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“To dig or not to dig”: that is the question…—or at least it was the question posed by Business Week in 1961 reflecting a very pertinent issue on the minds of millions of Americans living during the Cold War—the issue of whether or not to build fallout shelters (1). This debate came to the forefront of American society after John F. Kennedy’s speech concerning the Berlin Crisis on July 25, 1961, as a result of widespread panic over the very real possibility of a nuclear war in which the only rule of conduct would very likely be mutually assured destruction--or the annihilation of the human species (2). When Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union, boasted that war would be the consequence if America tried to protect Berlin from the communist rule of East Germany, Kennedy responded bluntly, “Then there will be war, Mr. Chairman. It’s going to be a very cold winter (2).” In this same speech, Kennedy requested $3.24 billion for an increase in military spending, but more importantly for our discussion, a whopping $207 million increase in a civil defense initiative that would “identify, and mark space in existing structures—public and private—that could be used for fall-out shelters in case of attack (2).” This drastic separation from Eisenhower’s lacksidasical civil defense policy raised a wide variety of questions surrounding the fallout shelter issue, questions which we will explore in more detail like the following: Are fallout shelters protect humans from a nuclear bomb? If so, then who is responsible for funding their construction as they are very expensive? Are fallout shelters immoral or does morality even play a role in this debate?

Let us start with the most obvious question that many people wrestled with time and again: Are fallout shelters worth it? As this issue was very complex and multifaceted, there were many bright individuals who came to very different conclusions by placing emphasis on different aspects of the issue. Obviously, the rhetoric of Kennedy’s speech made the prospect of war very likely; but did the Soviets possess the capability to actually “bury” the United States as Khrushchev bragged? Although the Soviet Union kept many secrets regarding its society, the testing of nuclear weapons was certainly not one of them, and by 1949, it was starkly evident to the world that they could create these weapons; and, as was the case in the U.S., their nuclear weapons program advanced in leaps and bounds, evolving from an atomic bomb with a relatively “meager” capability to the 50 megaton hydrogen bomb that was tested in late 1961. With the advent of long range bombers in the years following World War II, the Soviet Union could transport these weapons to any point in the United States without the need to refuel. An even scarier technological invention, the intercontinental ballistic missile, or IBM, made it possible for them to launch missiles fairly accurately from thousands of miles away, making the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans seem like mere ponds where before they were protective barriers. Therefore, by 1961, the question of whether the Soviet Union had the capability to destroy the United States was moot (4).

Since it is understood that the Soviets could and very likely would launch a nuclear attack against the United States, the issue now was whether or not they would even be able to protect people against such devastating weapons. The first official pamphlet released by the Office of Civil Defense purported that although nuclear war would be “terrible beyond imagination and description, if effective precautions have been taken in advance, it need not be a time of despair” because shelters “could greatly reduce the number of casualties (78). However, the author of a Commonweal article written in response to this pamphlet reflect more a pessimistic view, arguing,

Under certain (improbable) conditions—involving one particular (unlikely) pattern of nuclear attack, by means of a certain (minimal) number of bombs, exploded in a certain (relatively inefficient) way, on certain (extremely limited) targets—some kind of fallout shelter program, if not the present confused efforts, might indeed save millions of lives that otherwise would be lost (79).

Because nuclear weapons can directly cause death in a variety of different ways--radiation poisoning, the impact of the blast, or potential firestorms--it is also necessary to ask how much even the most rudimentary of bomb shelters, which most experts argued would cost at least $2500, would protect an individual from these dangers (190). Although William Libby, a former Atomic Energy Commission chairman, argued that even a “poor man’s shelter” could reduce the risk of death in the event of an atomic blast, his credibility was somewhat diminished after an ordinary California brushfire destroyed his experiment and his hopes; most scientists possessed the belief that while even a basic bomb shelter would protect at least partly from radioactive fallout, if one were to be in range of either the blast or a firestorm, a shelter would probably not be a savior but a tomb (170, 190). As historians, we would like to come to a concrete answer of whether fallout shelters could actually protect human beings in the event of a nuclear attack, and if so, how many? However, since it was impossible to test and experts varied on the degree of protection that they offered, we can only come to the conclusion that since one had a better chance of dying should he/she be fully exposed, it was at least worth a try, right?

Since fallout shelters certainly could not hurt one’s chances of survival, who should be mainly responsible for their construction? Many wealthy families could afford constructing their own, but the steep price ($2500) required to erect even the most basic shelter would certainly exclude many individuals from being able to build their own (the above price represents close to half of the annual household income in 1961) (190). Therefore, it is apparent that for everyone to be “protected” by a shelter, some external entity would have to at least play a role. Robert Macnamara believed that “the Federal Government, the State, and local governments all have parts to play,” but that the individual also needed to play a role in his/her own protection (18). There were many proponents of a national shelter system, such as those who drew up the Gaither and Rockefeller reports, but cost became a key flashpoint for many in the federal government. Prices varied depending on whom was asked, ranging from the doable figure of $7.5 billion suggested by Edward Teller, to a heftier price proposed by Ellery Husted of “the total of all the country’s personal income tax collections for one year,” all the way to the astronomical estimated cost of $240 billion advanced by Lieutenant General Samuel B. Sturgis (24, 31). However, this national shelter program ultimately ended in disappointment in part because of one man, Congressman Albert Thomas--the head of the most influential committee (Independent Offices Subcommittee) in funding Kennedy’s Shelter Incentive Program—who declared candidly in 1963, “We’re not building any fallout shelters, period (202).” Many in the federal government attempted to shift the responsibility of shelter construction to the public school system which was not coincidentally funded by local governments, arguing that the burden should rest on these entities because children of primary or secondary school ages comprised nearly one-fourth of the population. Not surprisingly, the following sentiments of Lawrence H. Shepoiser, superintendent of Wichita, Kansas, schools, reflect the outrage of many school officials who resented this type of shifting of the burden—“If survival is of national concern, it is the responsibility of the President of the United States and Congress to make public shelters available (137).” Although a relatively small number of shelters were in fact constructed—by individuals, by various levels of the federal government, by businesses, even by school districts (Abo Public School)—the fact that entities and individuals tended to pass the blame to one another as it best suited their interests ultimately meant that the individual was responsible for his/her own protection, which brings us back to one of the biggest debates surrounding the fallout shelter issue—the debate over morality.

There is no doubt that the many moral objections promoted by a wide variety of cultural mediums, as well as a relative lack of moral support, in the end played a role in the negative connotations that came to surround the fallout shelter. It certainly did not help that many fallout shelter vendors attempted to take advantage of the climate of fear that gripped America by charging ludicrous prices for shelters, but business ethics was one of the peripheral issues. As adequate fallout shelters were indeed scarce, the question immediately arose regarding who should be allowed access to these shelters in the event of an attack. Since bombs were more likely to fall on cities, should the construction of shelters be solely a rural and suburban practice because of the low chance for survival of people nearest to the epicenter? Did the rich have a greater right to survive than the poor because they possessed the means to construct their own shelters? If one of those less fortunate people were to attempt to enter one of his more fortunate neighbor’s shelters, would the owner be morally justified in shooting his neighbor to protect the limited resources and oxygen for his family? Should communities who were smart enough to erect shelters raise bodies of militia in order to protect their communal shelters? Should Congressmen reporting to the Greenbrier bunker in White Sulphur Springs, WV, be expected to leave their families behind to die? President Kennedy himself came with a very practical solution to this pressing issue, calling for his fellow Americans to “concentrate more on keeping enemy bombers and missiles away from our shores, and concentrate less on keeping neighbors away from our shelters (98).”

The moral debate did not solely center around which individuals should be granted access, but also to what the prevalence of fallout shelters suggested about American society as a whole. Although many believed that a widespread system of shelters would act as a deterrent against Soviet aggression, the New York Times printed a letter from 183 university professors from Boston to President Kennedy arguing the exact opposite, alleging that this policy would equate to “the acceptance of thermonuclear war as an instrument of national policy,” a trend which “would substantially increase the likelihood of war (88).” “Fortress America”, or a garrison state, as many called it, might mean the end to democracy and the beginning of a totalitarian regime since it would require “an unquestioning obedience to authority extended to the entire population (90-91).” Would people be willing to sacrifice their civil liberties for a program that could potentially be as hopeless as the Maginot Line had been in France’s defense against Germany in World War II? In 1957, Robert Moses asked this in response to the Holifield committee’s proposal of a national shelter system—“Why not go all the way? Let’s draw up new laws, codes, and a constitution to organize for the good rabbit-and-mole life of the future (88).” While many proponents of fallout shelters felt that one should not be obligated to offer ethical reasons for protecting himself and his family, many of these pressing moral dilemmas no doubt convinced the bulk of the American public that this type of lifestyle was truly anti-American.

As Thomas Hines summed it up, the nuclear fallout shelter “prompted far more introspection than excavation (186).” People were bombarded with an array of literature on the subject so that it was nearly impossible to not at least seriously consider the issue. From nuclear apocolyptics, to Playboy magazine, to Good Housekeeping, to almost every national and local newspaper, the discussion turned to whether or not to built fallout shelters. The common knowledge that people could be instantly incinerated wherever they might be caused collective psychological angst nearly unparalleled in the annals of history, and even children were not spared from such bleak pessimism. In fact, a daily struggle for parents, as Kenneth Rose put it, was whether “to supply a ray of hope that the child might survive a nuclear emergency, or honestly inform the child that his or her chances of surviving a nuclear war were slim (149).” Boston Unitarian minister Jack Mendelsohn explained to his congregation that he understood “the probability of nuclear holocaust, the literal cremation of hundreds of millions of people, including myself and my family, within the next five or ten years,” sentiments that suggest he would probably want to at least try to avert a catastrophe for his family; but instead, he claimed to be “ignoring and dismissing what is simply too painful for me to perceive (212).” Although most people would not have minded if these shelters existed without their participation, individuals and governing bodies all “passed the buck” to each other; and despite many criticisms of the Kennedy administration, many argued that “the incoherence of federal defense programs merely reflected the public’s own ambivalence (206).” It was not that the bulk of the population did not care about dying horrific deaths, but even the can-do American attitude could not solve, so the vast majority of the public simply chose to ignore it.

Rose, Kenneth D. One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture. New York University Press. New York, New York. 2001