In the years shortly after World War II, the United States military found itself one of if not the dominant force on Earth. Freshly reorganized in 1947, with a new department, new service branches and a massive industrial powerhouse behind it — not to mention a growing nuclear arsenal — the U.S. military found itself in a massive Cold War with the Soviet Union. Each year meant new recruits and new soldiers who needed to be educated in how the massive military infrastructure worked. One way to inform personnel was a series of intricate and stylistic slides. Different series outlined the military structure, nuclear command and control, different missile systems and even guides to the Soviet military.

The United States made dozens of these series, featuring everything from hand-drawn art to photos of military aircraft in flight. Eventually more than 60 boxes of hard copies of those slides ended up on an eBay post. 

That’s where Sam Biddle came across them. Biddle, a technology reporter with The Intercept and a self-described collector of weird military ephemera, had found all sorts of strange things on eBay. He was searching the site one day when he saw a listing for boxes of slides. 

“The listing came up and it was pretty vague. But the sample images that the eBay seller posted were incredible. I was immediately captured from a purely aesthetic standpoint,” Biddle told Task & Purpose. “It was three boxes of 35mm slides. I bought those, I didn’t have any idea what I was going to do.” 

Soon after the seller reached out; they had found 60 more boxes of slides in an estate sale and wanted to know if Biddle wanted them. “I have never replied to a message so fast,” he said. Now he’s in the process of digitizing the collection. The in-process series, simply listed as “35mm Scans” in his website URL, is a look back in time to how the U.S. military and Defense Department tried to visualize the sheer scale of its inner workings and arsenal. 

The Cold War-era slides that showed how the military worked

The slides themselves are partly a mystery. Some are labeled, but many aren’t. The seller on eBay told Biddle he thought they were from an Air Force ROTC training manual. The seller got them from an estate sale outside Albuquerque, New Mexico and thought they might come from Kirkland Air Force base in the state. Since then, he’s been slowly digitizing each slide, a daunting task given the time it takes to properly do so and the amount of slides he now has. Biddle said that the slides were U.S. military creations and therefore not subject to copyright, so he’s encouraging others to study and enjoy the art. Since he started uploading the slides, others have joined in to share them. One person, Brian Gawalt, created a bot on the social media site Bluesky to send out posts of the archive. 

“Part of why I put these online is in the hope that people would tell me what I’m looking at. I’m a total hobbyist,” Biddle said. “But I’m also a military technology reporter. I’d love help piecing this together.”

The Cold War-era slides that showed how the military worked
The collection of boxes featuring the slides. (Image courtesy Sam Biddle)

The collection is a peek into the U.S. military and defense structure of the height of the Cold War, visualized in sleek, Jet Age graphics and unexpected cartoon elements. The earliest dated slide goes back to 1959 while the collection extends into the early 1980s. Although many of the slides have some label with a brief description, many don’t. They aren’t dated, leaving their time of origin guessed by context clues in their content, such as the fashion and hairstyles of some personnel on board. 

One collection, “SERIES 37, ORGANIZATION FOR NATIONAL SECURITY VD037,” uses a minimalist artistic style to breakdown the defense structure established by the National Security Act of 1947. Any related context or information that might have accompanied the slides in a presentation are missing, but the art pieces themselves dives into command structure, from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to how the Navy and Army split up their forces. 

Another series, “V-0073 TACTICAL AIR COMMAND 1978 BX 1 of 2,” features a series of different unit emblems, mixed with graphics showing areas of operations for air commands. 

The Cold War-era slides that showed how the military worked

Looking through the digitized collection, the most shocking element isn’t the substance, but the style.

“You look at contemporary presentation material out of the Department of Defense and it makes your eyes feel like they’re going to fall out of your head. There isn’t any graphic design,” Biddle said. “It looks like it was created by an insane person, just the worst graphic layout.” 

That’s not the case with the presentations in the slides. They all appear to be hand-made pieces of art. There are different styles. Some evoke classic cartoons, others go for sleek Jet Age minimalism. Others, seemingly from the 1970s, have art that looks like something found on a poster for war movies such as The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare

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“What’s being depicted is in one sense really thoughtful. There’s definitely an aesthetic consideration that went into making these legible and clear,” Biddle said. “The actual content though is the prospect of nuclear annihilation and war and suffering. There’s this cognitive dissonance. It’s ugly, it’s war. [The aesthetics] just seems like something that was lost with the total computerization of [the Defense Department].”

The Cold War-era slides that showed how the military worked

Biddle pointed to one series, “SERIES 78, AERO SPACE DEFENSE COMMAND BOX 1 OF 2 V-0092” which features cartoon art of a caveman, something he compared to the Hanna Barbera cartoons of the 1960s such as Jonny Quest or Scooby-Doo. Depictions of the caveman hunting and killing a target are mixed with U.S. Air Force radars and planes tracking down enemy aircraft. 

Many of the series deal with nuclear weapons, from outlines of Soviet military capabilities to depictions of how the American arsenal is maintained. “But as far as the sensitivity of any of this, I haven’t come across a single thing that’s labeled classified or controlled,” Biddle said.

He pointed to one series on the MX missile, or experimental intercontinental ballistic missile. The slides include entire diagrams and drawings showing how nuclear missiles were stored and meant to be deployed. Despite that, there are no markings suggesting any secretive aspect to the content. Slides like these, Biddle said, make it seem unlikely it would be for training. 

“Some of the boxes are labeled ROTC, but why Air Force ROTC would need to have this present doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Although the Air Force appears to be the dominant service branch represented, Biddle said that all of the various branches appear in the slides, as well as NORAD. From his own research, Biddle has not seen duplicates of the slides he’s digitized so far. 

He said he’d love to talk to any artist who worked on these, both to learn more about the series and because so much effort went into making these presentations legible. “You look a present-day Air Force Powerpoint and it’s going to give you a migraine,” he said in comparison.

There are still several boxes to go through. Although he’s already digitized dozens of images, Biddle said he’s only about a quarter through the collection he bought off eBay. With only so much information available on the physical slides, he’s still trying to figure out where and when all of the presentations came from, and who in the military they were for. 

“If anyone who reads this or checks out the slides has information to share, I’m totally happy to talk.”

The collection can be viewed at 35mm Scans

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