by Peter Amacher, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
In the fall of 1961, at the height of excitement over U.S. civil defense, some people took survival very seriously. Charles Davis of Austin, Texas, for example, kept four rifles and a .357 Magnum to defend his home fallout shelter, as well as tear gas to flush people out if they got in before he did. (Unfortunately for Davis, anyone could have forced him to surface simply by blocking his air vents.) With no government plan to fund and build fallout shelters, the public was basically left to fend for itself.
After a long spell out of the spotlight, civil defense is now back in the news. And one thing about it is clear–just like in the old days, citizens are basically on their own.
Prompted by fears of terrorist attacks or Iraqi retaliatory strikes, in February the new Department of Homeland Security published some advice on surviving. Although the advice provides for a very imperfect kind of protection, following it would still improve the odds of survival in a mass-casualty attack.
The department, which finally came together officially on March 1, has three main objectives: to prevent terrorist attacks; to reduce vulnerability to attack; and to be prepared to respond and recover in the event of an attack. Civil defense–reducing casualties if malefactors succeed in making a mass-casualty attack–falls under the third and gets about one-tenth of the department’s $41 billion budget. Homeland Security addresses civil defense in its new “Ready” campaign (ready.gov), “a commonsense framework designed to launch a process of learning about citizen preparedness.” What it unintentionally launched was much public debate over duct tape. That’s okay by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who said afterward, “I happen to think humor is a good way of talking about serious subjects. . . . It’s been a good program. Ready.gov has empowered Americans with information.”
Ridge issued an 11-page brochure advising people to “make a kit, make a plan, and be prepared,” but he hasn’t got the resources to do much else for civil defense, and will get little moral or financial support from an administration that has its whole focus on Iraq.
There never actually was much common sense about civil defense. America has had some silly seasons for civil defense, first under Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, and then Ronald Reagan. Another silly season, it seems, is now under way.
A brief history of civil defense begins with President Eisenhower. He started his administration entertaining the idea that there could be a limited war with the Soviet Union. He came to believe, however, that any war with the Soviets would escalate quickly into an all-out nuclear exchange and convened the Gaither Committee of 100 experts to advise him on civil defense. In November 1957, the commission recommended a huge public bomb shelter program, and Eisenhower regretted having asked.
He thought that even with a shelter program, so many people would die in a nuclear attack that, “There just aren’t enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets.” Jerome Wiesner, a nuclear scientist at the briefing, thought like Eisenhower. Wiesner “couldn’t comprehend the usefulness of the difference between 40 or 50 million and 80 or 90 million dead.” The difference, of course, is 40 million.
In the end, the Eisenhower administration simply paid lip service to civil defense. In 1957, Val Peterson, the uncharismatic ex-governor of Nebraska, was head of the civil defense agency. He had the impossible job of promoting civil defense with a budget that afforded only the publication of posters and brochures. The agency’s plan to protect cities under nuclear threat was to evacuate them. Evacuation, which would work only in perfect conditions (no cars breaking down or running out of gas; every motorist dutifully following instructions), was less than ideal. Its sole virtue was that it was cheap, and with no money, cheap was the only option.
The near-penniless agency also encouraged citizens to build home shelters at their own expense and published instructions for using a basement as a makeshift shelter. It elicited some discussion, but few people invested in home shelters.
The Bulletin published numerous articles related to civil defense during the Eisenhower presidency. Many pointed out the government’s wild underestimates of the likely damage from a nuclear exchange. Most famously, Ralph Lapp published data from the 1954 Bikini atoll tests, showing fallout in a huge ellipse extending downwind from ground zero. The government had estimated a small, circular area of fallout. Lapp forced them to acknowledge their error. Lapp and other Bulletin authors supported fallout shelters despite their insistence that the government was underestimating the likely damage from a nuclear strike. Lapp, in fact, built his own home shelter.
Eisenhower thought that the psychological and physical damage of a full-scale Soviet attack would leave a nation that could neither be led from Washington nor fight back. It was never clear what kind of fighting Eisenhower envisioned after both sides had expended their long-range weapons. Conventional weapons were not a threat and Russia had no ships to transport an invasion force. Was Mexico going to attack?
In any event, the president and his inner circle showed no interest in decreasing the body count. Eisenhower, as supreme commander of the Allies in World War II, was used to reckoning in terms of thousands of lives. He decided to bet the nation on nuclear deterrence and a stronger economy, rather than spend money on civil defense. (The present administration has substituted overseas military adventure for nuclear deterrence.)
The second half of 1961 and early 1962 saw the height of interest in civil defense preparation to meet the nuclear threat. The Berlin crisis, which had begun in 1958, accelerated when the Soviets tested the largest hydrogen bomb ever. President Kennedy’s administration responded by stating that America would use nuclear weapons, if necessary. Americans were barraged by images of nuclear war. Newspapers had special issues foretelling what would happen, with full-page images of mushroom clouds over their burning cities. Polls showed people thought a Soviet attack was a real, even likely, possibility.
A wide cross-section of society, from Billy Graham to John Kenneth Galbraith and Nelson Rockefeller, supported fallout shelter programs. They based their opinions on plausible analyses that showed civil defense could save millions of lives. There was considerable rhetoric about the end of mankind. Most agreed that without civil defense measures there would be tens of millions of survivors–but millions more with them. No wonder, then, that polls consistently showed support for shelters.
Kennedy vigorously promoted civil defense for a short time, but gave it up when it became politically awkward. In May 1961, he proposed a shelter program, but nothing came of it. In July, prompted by the Soviets’ announced decision to resume testing, Kennedy proposed another program, asking Congress for $207 million. Of this, $93 million was to survey and mark existing city buildings as fallout shelters and to stock them with food, water, and first-aid kits.
Defense Secretary Robert McNamara briefed Congress on the “existing-building” plan. The basement and interior spaces of designated buildings would provide protection against fallout if they were some distance from ground zero. The proposed legislation would create 50 million shelter spaces, although he admitted that blast, heat, and immediate strong radiation would kill many of the sheltered people. McNamara estimated that 10–15 million lives could be saved. He did not say so, but this came down to $6.20–$9.30 per life saved. Congress passed the legislation in 16 days.
This was the high-water mark for quick, inexpensive, and very imperfect civil defense measures in America. Kennedy turned his attention away from the low-cost existing-building program toward building dedicated fallout shelters, which was costly and time-consuming. The September 15, 1961 issue of Life magazine featured on its cover a man wearing a “civilian fallout suit.” The cover line read: “How you can survive nuclear fallout: 97 out of 100 people can be saved”–by fallout shelters, it meant. A somber letter inside from Kennedy encouraged people to do something (exactly what, it didn’t say) to protect themselves. Kennedy’s signature was followed by a repeat of the cover’s overly optimistic survival-rate statistic, which was subsequently repeated in government publications. Commentators jumped on it and started a controversy that weakened the case for fallout shelters.
After successfully inaugurating the existing-building program, Kennedy bungled civil defense to an extent surpassed only by Ronald Reagan. Kennedy had associated himself with an elaborate and unrealistic shelter program. He had implied that such a program could give more protection than it could really deliver–and in any event, he had no reasonable expectation that he could even get shelters built.
The idea that individuals or local governments would pay for their own shelters was “make-believe,” in the words of the only congressional committee to study the issue. The committee reported: “If the federal government doesn’t supply the funds and direct a construction program for communal shelters, there will be no national shelter program.” Few people had bought shelters during Eisenhower’s tenure. John Kenneth Galbraith was sent a draft pamphlet promoting private residential shelters and was appalled, as were others, that it did nothing for the less affluent. When the shelter approach was discredited, so too was the existing-building plan.
The Bulletin published articles on both sides of the debate over expensive, purpose-built shelters, but ran no substantial comments on quick and dirty programs like the existing-building plan. For example, an editorial by founding editor Eugene Rabinowitch pointed out the great exaggeration of the “97 percent survival with shelters” estimate and wrote that only a federal plan would be effective, and that one should be enacted. He did not mention the existing-building plan, nor did other Bulletin authors at the time. Perhaps this was in part the result of the Bulletin’s interest in curbing nuclear proliferation. Bulletin authors projected estimates of the kill power of nukes further into the future than did other commentators; using these projections, improvised shelters were seen as less useful.
Rather than opting for expensive, federally funded shelters or sticking to the cheaper plan to prepare existing buildings, Kennedy dropped civil defense like a political hot potato.
By the time of Reagan’s administration, nuclear war seemed more likely than ever. Nuclear arsenals were at their fullest, and expectations of surviving a nuclear attack had plummeted. The theory of nuclear winter (that many nuclear explosions would create a long-lasting dust cloud that would block sunlight and eventually kill nearly all life on Earth) became widely accepted in the mid-1980s.
Reagan took little note of the increasingly pessimistic scenarios for surviving nuclear war. The president was much influenced by the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), a bipartisan group that included, among others, Clare Booth Luce, Jeane Kirkpatrick, William Casey, and Paul Nitze. Thirty-three members of the committee served in Reagan’s administration. The CPD reasoned that Russia would have the upper hand in a nuclear exchange because it had more missiles–and because it spent $2 billion a year on civil defense measures like shelters and elaborate evacuation plans. Reagan, with his famous imagination, in 1981 told Robert Scheer of the Los Angeles Times that the Russians “have practiced evacuation, when we finally began to learn the facts, we learned that in one summer alone, they took over 20 million young people out of the cities into the country to give them training in just living off the countryside.”
The 20 million rusticating youth helped lead to Reagan’s plan to request a considerable increase in the civil defense budget. The money was to prepare for mass evacuation and for the evacuees to dig fallout shelters in their new locations. The plan ignored the failures of all previous plans. It stipulated that motorists in Washington, D.C., were to evacuate on two successive days, depending on whether their license plate numbers were odd or even. That would have required uncommon (and unlikely) patience from half the population.
The Bulletin took little notice of civil defense in the early 1980s–perhaps because popular media quickly reduced Reagan’s plans to absurdity. Scheer interviewed Thomas K. Jones, an administration gadfly for civil defense who became the goat of the Reagan administration’s misguided effort. Scheer reported Jones’s advice in 1982 in the Los Angeles Times: “Dig a hole, cover it with a couple of doors, and then throw three feet of dirt on top. It’s the dirt that does it.” He went on: “Everybody’s going to make it if there are enough shovels to go around.” Congress asked Jones to testify, but the administration saw that Jones was a loose cannon and sent Richard Perle instead. A miffed Congress refused the budget request, and Reagan, like Kennedy, forgot about civil defense.
With the public’s fleeting attention to civil defense, nobody mentioned that Jones’s plan made little sense. If you had doors, you were likely to have a building. If you had a building, you would do better to shelter in it and avoid burrowing outside. There were American civil defense handbooks from the 1950s and data from Switzerland’s elaborate shelter system that would have made the advantage of sheltering in a building obvious.
Civil defense in Switzerland is institutionalized, with an elaborate system of shelters. The Swiss attitude toward civil defense is like the American attitude toward fire departments. It has been around a long time, seems like a good thing, and isn’t much thought about. But in America, civil defense was never established. When it became an issue after 9/11, it was as if it had never existed.
That brings us to the recent duct tape excitement. In February, Secretary Ridge gave press conferences on his department’s advice for surviving terrorist attacks. A few days later, the department issued an 11-page brochure that made the advice comprehensible. The focus was on preparing one’s residence beforehand, then acting as instructed by the authorities after the attack. Unfortunately, the campaign sent a mixed message as to the extent of the risk and the urgency of preparation, and media reaction didn’t help. Thomas Friedman, for example, wrote that Americans should get on with their lives and “leave the cave-dwelling to Osama bin Laden.”
Homeland Security’s do-it-yourself civil defense is appropriate for President George W. Bush’s strategy. He has chosen offense, almost to the budgetary exclusion of defense. In its penury, Homeland Security relies partly on charitable contributions and material aid from media businesses to help publicize its advice. State and local governments are strapped for money and unlikely to commit much for civil defense; they have been unwilling to spend resources on smallpox vaccinations and on training and equipping first responders.
In view of the Bush plan of action, preparing residences is a good measure, and citizens can do something about it. Preparing a home–where people spend two-thirds of their time, have warm clothes, medicine, beds, and their closest relationships–is a wise idea. (Readying workplaces and schools would take much more time because it involves bureaucrats, fears of litigation, controversy over priorities, and other hold-ups.) And home sheltering, after a biological attack, would reduce the spread of infection by decreasing contact with other people.
There are some flaws in Homeland Security’s readiness plans. None of them matter much in consideration of the question of whether to prepare your residence or not. The problem with the home-shelter plan is getting people to put together a survival kit. It is not clear that the February run on duct tape meant that a lot of people were actually preparing. It is clear that the government can issue “orange alerts” only so many times and still grab the public’s attention.
Preparing one’s residence is something akin to wearing seatbelts. Both are inexpensive and imperfect safety measures that nevertheless improve the odds.
Advocates from outside government would be better at convincing people to make the preparations. Ridge will be forced to argue that the government is on top of the civil defense situation. This will weaken his message, as it did in February when Homeland Security created, then tried to allay, public anxiety. Outsiders would be free to say that because the Bush administration is not likely to spend money on effective civil defense, people are on their own.
The emphasis of the message should be this: You are on your own. Preparation is easy–do it right now.
Peter Amacher taught the history of medicine at the University of California–Los Angeles and later became involved in medical communications and residential construction. He now studies the history of security policy since World War II.