Cultural Revolutions

First Mass Mailing

"Understanding AIDS," the U.S. Surgeon General's brochure on "public enemy number one," has been called the first mass mailing of a federal policy message to every American household. In fact, an earlier administration attempted to meet a very different public danger—nuclear attack—with a similar mail campaign. Comparison of the social assumptions found in each document offers an unsettling portrait of social change in America over the last quarter-century.

President John Kennedy, in a 1961 statement appearing at the height of the Cold War, pledged that "in the coming months I hope to let every citizen know what steps he can take . . . to protect his family in case of attack." Kennedy proposed mailing a booklet with this purpose to each American home. With 60 million anticipated copies, the document would be—in one aide's words—"the most widely distributed piece of literature in man's history outside of the Bible."

Using contracted editorial assistance from Time, Inc., the Defense Department's Office of Civil Defense produced a draft circulated among the Kennedy inner circle. Significantly, the document assumed that America was uniformly composed of suburban, middle-class families. In pictures and text, the booklet featured family teams of husbands, wives, and children, in their single-family dwellings, working together to prepare their homes...

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