Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Fallout Shelters

A civil defense measure intended to protect civilian populations from atomic or hydrogen bomb blasts and the attendant toxic radioactive fallout caused by nuclear explosions. Civil defense simply refers to nonmilitary activities designed to protect civilians and their property from enemy actions in times of war. Civil defense measures such as blackouts were common during World War II. Civil defense took on newfound urgency upon the advent of the Cold War.

After the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic weapon in August 1949, the concept of civil defense was transformed from localized protection from enemy attack to the survivability of the human race. Be that as it may, the U.S. government provided little more than literature and instructive film shorts concerning civil defense in the nuclear age. Civil defense measures were left primarily in the hands of local and state authorities, and civil defense efforts in general stressed self-help, privatization, decentralization, and volunteerism. After the Bravo tests of the hydrogen bomb in 1954, however, radioactive fallout became a significant public concern. Debates grew louder as to what the proper role of the federal government ought to be in terms of civil defense and, in particular, in building shelters.

The Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) was created in January 1951 to educate the public about what type of civil defense measures could be taken in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack. The FCDA recommended fallout shelters as part of a comprehensive civil defense program. Despite FCDA recommendations, however, civil defense always took a backseat to broader national security imperatives, and no coherent national policy on civil defense was ever promulgated.

Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower both believed that the costs involved in passive defense measures such as blast or fallout shelters were simply too high. Even when President John F. Kennedy coaxed $207 million from Congress to reinforce existing community fallout shelters, he quickly retreated from his initial proposal of a five-year shelter-building program designed to protect the entire population because of the prohibitive costs. He instead continued Truman's and Eisenhower's policy of encouraging citizens to take up a shovel and build home shelters themselves, which many Americans had begun to do in the early 1950s.

Kennedy did this, in part, via a letter he wrote for the 15 September 1961 issue of Life magazine. The story headline in that issue read "How You Can Survive Fallout" and included within its pages Kennedy's letter encouraging Americans to build their own fallout shelters. The article, which even included sets of blueprints for the do-it-yourself homeowner, coincided with increased tension between the two superpowers over the fate of Berlin. Once the tension eased, particularly after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Americans were less inclined to build fallout shelters. In fact, construction of homemade fallout shelters peaked in 1961. The introduction of ever more powerful nuclear weapons and the use of ballistic missiles, which could reach their targets in a matter of minutes, also rendered fallout shelters and duck and cover drills hopelessly inadequate.

Valerie Adams


Further Reading
McEnaney, Laura. Civil Defense Begins at Home: Militarization Meets Everyday Life in the Fifties. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.; Rose, Kenneth. One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2001.
 

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