The Art of Staying Alive
in the Atomic Age

by Robert A. Heinlein

Thought about your life insurance lately?

Wait a minute-sit back down! We don't want to sell you any insurance.

Let's put it another way: How's your pioneer blood these days? Reflexes in fine shape? Muscle tone good? Or do you take a taxi to go six blocks?

How are you at catching rabbits? The old recipe goes, "First, catch the rabbit-" Suppose your supper depended on catching a rabbit? Then on building a fire without matches? Then on cooking it? What kind of shape will you be in after the corner delicatessen is atomized?

When a committee of Senators asked Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer whether or not a single attack on the United States could kill forty million people, he testified, "I am afraid it is true."

This is not an article about making the atom bomb safe for democracy. This is an article about you-and how you can avoid being one of the forty million knocked off in the first attack in World War III. How, if worst comes to worst, you can live through the next war, survive the aftermath, and build a new life.

If you have been reading the newspapers you are aware that World War III, if it ever comes, is expected to start with an all-out surprise attack by long-distance atomic bombing on the cities of America. General Marshall's final report included this assumption, General Arnold has warned us against such an attack, General Spaatz has described it and told us that it is almost impossible to ward it off if it ever comes. Innumerable scientists, especially the boys who built the A-bomb, have warned us of it.

From the newspapers you may also have gathered that world affairs are not in the best of shape-the Balkans, India, Palestine, Iran, Argentina, Spain, China, The East Indies, etc., etc.-and the UNO does not seem as yet to have a stranglehold on all of the problems that could lead to another conflict.

Maybe so, maybe not-time will tell. Maybe we will form a real World State strong enough to control the atom bomb. If you are sure there will never be war again, don't let me waste your time. But if you think it possible that another Hitler or Tojo might get hold of the atomic bomb and want to try his luck, then bend an ear and we'll talk about how you and your kids can live through it. We'll start with the grisly assumption that the war will come fast and hard, when it comes, killing forty million or so at once, destroying the major cities, wrecking most of our industry and utterly disorganizing the rest. We will assume a complete breakdown of government and communication which will throw the survivors-that's you, chum!-on their own as completely as ever was Dan'! Boone.

No government-remember that. The United States will cease to be a fact except in the historical sense. You will be on your own, with no one to tell you what to do and no policeman on the corner to turn to for protection. And you will be surrounded with dangerous carnivores, worse than the grizzlies Daniel Boone tackled-the two-legged kind.

Perhaps we had better justify the assumption of complete breakdown in government. It might not happen, but, if the new Hitler has sense enough to write Mein Kampf, or even to read it as a textbook, he will do his very best to destroy and demoralize us by destro~ing our government-and his best could be quite efficient. If he wants to achieve political breakdown in his victim, Washington, D.C., will be his prime target, the forty-eight state capitals his secondary targets, and communication centers such as Kansas City his tertiary targets. The results should be roughly comparable to the effect on a man's organization when his head is chopped off.

Therefore, in this bad dream we are having, let us assume no government, no orders from Washington, no fireside chats, no reassurances. You won't be able to write to your congressman, because he, poor devil!, is marked for the kill. You can live through it, he can't. He will be radioactive dust. His profession is so hazardous that there is no need for him to study up on how to snare rabbits.

But you should- if you are smart, you can live through it.

Now as to methods-there is just one known way to avoid being killed by an atomic bomb. The formula is very simple:

Don't be there when it goes off!

Survival methods in the atomic age can be divided into two headings, strategical and tactical. The first or strategical aspect is entirely concerned with how not to be where the bomb is; the second, tactical part has to do with how to keep yourself and your family alive if you live through the destruction of the cities and the government.

Strategy first-the simplest way to insure long life for yourself and family is to move to Honduras or some other small and nonindustrialized country, establish yourself there, and quit worrying. It is most unlikely that such places will be subjected to atomic bombardment; if war comes, they will move into the economic

and political sphere of the winner, to be sure, but probably without bloodshed, since resistance would be so obviously futile.

However, you probably cannot afford, or feel that you can't afford, any move as drastic as that. (Whether or not you can in truth afford it is a moot point, to be settled by your own notion of the degree of danger. The pre-War refugees from Nazi Germany could not "afford" to flee, either, but events proved the wisdom of doing so. There is an old Chinese adage, "In the course of a long life a wise man will be prepared to abandon his baggage several times." It has never been more true than it is today.)

There are several moves open to you which are less drastic. If you live on a farm or in a small village, several miles-fifty is a good figure-from the nearest large city, rail junction, power dam, auto factory, or other likely military target, strategy largely takes care of itself. If you are blasted, it will probably be an accident, a rocket gone wild, or something equally unforeseeable. If you are not in such a location, you had better make some plans.

Just a moment-a gentleman in the back row has a question. A little louder please. He asks, "Isn't it true that the government is planning to disperse the cities so we will be safe from atomic bombs?"

I don't know-is it? The only figure I have heard mentioned so far is $250,000,000,000. Quite aside from the question of whether or not large scale dispersion can be made effective, there is still the question as to whether or not Congress would appropriate a quarter of a trillion dollars in peacetime for any purpose. That is a political question, beyond the scope of this discussion. We are concerned here with how you, unassisted, with your two hands, your brain, and your ability to plan ahead, can keep yourself alive during and after any possible Next War.

If you have to live in a large city or other target area, your strategical planning has to be a good bit more detailed, alert, and shifty. You need an emergency home, perhaps an abandoned farm picked up cheaply or a cabin built on government land. What it is depends on the part of the country you live in and how much money you can put into it, but it should be chosen with view to the possibilities it offers of eating off the country-fish, game, garden plot-and it should be near enough for you to reach it on one tank of gasoline. If the tank in your car is too small, have a special one built, or keep enough cans of reserve permanently in the trunk of your car. Your car should also be equipped with a survival kit, but that comes under tactics.

Having selected and equipped your emergency base, you must then, if you are to live in a target area, keep your ear to the ground and your eyes open with respect to world affairs. There will be no time to get out after rockets are launched. You will have to outguess events. This is a tricky assignment at best and is the principal reason why it is much better to live in the country in the first place, but you stand a fair chance of accomplishing it if you do not insist on being blindly optimistic and can overcome a natural reluctance to make a clean break with your past-business, home, clubs, friends, church-when it becomes evident that the storm clouds are gathering. Despite the tragic debacle at Pearl Harbor, quite a number of people, laymen among them, knew that a war with Japan was coming. If you think you can learn to spot the signs of trouble long enough in advance to jump, you may get away with living on the spot with the X mark.

Let us suppose that you were quick-witted, far sighted, and fast on your feet; you brought yourself and your family safely through the bombing and have them somewhere out in the country, away from the radioactive areas that were targets a short time before. The countryside is swarming with survivors from the edges of the bombed areas, survivors who are hungry, desperate, some of them armed, all of them free of the civilizing restrictions of organized living. Enemy troops, moving in to occupy, may already be present or may be dropping in from the skies any day.

How, on that day, will you feed and protect yourself and your family?

The tactical preparations for survival after the debacle fall mainly into three groups. First is the overhaul of your own bodily assets, which includes everything from joining the YMCA, to get rid of that paunch and increase your wind and endurance, to such things as getting typhoid and cholera shots, having that appendix out, and keeping your teeth in the best shape possible. If you wear glasses, you will need several pairs against the day when there will be no opticians in practice. Second is the acquisition of various materials and tools which you will be unable to make or grow in a sudden, synthetic stone age- items such as a pickax or a burning glass, for example, will be wdrth considerably more than two college degrees or a diamond bracelet. Third is training in various fundamental pioneer skills, not only how to snare and cook rabbits, but such things as where and when to plant potatoes, how to tell edible fungi from deadly toadstools without trying them on Junior, and how to walk silently.

All these things are necessary, but more important, much more important, is the acquiring of a survival point of view, the spiritual orientation which will enable you to face hardship, danger, cold, and hunger without losing your zest and courage and sense of humor. If you think it is going to be too hard to be worthwhile, if you can't face the prospect of coming back to the ruins of your cabin, burned down by drunken looters, other than with the quiet determination to build another, then don't bother to start. Move to a target area and wait for the end. It does not take any special courage or skill to accept the death that moves like lightning. You won't even have ttie long walk the steers have to make to get from the stockyard pens to the slaughter-house.

But if your ancestors still move in your bones, you will know that it is worthwhile, just as they did. "The cowards never started and the weaklings died on the way." That was the spirit that crossed the plains, and such was the spirit of every emigrant who left Europe. There is good blood in your veins, compadre!

It is not possible to tell exactly what to do to prepare yourself best to survive, even if this were a book instead of a short article, for the details must depend on the nature of the countryside you must rely on, your opportunities for planning and preparing, the numbers, ages and sex of your dependents if any, your present skills, talents, and physical condition, and whether or not you are at present dispersed from target areas or must plan for such dispersal. But the principles under which you can make your plans and the easiest means by which to determine them can be indicated.

Start out by borrowing your son's copy of the Boy Scout Manual. It is a practical book of the sort of lore you will need. If you can't borrow it because he is not a member of the Scouts, send him down at once and make him join up. Then make him study. Get him busy on those merit badges-woodcraft, cooking, archery, carpentry. Somebody is going to have to make that fire without matches, if that rabbit is ever to be cooked and eaten. See to it that he learns how, from experts. Then make him teach you.

Can you fell a tree? Can you trim a stone? Do you know where to dig a cesspool? Where and how to dig a well? Can you pull a tooth? Can you shoot a rifle accurately and economically? Can you spot tularemia (we are back to that ubiquitous rabbit again!) in cleaning a rabbit? Do you know the rudiments of farming? Given simple tools, could you build a log, or adobe, or

rammed-earth, or native-stone cabin from materials at hand and have it be weather-tight, varmint-proof, and reasonably comfortable?

You can't learn all the basic manual trades in your spare time in a limited number of years but you can acquire a jackleg but adequate knowledge of the more important ones, in the time we have left.

But how much time have we?

All we can do is estimate. How long will it be before other nations have the atomic bomb? Nobody knows- one estimate from the men who made it was "two to five years." Dr. Vannevar Bush spoke of "five to fifteen years" while another expert, equally distinguished, mentioned "five or ten years." Major General Leslie Groves, the atom general, thinks it will be a long time.

Let us settle on five years as a reasonable minimum working time. Of course, even if another nation, unfriendly to us, solved the production problems of atomic weapons in that length of time, there still might not be a war for a number of years, nor would there necessarily ever be one. However, since we don't know what world conditions will be like in five years, let's play it safe; let's try to be ready for it by 1950.

Four or five years is none too long to turn a specialized, soft, city dweller into a generalized, hardened pioneer. However, it is likely that you will find that you are enjoying it. It will be an interesting business and there is a deep satisfaction in learning how to do things with your own hands.

First get that Scout Manual. Look over that list of merit badges. Try to figure out what skills you are likely to need, what ones you now have, and what ones you need to study up on. The Manual will lead you in time to other books. Ernest Thompson Seton's Two Little Savages is full of ideas and suggestions.

Presently you will find that there are handbooks of various trades you have not time to master; books which contain information you could look up in an emergency if you have had the forethought to buy the book and hide it away in your out-of-tpwn base. There are books which show how to build fireplaces, giving the exact dimensions of reflector, throat, ledge, and flue. You may not remember such details; being able to look them up may save you from a winter in a smoke-filled cabin. If there is any greater domestic curse than a smoking fireplace, I can't recall it, unless it be the common cold.

There are little handbooks which show, in colored pictures, the edible mushrooms and their inedible cousins. It is possible to live quite well on practically nothing but fungi, with comparatively little work; they exist in such abundance and variety.

You will need a medical reference book, selected with the advice of a wise and imaginative medical man. Tell him why you want it. Besides that, the best first-aid and nursing instrvction you can get will not be too much. Before you are through with this subject you will find yourself selecting drugs, equipment, and supplies to be stored against the darkness, in your base as well as a lesser supply to go into the survival kit you keep in your automobile.

What goes into that survival kit, anyhow? You will have to decide; you won't take any present advice in any case. By the time you get to it you will think, quite correctly, that you are the best judge. But the contents of the survival kits supplied our aviators in this latest war will be very illuminating. The contents varied greatly, depending on climate and nature of mission- from pemmican to quinine, fish hooks to maps.

What to put in your cabin is still more difficult to state definitely. To start with, you might obtain a Sears-Roebuck or Montgomery-Ward catalog and go through it, item by item. Ask yourself "Do I have to have this?," then from the list that produces ask yourself "Could I make this item, or a substitute, in a pinch?"

If shoes wear out, it is possible to make moccasins- although shoes should be hoarded in preference to any other item of clothing. But you can't-unless you are Superman-make an ax. You will need an ax.

You will need certain drugs. Better be liberal here.

Salt is difficult to obtain, inland.

It is difficult to reject the idea of hoarding canned goods. A few hundred dollars worth, carefully selected, could supplement the diet of your family to the point of luxury for several years. It might save you from starvation, or the cannibalism that shamed the Donner Party, during your first winter of the Dark Ages, and it could certainly alleviate some of the sugar hunger you are sure to feel under most primitive conditions. But it is a very great risk to have canned goods. If you have them, you will be one of the hated rich if anybody finds out about them. We are assuming that there will be no government to protect you. To have canned goods-and have it known by anyone outside your own household-is to invite assassination. If you do not believe that a man will commit murder for one can of tomatoes, then you have never been hungry.

If you have canned goods, open them when the windows are shuttered and bury the cans. Resist the temptation to advertise your wealth by using the empty tins as receptacles.

Don't forget a can opener-two can openers.

You will have a rifle, high-powered and with telescopic sights, but you won't use it much. Cartridges are nearly irreplaceable. A deer or a man should be about the limit of the list of your targets . . . a deer when you need meat; a man when hiding or running is not enough.

That brings us to another subject and the most interesting of all. We have not talked much about the enemy, have we? And yet he was there, from the start. It was his atom bombs which reduced you to living off the country and performing your own amputations and accouchements. If you have laid your plans carefully, you won't see much of him for quite a while; this is a very, very big country. Where you are hidden out there never were very many people~at any time; the chances of occupation forces combing all of the valleys, canyons, and hills of our back country in less than several years is negligible. It is entirely conceivable that an enemy could conquer or destroy our country, as a state, in twenty minutes, with atom bomb and rocket. Yet, when his occupation forces move in, they will be almost lost in this great continent. He may not find you for years.

There is your chance. It has been proved time and again, by the Fighting French, the recalcitrant Irish, the deathless Poles, yes and by our own Apache and Yaqui Indians, that you cannot conquer a free man; you can only kill him.

After the immediate problems of the belly, comes the Underground!

You'll need your rifle. You will need knives. You will need dynamite and fuses. You will need to know how to turn them into grenades. You must learn how to harry the enemy in the dark, how to turn his conquest into a mockery, too expensive to exploit. Oh, it can be done, it can be done! Once he occupies, his temporary advantage of the surprise attack with the atom bomb is over, for once his troops are scattered among you, he cannot use the atom bomb.

Then is your day. Then is the time for the neighborhood cell, the mountain hideout, the blow in the night. Yes, and then is the time for the martyr to freedom, the men and women who die painfully, with sealed lips.

Can we then win our freedom back? There is no way of telling. History has some strange quirks. It was a conflict between England and France that gave us our freedom in the first place. A quarrel in enemy high places, a young hopeful feeling his oats and anxious to displace the original dictator, might give us unexpected opportunity, opportunity we could exploit if we were ready.

There are ways to study for that day, too. There are books, many of them, which you may read to learn how other people have done it. One such book is Tom Wintringham's New Ways of War. It is almost a blueprint of what to do to make an invader wish he had stayed at home. It is available in a 25 cent PenguinInfantry Journal edition. You can study up and become quite deadly, even though 4-F, or fifty.

If you plan for it, you can survive. If you study and plan and are ready to organize when the time comes, you can hope not only to survive but to play a part in winning back lost freedoms. General George Washington once quoted Scripture to describe what we were fighting for then-a time when "everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and none shall make him afraid!"

It is worth planning for.

"A person who won't be blackmailed,
can't be blackmailed."
-L. Long