A number of authors consider that the early period of US security and education (1950–1970) was in some way a ‘golden age’ where there was a prevailing societal orientation towards civil defence. This is supported, to some extent, through ‘Duck and Cover’ type activities in schools and in community preparedness efforts. This article considers whether this portrayal is necessarily correct in the case of adult education. From an analysis of previously classified historical archives in the US National Archives II at the University of Maryland, I consider the success of the civil defense adult education programme (CDAE), and earlier adult education courses, from 1950 to 1970. Rather than being a ‘bottom-up’ process, CDAE was imposed on educators directly through an executive order. There was considerable resistance to the CDAE from other areas of government, from states and from students. CDAE had limited success only so much as the Department of Health and Welfare (DHEW) was able to reconcile it with their own educational objectives. The article concludes by considering the implications of these findings for contemporary adult education for emergencies.