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Nelson Rockefeller and Civil Defense

Red cover of a civil defense report
Cover of the "Survival in a Nuclear Attack" plan, published by the New York State Civil Defense Commission, 1960.
Nelson Rockefeller was a businessman, foundation head, cabinet-level US government official, and four-term governor of New York. He was engaged throughout his life with shaping public policy in direct and indirect ways, often alongside his younger brother Laurance, with whom he worked on some of the same business, philanthropic, and governmental initiatives. One of Nelson Rockefeller’s most passionately-pursued ideas during the 1950’s and 1960’s was the necessity of fallout shelters for civil defense.

Rockefeller served within the Eisenhower administration as Special Assistant to President for Cold War Strategy, a position charged with developing tactical responses to the Soviets through psychological warfare and other means. In this capacity he had close involvement with the administration’s ongoing discussions on cold war military strategy and civil defense. A press photograph shows him participating in Operation Alert exercises of 1955, a nuclear evacuation drill of Washington DC and other cities that simulated the administration’s favored civil defense strategy at that time.

Leaving the administration to run for governor of New York in 1956, Nelson Rockefeller convened the Rockefeller Brothers’ Special Studies project, one of many task forces of influential experts he would assemble throughout his career to explore and propose solutions to national issues. A panel on the military included (in addition to his brother Laurance) Edward Teller, known as the father of the Hydrogen bomb, and Henry Kissinger, then a professor at Harvard University. Both Kissinger and Teller had a notably hawkish approach to nuclear strategy, favoring massive weapon stockpiling to counter the perceived Soviet military superiority and thereby deter a first strike on the US. They believed a Soviet nuclear strike could be survivable with shelters, and that the prospect of a prepared, protected civilian population would further deter such a strike. Kissinger and Teller also thought that shelters would engender a certain risk tolerance in the American public with respect to their military. In the words of the Gaither Committee, a task force which Rockefeller encouraged Eisenhower to assemble when exploring the costs and implications …a national shelter system would both protect the population and also “permit our own air defense to use warheads with greater freedom.”

Dissatisfied with Eisenhower’s decision to encourage discretionary private shelter building, Rockefeller attempted to influence civil defense policy from the state level. Upon being elected Governor of New York in 1958, Rockefeller convened a task force and then a committee to examine the prospects for civilian protection in the state. The report of the second of these, the State of New York Committee on Fallout Protection—framed civil defense (and nuclear strategy as a whole) in terms of fallout protection.
Illustration of shielding in a family home
Fallout shielding in family basement shelter

Survival in a Nuclear Attack, The New York State Civil Defense
Commission, 1960

The report gave an introduction to the principles of nuclear fallout, its effects, and the shielding capacity of dense materials such as concrete and earth against it. Families could protect themselves by building a shelter in their home, the report explained; after a nuclear bomb detonation, those beyond the blast radius would have at least an hour to get home and into their shelter before the fallout reached them. Because radioactivity diminished steeply over time, a family would need only stay inside a shelter stocked with survival supplies for a period of two weeks before the ambient atmospheric radioactivity would no longer be at lethal levels, allowing them to emerge unharmed. Although the backbone of the program would be basement or underground shelters in (or next to) private homes, group shelters in schools, workplaces, and in “existing protected space in nearby public or other structures” were encouraged for situations where citizens could not get home within an hour.

The recommendations of the New York State Committee on Fallout Protection were consistent with Eisenhower’s National Shelter Plan in that they placed the primary responsibility of shelter construction—of survival—on private citizens. Going beyond the federal initiatives that similarly sought to educate the public about fallout and encourage shelter construction, however, Rockefeller’s aimed to made shelter construction mandatory throughout New York State. All existing residences would be required to have a shelter with “minimum fallout protection” (a Protection Factor of at least 100, representing a 100-fold reduction in radiation on the inside) stocked for two weeks of habitation by July 1, 1963, and all new construction begun after January 1, 1962 would be required to a shelter. Inspection and enforcement of private shelter construction would be carried out at the local municipal level.

Unlike the federal educational materials that stressed the value of fallout shelters entirely as a means for saving the lives of individuals, Rockefeller’s committee report went into some detail describing the tactical advantages of a sheltered populace that were critical to the nation’s defense effort as a whole. “If our citizens, as individuals, take protective action against the threat of fallout,” it was explained, “it will be abundant notice to any potential enemy that we will not be forced by nuclear blackmail either to abandon our friends or to forsake our national interests at home or abroad.” Echoing Kissinger’s and Teller’s ideas, the promise that shelters represented of being able to withstand a first strike was believed to be as strategically important as the threat that the US nuclear arsenal represented in being able to launch one. A “well-prepared and safeguarded populace” who had fallout shelters would allow the United States to win a war by surviving attack, and could deter attack to begin with. It was the patriotic duty of civilians to make this happen.
Illustration of fallout dissipation
Dissipation of fallout radiation over time.

Survival in a Nuclear Attack, The New York State Civil Defense Commission, 1960.

Rockefeller used the committee report as a blueprint for proposed legislation; he hoped that after becoming law in New York State a mandatory shelter program would be “extended throughout the country.” As chair of the Civil Defense Committee of the Board of Governors, he encouraged the adoption of similar state policies elsewhere. Within New York, Rockefeller launched “what amounted to a one-man campaign to arouse the public to the peril of fallout,” printing and distributing an illustrated version of the report for the public in 1960 as Survival in a Nuclear Attack: Plan for Protection from Nuclear Fallout and making a series of television and public appearances on its behalf. His obsessiveness on the topic was remarked upon by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru during a 1960 state visit who noted “Governor Rockefeller is a very strange man. All he wants to talk about is bomb shelters. Why does he think I am interested in bomb shelters?” Rockefeller’s mandatory shelter plan was criticized primarily because it required private citizens to bear the burden of their own protection. The committee report estimated the cost for a basic basement shelter in the vicinity of a hundred dollars, noting “the cost is well within our means as individuals”; independent experts estimated that the cost to build and stock an adequate fallout shelter would be between one and two thousand dollars, putting this out of reach for most families in 1960 when the median income was $5600. Rockefeller’s plan was also criticized because fallout shelters without blast or thermal protection would almost certainly be useless for survival in and around New York City, a presumed target, and that it did not address the problem of survival in the post-nuclear world that families would emerge into after their two week retreat underground.

When Rockefeller introduced his shelter bill in a special address to the New York State Assembly in February 1960, the negative bipartisan reaction made it immediately apparent that it had no chance of passing. The following month, he presented a retooled bill with shelter construction made voluntary (and encouraged by tax breaks) that funded shelters in public buildings. Although costing a fraction of the mandatory plan, this second bill was met with “catcalls and jeers” in the Assembly before being tabled in committee. Having unsuccessfully pushed his fallout shelter agenda as far as he could at the state level, Nelson Rockefeller decided to address it with the next presidential administration in hopes that they would be more receptive than Eisenhower had been.

This text adapted from: Historic Structure Report: Mansion and Belvedere Nuclear Bombmb Shelters. Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, Woodstock, VT. Written by Naomi Kroll Hassebroek, September 2018.

Last updated: August 5, 2019