There was an eerie, throwback quality to the detailed suggestions reissued by the Department of Homeland Security last week on how Americans should prepare for a possible terrorist attack.

The recommendations included designating a room where the family could take refuge, and stocking it with food and water to last at least three days. Blankets, flashlights, radios and spare batteries should be on hand, and the enclosure sealed with plastic sheeting and duct tape. "We see information on citizen preparedness as prudent planning," department spokesman Gordon Johndroe said at a special briefing. "It's appropriate for citizens to be informed about how to respond to a terrorist attack, much as people have prepared for years to be ready for tornadoes, hurricanes or floods."

Johndroe might have added nuclear attack. His briefing was reminiscent of the bad old days of the Cold War. In those days, "safe rooms" or "panic rooms" were called fallout shelters. While they were built to ward off radioactive fallout rather than gas or biological attack, the shelters' ultimate purpose of protecting the American family from an unforeseen, catastrophic attack was the same. One bus advertisement from that era sported a large mushroom cloud against a red skyline and said, "Protect yourself from FALLOUT." Other ads showed emergency supplies to set aside. One depicted a trim young couple building a nuclear-age dream house, a brick shelter they could call their own. (The man was laying mortar while the woman read a set of instructions.)

Federal officials today, like their counterparts of the 1950s and '60s, must consider how to inform the public without, at the same time, doing more harm than good. The Department of Homeland Security may argue that its recent alerts are serving the citizenry, but there is also a degree of bureaucratic posterior-covering at work as well. After all, if an attack occurs and the public has not been warned, then Homeland Security will be criticized for failing to do its job. Better to play it safe by issuing the occasional alert. The problem with this strategy lies in its potential to induce anxiety, even panic, among the public. Later, a different problem can emerge. If alerts come and go without any attacks taking place, the public may become jaded -- and skeptical that any attack will ever take place. The alerts risk acquiring a "Boy Who Cried Wolf" reputation.

Civil defense officials during the Cold War faced similar dilemmas. They strived to convince civilians that the oceans that had protected Americans in previous wars no longer provided comfortable barriers, and that the civilian population as well as the military population could be subject to attack. From the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, the Federal Civil Defense Administration held annual "Operation Alert" exercises in which it simulated nuclear attacks on American cities. Their purpose was to test civil defense preparedness and "educate the public." Under the rubric of public education, fake stories were splashed across daily papers describing nuclear devastation visited on metropolitan areas. Residents of Buffalo who opened their papers on July 20, 1956, read an account of two nuclear bombs hitting their city under a banner headline that proclaimed, "125,000 Known Dead, Downtown in Ruins." There was also dismaying news for readers of the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Herald: "16,200 Die As H-Bomb Levels Grand Rapids." Then-Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson worried that the 1956 Operation Alert might "scare a lot of people without purpose." But over time, the most common public response was apathy and indifference.

Homeland Security officials might argue that their terror alerts, unlike the Operation Alerts of the Cold War, are "real" rather than mere exercises. But the government's reluctance to provide enough detailed evidence to support a heightened state of security (other than citing "sources" with "specific, credible" information), as well as its vagueness about likely targets or the most likely kind of attack, imparts a spectral quality to these Homeland Security edicts that appears no less "unreal" than fears of nuclear attack during the Cold War.

There is much else about our own era that is reminiscent of the Cold War, including the Bush administration's apparent conviction that providing protection from attack is a personal, as much as a governmental, responsibility. In the summer of 1961, President John F. Kennedy faced a problem perhaps more daunting than what President Bush must grapple with today. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was threatening to cut off Western access to Berlin, and Kennedy had to decide if the United States would risk nuclear war to defend the city. In a tense July 25 speech Kennedy said, "We do not want to fight -- but we have fought before." To underline his determination, he asked for a $3.2 billion increase in military spending and $207 million to identify and mark space in existing structures "that could be used for fallout shelters in case of attack." In the meantime, individual citizens were encouraged to make their own preparations against nuclear war.

The Kennedy administration was inundated with requests for information about building home shelters, and private contractors and the government itself did not hesitate to take advantage of the public's apprehensions about nuclear war. In a Prince George's County shopping center, customers were treated to a recording of air raid sirens, exploding bombs and an anguished male voice crying out, "My wife, my children. . . . If only I'd listened to Civil Defense . . . I'd be in that shelter now." One Virginia real estate agent placed advertisements in Washington newspapers promoting "life and peace of mind outside the Washington target area." Shelter building was regarded as a can't-miss business proposition because public opinion polls showed that 82 percent of Americans favored defending Berlin "even at the risk of war," and that a majority expected a nuclear war within five years.

But shelters were never built in the numbers predicted. Many Americans believed that it was the government's obligation, and not their own, to provide protection from nuclear attack. The late Rep. Chet Holifield (D-Calif.), one of the champions of a national shelter system, compared the idea of getting people to build their own shelters to building "an army or a navy or an air force by advising each one to buy himself a jet plane." There was also the cost. Most experts recommended spending a minimum of $2,500 for a shelter -- a considerable outlay in 1961 when the median family income was $5,300. In addition, it was obvious that survival in a nuclear war would be greatly enhanced by residency in the suburbs rather than in a city, where it would be virtually impossible to defend against attack. John Kenneth Galbraith called the suburban bias of the Kennedy administration's home shelter idea "a design for saving Republicans and sacrificing Democrats." Perhaps most distressing of all was the "gun-thy-neighbor" controversy over whether and when it would be permissible to shoot your neighbors if they tried to get into your shelter.

The fallout shelter issue created turmoil on every level: rich vs. poor, suburbs vs. city, neighbor vs. neighbor. And because most shelters were designed only to protect the inhabitants from radioactive fallout, and provided no blast and heat protection, many believed that shelter owners were simply building their own tombs in advance. These were all solid reasons not to build, but a more intangible negative factor was that Americans did not relish the image of themselves burrowing into the ground to save their hides (despite the utility of such a strategy in a nuclear war), and questioned what would be left to live for in the aftermath of a nuclear war.

As Washingtonians in 2003 lay in supplies of plastic sheeting and duct tape, it is instructive to see how their counterparts responded 40 years ago to the Cuban missile crisis, the most dizzying moment of the Cold War. Then, attack by the enemy would have meant not the deaths of thousands, but the death of millions (not to mention incalculable long-term damage to the planet). Officials in Washington believed that 58 American cities with a combined population of 92 million were within range of the missiles in Cuba. As Americans besieged the government for civil defense information, they were appalled to discover that the modest public shelter program initiated by the Kennedy administration was far from being a reality. In Miami, residents learned that their city had not chosen any shelter sites. In Boston, none of the buildings designated as public shelters were marked or stocked. In Los Angeles. only two buildings had been stocked with survival supplies, while the bulk of supplies sat in a Long Beach warehouse. Residents in Washington were told that shelter space was inadequate. And in suburban Fairfax County, not a single shelter was stocked.

In some places, anxiety gave way to panicky preparations. There was a run on bottled water and canned goods in Dallas, and Tampa residents snapped up arms, ammunition and foodstuffs. In other places, people seemed unruffled. Miami newspapers reported that the city's residents were attentive to news broadcasts but going about their daily tasks. Meanwhile, in the nation's capital, Los Angeles Times correspondent Bill Henry observed that residents were enduring the Cuban crisis with "magnificent aplomb."

Americans weathered this and other Cold War crises, and during the course of 45 years got "used" to the threat of nuclear attack. After all, the possibility of nuclear holocaust is not something one can keep constantly in mind and retain one's sanity. Although the government eventually put signs on many existing buildings and stuck some supplies in their basements, these structures were not designed to withstand nuclear attack and were of dubious value. Americans by and large rejected the idea of security at any price, showing little enthusiasm for either building private home shelters or creating an elaborate multi-billion-dollar public shelter system.

In this way Americans were wiser than their leaders and understood that nuclear attack, like terrorist attack, is sudden and unpredictable, and that there is little an ordinary individual can do to prepare for such a possibility. This is a liberating idea, not a pessimistic one. And the notion that a life lived in fear is not worth living has never been more relevant. Today, we must reach the same accommodation with the war on terrorism that our fellow Americans reached with the Cold War: We can take prudent steps to protect ourselves and our families, but we must not allow ourselves to become obsessed with our own safety. We must not lock ourselves away. Instead, we must get on with our lives and walk in the sun.

Kenneth Rose teaches history at California State University in Chico, and is the author of "One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture" (New York University Press).

No duct tape here: A 1950s home economics student with the Federal Civil Defense Administration's homespun example of emergency supplies for "every family."