How the Office of Civilian Defense Worked

St. Paul's cathedral stands above the smoke of burning buildings during the London Blitz.
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The year was 1940. London, England was under siege. Night after night, German Luftwaffe bombers strafed the skies, raining fire and destruction upon the city. Thousands of people were killed, and more than a million were made homeless [source: Museum of London].

Across the Atlantic, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was deeply concerned. Though the United States military was strong, he felt that even more manpower and supplies would be needed to protect American cities if they were to come under attack. The country needed a civilian defense force.


During World War I, the government had established a Council of National Defense to coordinate resources for national defense and stimulate public morale. State and local communities set up their own defense councils to help direct efforts in health, welfare, morale and other activities, but these volunteer groups did not get involved in actual civilian defense because there wasn't a need. Military from other countries couldn't reach America because the aviation industry was still in its infancy.

By World War II, that had changed. Airplanes had become advanced enough for enemies to reach the United States. After launching a mission to London to observe the Blitz, New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia wrote an urgent letter to President Roosevelt stating, "The new technique of war has created the necessity for developing new techniques of civil defense" [source: FEMA].

The president took this advice to heart, and on May 20, 1941, he signed an executive order establishing the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD). Roosevelt chose LaGuardia to oversee the new department.

The OCD was created to protect the general population in the event of an attack, keep up public morale if the United States were to enter the war in Europe and involve civilian volunteers in the country's defense. The OCD's jobs included establishing air-raid procedures, supervising blackouts and protecting against fire damage in the event of an attack.

LaGuardia's main goal was to protect the public. But first lady Eleanor Roosevelt thought the OCD's role should be expanded to also include public health and welfare, as well as to increase civilian participation (especially of female volunteers). LaGuardia didn't want to get involved with what he called "sissy stuff," so he eventually hired the first lady to head up these efforts as his assistant director [source: FEMA]. Eleanor Roosevelt founded the Civilian Participation Branch of the OCD.


Organization and Leadership of the OCD

The OCD was divided into nine regional offices, each with a salaried regional director at the helm. Under each regional director, were unpaid volunteer state directors, county and city directors and finally block leaders.

The OCD had four operating divisions:


  • The Federal-State Cooperation division provided a link between the federal government and local governments to help communities respond to the country's war needs and help the federal government more quickly address individual community needs that might result from a war. It included committees on health, housing, volunteers, recreation, welfare and child care.
  • The Protection Services division helped train and organize volunteers in efforts to protect civilians by organizing evacuations, blackouts and auxiliary police and fire services, as well as outfitting protective buildings and managing the demolition of structures damaged by bombings.
  • The Protective Property division loaned protective property and equipment purchased by the OCD to local communities. It was responsible for shipping equipment and sending instructions for its care and maintenance.
  • The Industrial Protection division helped protect industrial plants against dangers such as fire and enemy sabotage.

Fiorello LaGuardia was the first person to head up the OCD. Yet after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, there was a new urgency to the OCD's efforts. President Roosevelt was concerned about LaGuardia's ability to manage the agency under the new threat. In 1942, LaGuardia resigned and Harvard Law School professor James Landis took over.

Landis reorganized the agency, recruited new personnel and moved what he saw as superfluous departments to other governmental agencies (for example, he moved the OCD's physical fitness program to the Office of Defense Health and Welfare Services). When there still had been no air raids or threats apparent by 1943, Landis resigned and recommended that the OCD be abolished. Roosevelt didn't listen. He felt there was still a need to keep the agency afloat.

Deputy director John Martin became acting director for six months. When he resigned in 1944, Martin was replaced by Lt. Gen. William N. Haskell, who led the organization until its demise in 1945.


Office of Civilian Defense Volunteers

The Office of the Civilian Defense conducted aluminum donations like this one in Times Square.
Anthony Potter Collection/Getty Images

The OCD had only 75 paid staff members [source: National Park Service]. Its numbers and its strength instead came from a massive volunteer workforce. By 1943, the organization had 14,000 local defense councils throughout the country, and more than 11 million volunteers [source: Foster].

To volunteer, interested citizens had to meet age, citizenship and training requirements. (Children under 16 were able to volunteer under adult supervision in the Junior Citizens Service Corps.) Volunteers were given positions based on their skills and interests. For example, fire fighters were sent to auxiliary fire service positions, while retired World War I pilots worked for the Civil Air Patrol. Each member had to say an oath of loyalty when he or she was admitted to the corps.


People could volunteer in the following areas:

  • Fire protection: If incendiary bombs were dropped on American cities, volunteer fire fighters would be trained and ready to extinguish them.
  • Communication: This group was in charge of volunteer communications during air raids, drills and blackouts. It would help relay crucial messages from the War Department to local defense personnel and the public. Amateur radio operators were on standby in case the telephone system was disabled. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers were readied as messengers.
  • Evacuation: The Army was in charge of actual evacuations in advance of bombing attacks, but OCD volunteers were available to help move people to safety.
  • Shelters: These programs distributed flyers explaining the different types of bombs, helped design shelters and were trained in tunneling and other protective techniques.
  • Gas: Poisonous gas was a dangerous reality during World War II. In anticipation of a potential gas attack against an American city, the OCD helped distribute gas masks and protective clothing, taught the public how to identify different gases and instructed people on emergency decontamination measures.

The OCD also had volunteer efforts in place to restore transportation, communications and other essential services after an attack; prepare emergency hospitals and mobile medical teams to care for bombing victims; and keep watch for enemies in the skies.


The End of the Office of Civilian Defense

A 1943 poster advertised the Civil Air Patrol.
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The OCD was formed with the aim of protecting American citizens during a turbulent and dangerous time in world history. Yet within a few years of the agency's establishment, it became very clear to government leaders that there would be no need for blackout drills or emergency medical services to treat bombing victims. World War II would not be coming to America's continental shores.

Even before that realization set in, the OCD became the subject of great criticism and controversy. Members of Congress and the media charged that the organization was poorly run --indecisive and disorganized. They criticized that the agency was spending millions of dollars with the main objective of getting President Roosevelt reelected for a fourth term. Many of the OCD's programs were deemed to be entirely frivolous -- for example, when Eleanor Roosevelt hired her friend Mayris Chaney to boost children's morale by teaching them dancing at a salary of $4,600 a year (the equivalent of about $62,000 today) [source: Time].


It's difficult to confirm or deny whether the OCD was an effective organization, because it was never able to act upon any of its plans. With the exception of Pearl Harbor, any incidents that did occur on American soil during World War II were minor, and quickly contained. However, the organization did establish important civil defense measures, including sandbag stockpiling, which later proved useful for natural disasters.

By June 30, 1944, the nine regional offices of the OCD had closed. President Harry Truman signed an executive order to terminate the organization on June 4, 1945, and the OCD officially shut down on June 30, 1945.

All of the OCD's programs came to an end, with the exception of the Civil Air Patrol, which had been transferred to the War Department a few years before. However, civil defense was not entirely finished. In 1950, President Truman established the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) to oversee states' civil defense efforts, such as building shelters to protect against the growing nuclear threat. Under President Richard Nixon's administration, the government established the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency (DCPA) to replace the OCD, but the focus shifted from armed conflict to natural disaster preparedness.

The volunteer army that President Roosevelt launched no longer exists, but remnants of its spirit of cooperation could be seen after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina. The Department of Homeland Security now leads the charge against attacks on American soil, but local communities continue to play an important role in emergency preparedness efforts.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site. "Office of Civilian Defense."
  • Emergency War Agencies. Office of Civilian Defense.
  • Foster, Reginald C. "Block-Aid Runner for the OCD." Nation's Business, June 1943. Vol. 31, Issue 6, pgs. 90-93.
  • Glander, Timothy. Origins of Mass Communications Research During the American Cold War: Educational Effects and Contemporary Implications. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 2000.
  • Homeland Security National Preparedness Task Force. "Civil Defense and Homeland Security: A Short History of National Preparedness Efforts." September 2006.
  • Landis, Dean James M. "The Need for Civilian Protection." Over CBS, Jan.17, 1942.
  • Mauck, Elwyn A. "History of Civil Defense in the United States." Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. August-September 1950, pg. 268-269.
  • "OCD and Civilian Defense."
  • Records of the Office of Civilian Defense.
  • The National Museum of the Civil Air Patrol.
  • "The Senate Goes After Non-Essential Agencies." Congressional Digest, 1942-03, Volume 21, Issue 3, pgs. 65-66.