terry Schrunk.

“It’s fun to see them actually moving instead of just a black and white photo of them,” Johnson said.

According to Portland historian and host of the “Kick A** Oregon History” podcast, Doug Kenck-Crispin, not all original viewers of the 1957 broadcast found watching “A Day Called ‘X’” to be a fun experience.

“People in Portland were calling The Oregonian’s news desk to see if they were actually being bombed,” Kenck-Crispin told KIRO Newsradio. “Even though, if people will watch ‘A Day Called “X,”’ and I hope everybody listening to this will indeed do it, you’ll see a caption underneath [several scenes] that says ‘An attack is not taking place.’

“Even though they kind of have this warning, it was viewed as realistic,” Kenck-Crispin said. “The people were terrified that they were about to get nuked.

“Spoiler alert: They did not actually bomb Portland, Oregon, in the 1950s,” Kenck-Crispin continued. “[But] it’s the real live administrators from the city taking [their] place kind of doing their normal roles in this documentary film.”

The look and feel of the film is not quite “War of the Worlds” level in its degree of simulation (and it’s not in the style of a newscast at all); it almost feels like what nowadays would be called a “procedural.” With the enemy bombers projected to arrive over Portland around 1:47 p.m., “A Day Called ‘X’” shows Portlanders calmly packing up and getting out of town while the clock inches forward and narrator Glenn Ford soberly counts down toward the terrifying conclusion.

“At 1:30, on this ‘Day Called X,’ the air outside is strange and silent,” narrator Ford intones. “Almost all the people have gone. And at 1:32, as directed by the mayor, the siren sounds once more. Take cover. Evacuation is stopped, and there is nothing to do but wait. Back in the operations center, the ‘Day Called X’ reaches its climax.”

“Time now … 1:47,” a public official matter-of-factly reports. “Enemy bombers are probably overhead.”

The built-in prep time between detection of enemy bombers headed this way, and their arrival was outmoded by the early 1960s. Missiles are just a lot faster than even jet-propelled bombers. In fact, within about six years of “A Day Called ‘X’,” according to Brian Johnson, the people of the Rose City – once the best-funded civil defense town in the nation – had a major change of heart.

“In ‘57 we were the poster child for, you know, ‘this is what you need to do,’ and by ‘63 our [city] council voted to just do away with the Office of Civil Defense,” Johnson said, “because Stanley Earl, the commissioner at the time that led the charge against it said there isn’t going to be any time, and we’re just giving people false hope.”

Similar but smaller scale evacuation drills were held in Seattle in the mid-1950s, but nobody made a film about them, as far as anyone knows. Along with publicly funded fallout shelters, defensive anti-aircraft Nike missile bases ringed Seattle and other metropolitan areas beginning in the late 1950s and lasting, in some cases, as late as the early 1970s.

Meanwhile, the notion of civil defense evolved away from only preparing for an enemy attack to a more comprehensive approach to “emergency management.” The idea became to prepare government and civilians for all imaginable situations – including war, of course, but also nuclear and chemical accidents, along with earthquakes and other natural disasters.

One late-Cold War wrinkle in the Evergreen State came in 1983, when a provision of the law funding emergency management specifically forbid authorities from preparing for “emergency evacuation or relocation of residents in anticipation of nuclear attack.” Washington is believed to be the only state with a law like this on the books.

The genesis of this provision is a little unclear, and it may relate to this area’s long history of anti-nuclear activism. Credit for it goes to late former Washington State Legislator Richard “Dick” Nelson of Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, and the provision may have amounted to a largely symbolic gesture about the futility of trying to evacuate when the warning time might only be a few minutes – or even less.

When North Korea threatened the West Coast with possible missile attacks in 2017, there was talk of repealing that part of the law. Nelson, who passed away in 2019, told The Seattle Times in May 2017: “People didn’t want to be in any sort of posture that people were anticipating more (nuclear) threats. We wanted to reduce the threat.”

Does this mean Washington is now somehow ill-prepared should the “worst case scenario” emerge from the crisis created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

Not to worry, says Robert Ezelle, director of the Washington Military Department’s Emergency Management Division. Ezelle says the effects of big disasters – whether earthquakes or severe weather or even war – are pretty similar, and the Evergreen State is prepared.

“There was an attempt to, five years ago, within the legislature to remove that provision when there were concerns about North Korea and missile tests, and those eventually did not end up passing,” Ezelle told KIRO Newsradio. “And there’s nothing here [in the current law] that prevents us from planning and preparing for everything that we need to do.”

And besides, Ezelle says, any possible nuclear threat from Russia to the people of Washington is the “most extremely unlikely thing that can possibly happen to them.” It’s much more productive, he says, to plan for earthquakes and other natural disasters that are always a threat in Washington, and it’s best to prepare your family and household with two weeks of food and other supplies.

“People need to be prepared for the full scope of disasters,” Ezelle said. “We’ve advocated since we did the major earthquake drill back in 2016, that people be ‘Two-Weeks Ready’ if at all possible, and in some cases, the people, depending on where they live, or the hazards that they face, should be ready for longer periods.

“We know that that’s not fully attainable for everybody in Washington, but to the degree possible, people need to have some degree of preparedness for the unexpected,” Ezelle continued. “Whether it’s being cut off for a period of time by floodwaters or an avalanche, or losing power for protracted periods of time, or whether it’s dealing with a major earthquake, we live in an area that has a number of hazards.”

Many adults are old enough to remember the Cold War and some of the more disturbing things we saw on TV – if not fictional accounts such as “A Day Called ‘X’” with Glenn Ford or “The Day After” with Jason Robards – there were plenty of real events that invoked the terror of a potential conflict between nuclear superpowers, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to the Soviet downing of a Korean Airlines 747.

Still, Americans have enjoyed – which is perhaps too strong a word, given 911, the Great Recession, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, etc. – three decades of relative peace since the collapse of the Soviet Union, especially when it comes to that sense that the nuclear threat had really diminished.

Mike Priddy thinks about this kind of thing in the work he does for the Washington State Department of Health, where he supervises the Environmental Sciences Section for the Office of Radiation Protection.

Priddy’s office monitors the environment for radiation – whether from Hanford or from the Navy base at Bangor, and 36 years ago, staff even detected the measurable radiation that reached Washington from the disaster in Chernobyl.

He told KIRO Newsradio his office is prepared for whatever happens in Ukraine, though he’s not overly concerned. But, Priddy says that the reduced threat that we all have experienced since the early 90s is something he’s definitely more aware of in the past few weeks.

“I’m 60 years old, and I lived through the Cold War,” Priddy said. “And I think back then, we were just more accustomed to seeing these things,” such as the current crisis in Ukraine. “And I think after 30 years of peace that we’ve relaxed.”

“This is a little bit of a wake-up call,” Priddy said.

For those who share Priddy’s assessment and who want to answer the call, resources to help individuals and families, and organizations prepare for all kinds of disasters – including nuclear attack — are available from the federal government website Ready.gov.

Meanwhile, Glenn Ford probably said it best way back in 1957:

“The people of Portland, through working together, they’re ready if there really were ‘A Day Called “X”’ … how about you?”

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on March 2, 2022.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.

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Cold War film ‘A Day Called X’ imagines Soviet attack on Portland