As Cold War tensions escalated throughout the 1950’s, the United States’ testing of the first hydrogen bomb in 1951 was followed by the development, production, and stockpiling of increasingly powerful nuclear weapons by the US and Soviet Union. Both countries were forced to confront the unprecedented prospect of sudden, massive losses to their populations. The question of civil defense—the protection of civilian lives during a nuclear exchange—was passionately debated in the executive and legislative branches of the United States government, with scientists and academics weighing in. Was civilian protection technically and logistically feasible for this new level of weaponry, and at what cost? Was the United States government obligated to provide this protection for its citizens, whose elected officials formulated nuclear policy and whose taxes funded nuclear production? What role did civil defense have in overall nuclear strategy?
Civil defense proposals put forth during the Truman administration generally assumed thermonuclear weapons to be a more extreme version of conventional air warfare, comparable in power to the atomic bombs used at the end of World War II. The disparity in explosive force between that first generation of nuclear weapons and the hydrogen weapons under development, and the implications of radioactive fallout, were not fully understood and in any case not acknowledged by government officials. Public educational materials, such as the 1951 “Duck and Cover” campaign with Bert the Turtle and the school drill program of the same name, emphasized the survivability of nuclear detonation when simple precautions were taken. Shelters that would shield civilians from blast and thermal effects of these weapons were proposed, but were dismissed by Congress and the Executive branch as being prohibitively expensive. The level of protection required by blast shelters, too, was understood to be a moving standard; as increasingly powerful nuclear weapons would be produced over time, existing blast shelters would be rendered ineffectual, necessitating building ever deeper ones underground.
Civil defense strategies proposed at the start of Eisenhower administration (1953) shifted from bomb shelters to the more economical option of mass evacuation, in which urban populations, under local government direction, would transport themselves out their cities by automobile in orderly waves upon receiving news of an incoming attack. Given the ever-diminishing warning time implicit in intercontinental ballistic missile technology (nuclear weapons could now be guided and self-propelled over long distances, no longer delivered by relatively slow bomber aircraft)—and the logistical and traffic problems inherent in the idea to begin with—this approach was soon understood to be impractical.
The 1954 test of the Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb in the Pacific’s Bikini Atoll caused a shift in government officials’ and the public’s understanding about the potential effects of the new weapons. Bravo’s explosion was several times more powerful than predicted, and at 15 megatons was an order of magnitude more powerful than the bomb deployed over Hiroshima in 1945. Bravo’s detonation resulted in far higher levels of radioactive fallout at a much larger radius than had scientists had anticipated, resulting in deaths and illness in Marshall Island residents, local fish and fauna, and the crew of a Japanese fishing boat. Once radiation measurements from the catastrophic test were released, fallout was understood to be a lethal component of nuclear detonation, and one that was not restricted to the immediate area of the blast site. After a nuclear explosion, fallout—the radioactive particulate material dispersed into the atmosphere—could travel for hundreds of miles based on meteorological conditions, sickening and killing those who were exposed to it when it fell back to ground level. By the late 1950’s, the focus of governmental civil defense inquiry had returned to shelters, but ones that would shield citizens from fallout’s radioactivity and not from the blast itself. It was understood that survivability within a nuclear weapon’s blast radius, as the area directly affected by the explosion’s fire and shockwaves was known, was generally not realistic.
Following congressional subcommittee hearings, proposals and appropriation requests for national fallout shelter construction were repeatedly submitted to Congress and the Executive branch but were consistently refused. The Eisenhower administration was unequivocally opposed to a federal fallout shelter program. Eisenhower believed that the estimated costs, which ranged from the tens-of-billions to hundreds-of-billion dollars, would be more effectively spent elsewhere in the defense program. Eisenhower was also concerned that taken to its logical conclusion, the construction of a federal shelter system could lead to the creation of a “garrison state” in which democratic civilian society would find its civil (and physical) liberties overtaken by the military-industrial complex. In 1958, the OCDM (the Office of Civil Defense Mobilization) definitively stated that there would be “no massive federally financed shelter construction program,” instead offering a “national shelter plan” of government “stimulation” and “guidance” of private shelter construction by citizens.
Civil Defense during the Eisenhower administration amounted to the production of publications, posters, and films by the OCDM encouraging fallout shelter construction by private citizens. The booklet Fallout Protection and the accompanying manual of shelter designs The Family Fallout Shelter described the spread of fallout after a detonation and the shielding effects of concrete and earth, noting that “most of those beyond the range of blast and heat will survive if they have adequate protection from fallout.”
Despite the OCDM’s repeated recommendations, the Eisenhower administration would not support public shelter construction. The OCDM did develop a guide for use in surveying, evaluating, and converting existing buildings for use as public shelters, noting that “The Federal Government is aiding local Governments in several places to survey residential, commercial, and industrial buildings to determine what fallout protection they would provide, and for how many people.” The agency’s Fallout Shelter Surveys manual contained methodology allowing architects and engineers to collect data on a building’s fallout shielding potential based on its materials and configuration on provided forms, calculating radioactivity infiltration from the roof, ground, and apertures. The guide gave suggestions for making improvements to increase shielding capacity of existing structures (increasing mass thickness of walls, roof, and floors, putting up baffle walls at entranceways, and filling in windows) and introduced technical architectural standards for fallout protection in new construction. Although this survey and evaluation methodology was not widely used by the Eisenhower administration who focused instead on encouraging private shelter construction, it would be incorporated into the Kennedy administration’s National Fallout Shelter Survey and Marking Program from late 1961 onwards, as it turned its focus towards the establishment of communal shelters in preexisting buildings.
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.