by Pat Zacharias, The Detroit News
In America, the 1950s was a time of unprecedented prosperity, as well as unprecedented anxiety. The Russians had exploded a hydrogen bomb, touching off a nerve-wracking arms race, and had put cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in space, setting off a frantic space race.
American school children were being taught to “duck and cover” in case of nuclear attack and were being herded into school basements for terrifying bomb drills.
Photo: Nuclear air raid drills were part of everyday life for schoolchildren in the late 1940s and early ’50s. Children were taught to “duck and cover” under their desks and were herded into school basements for periodic air raid drills.
This diagram published in The Detroit News in 1952 showed how an air raid warning system set up by Michigan Bell Telephone would work. When an unidentified plane is spotted the information would be rushed to the Grand Rapids Filter Center, which would relay the message to police posts. Police would then send out the alarm to various industries and public agencies via a flashing light on Michigan Bell switchboards.
Patti Zeck, a first grade student at Carleton elementary school on Detroit’s eastside, remembered the frequent drills that sent students and teachers scurrying to the steam tunnels in the bowels of the school building. We marched quietly down into the basement and lined up against the cement walls hoping that the sirens meant just another safety test, and not the real thing.
As the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union escalated, fear of the bomb and anxiety over the possibilty of a nuclear war drove many Americans to dug deep into the earth in an effort to survive what seemed at the time the inevitable nuclear attack from our enemies. Ordinary Americans built bomb shelters in their backyards, often hiding them from their neighbors.
A nationwide Alert America campaign sought to reassure people that simple civil defense procedures would protect them. Booklets and films offered suggestions on how to survive an atomic attack. Trailers and portable exhibits were used by the Federal Civil Defense Administration to familiarize people with images of the catastrophic effects of the atomic bomb in the naive hope that this would forestall panic.
Millions of comic books were distributed to school children featuring a cartoon turtle called Bert that urged them to “duck and cover” in the event of an atomic strike. Metal identification tags similar to military dogtags were even issued in some schools.
Spotters were assigned to watch the skies for anything that looked suspicious or out of the ordinary.
The threat of the bomb became a part of everyday life. Despite the Cold War, Americans were buying houses and settling into the suburbs at an unprecedented rate. With the memory of World War II still fresh, the country longed for an idyllic family life like that portrayed in television sitcoms such as “Leave It to Beaver,” “Father Knows Best” and “Ozzie and Harriet.” The economy was strong and post war wages were high.
High school students man the Ground Observation Corps Filter Center in Grand Rapids, which was charged with warning the state of impending nuclear raids.
Civil defense officials talked confidently of group shelters for 50 million people, but in the new suburban communities the nervous were taking survival into their own hands. Bomb shelters costing from $100 to as much as $5,000 for an underground suite with phone and toilet were selling like hotcakes.
Wall Street investors said the bomb shelter business could gross up to $20 billion in the coming years (if there would be coming years).
Survival stores around the nation sold air blowers, filters, flashlights, fallout protection suits, first aid kits and water. General Foods and General Mills sold dry-packaged meals as underground rations.
Families with well stocked shelters lived with the fear that after a nuclear attack they’d be invaded by an army of friends and neighbors who neglected to build bunkers of their own. Many ordered contractors to construct their shelters in the dead of night so nosey neighbors wouldn’t see. One owner assured his neighbor that the bomb shelter he was building was really a wine cellar.
Civil defense films assured the public that simple precautions like walled-off basement corners stocked with two weeks rations and a radio tuned to Conelrad, the new emergency network, would help them survive a nuclear attack. But the government warned that a shoddy homemade shelter could broil its occupants “to a crisp” or squeeze them “like grapefruit.”
Newspapers carried radiation readings beside daily weather reports and Popular Mechanics magazine published a fallout shelter blueprint for the do-it-yourselfer. While Congress debated the merits of evacuating large cities versus massive community shelters, homeowners improvised shelters from septic tanks, concrete tubing, steel sheds and discarded lumber.
This chart purported to show the various levels of radioactivity that could be expected following a widespread nuclear attack.
Major airlines, Detroit automakers, IBM, the phone company and Wall Street planned employee shelters. The Federal Reserve designated banks for postwar check cashing, and a farmer in Iowa built a fallout shelter for 200 cows.
Public buildings with deep basements lined with thick underground concrete were designated as shelters in case of an attack by the Soviet Union.
Hollywood got into the mood and began producing nuclear war doomsday films, including “On The Beach,” “The Last Man On Earth,” “The Day the World Ended,” “Atomic Kid,” and “Dr. Strangelove.”
Not to be outdone, television produced its own prime time doomsday. In the premiere episode of the classic series “The Twilight Zone,” a young astronaut played by actor Earl Holliman returns to Earth to discover that a nuclear war has left him, like Adam, alone.
In the late 1950s, a public opinion poll showed that 40 percent of Americans were seriously considering building a shelter. Things did not improve in the ’60s.
Testing the mettle of the new and youthful President John F. Kennedy, Soviet Premier Nikita Krushschev demanded that NATO troops leave Berlin, emphasizing his point with a scary shoe-banging tantrum at the United Nations.
Detroit Civil Defense wardens sign up volunteers in 1957.
Kennedy recommended a course of action to his fellow Americans. “A fallout shelter for everybody,” he said, “as rapidly as possible.” Calling Berlin “the great testing place of Western courage and will,” Kennedy promised to let every citizen know what steps he could take without delay to protect his family in case of attack.
The Russians ended a three-year moratorium on nuclear testing with a blast over central Russia and warned the west that “It would take really very few multi-megaton nuclear bombs to wipe out your small and densely populated countries and kill you instantly in your lairs.”
A year later, the Cuban Missile Crisis would shove the world to the brink for 13 agonizing days. Newspaper headlines blared warnings of impending annihilation. “Highest Urgency, Kennedy Reports,” “Invasion Possible, Air, Sea and Ground Forces Ordered Out for Maneuvers,” they cried.
But the bomb never dropped.
The world heaved a sigh of relief as the Soviets backed off. And as the immediate peril of nuclear holocaust began to fade, Americans began to accept that fallout shelters probably did little to protect them from nuclear disaster. The backyard bomb shelters became wine cellars, fruit cellars, or just quietly filled up with water.
Government officials acknowledge that over the last several decades they have quietly been discarding nearly a half-century of old foodstuffs and other supplies stocked for survivors of a nuclear war. The olive green canisters of water and food rations stamped with official civil defense markings have been discarded, donated or sold off.
“It wasn’t like one day we just woke up and said it’s over,” explained one official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). “But everything really is gone.”
This chart published in The Detroit News April 17, 1951, shows the hypothetical effects of a hypothetical nuclear attack on Detroit.