Three Cheers for the Suburbs at a Time of Terror

Culture Watch

Mr. Winkler is a Distinguished Professor of History at Miami University in Ohio. He is the author of Life Under a Cloud: American Anxiety About the Atom.

Where are you safest from a possible attack? That question has been asked over and over in recent weeks, in the aftermath of the devastating terrorist assaults on the World Trade Center towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. And it echoes a question that was asked repeatedly in the late 1940s and 1950s, as the United States struggled to deal with the dilemmas of the atomic age.

Civil defense has a long history. From the time the United States dropped the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August 1945, American policy makers debated whether a protective effort was warranted, and asked what cost might be appropriate. Some acknowledged the need to do something, but were reluctant to allocate the necessary funds. Others argued that it was hopeless to try to escape the ravages of a nuclear attack, and suggested that time could be better spent finding ways to cool the tensions that could lead to war.

The Office of Civilian Defense (OCD), headed by New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia during World War II, was the first American agency to deal with the problem. Even before the advent of the nuclear age, the agency sought to protect the home front population. After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans were worried, as they are now, about another raid, and so wanted to do all they could to protect themselves. La Guardia rejected underground shelters in favor of air-raid warning systems and warden schemes and those took precedence.

Then the atomic bomb changed the equation. Military planners were interested in the possibilities of civil defense, even while they argued that it was not a military responsibility. In 1948, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal established an Office of Civil Defense Planning. A year later, President Harry S Truman gave civil defense authority to the National Security Resources Board, and in 1951, he created a new Federal Civil Defense Administration.

Even with a bureaucratic structure, civil defense efforts remained low-key during the Truman years. With little money allocated, civil defense planners sought to promote the dispersion of America’s urban and industrial capacity of the United States. As early as 1946 nuclear physicist Edward Teller and two colleagues argued in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that “a country like the United States with a large part of its population concentrated in big cities along the eastern seaboard is particularly vulnerable to the devastating impact of atomic bombs. Science-fiction author Robert Heinlein made a similar point when he observed, “The cities must go. Only villages must remain. If we are to rely on dispersion as a defense in the Atomic Age, then we must spread ourselves out so thin that the enemy cannot possibly destroy us with one bingo barrage, so thin that we will be too expensive and too difficult to destroy.”

Truman himself announced a National Industrial Dispersion Policy. A 1951 executive order tied federal aid for new industrial plants to their placement in invulnerable sites. But while new defense plants were often built in less congested areas, an effort to disperse federal government buildings failed.

While dispersion was relatively inexpensive, shelter-building was not. A proposal for blast-proof shelters would have cost $32 billion over a 5-year period, and even a scaled-down scheme costing $16 billion was out of reach. And so the administration decided to cajole people, wherever they lived, to protect themselves from danger. The “Duck and Cover” campaign was the result.

Just as people were told that they could save themselves by getting out of central cities, now they were coaxed to put their hands over their heads, duck under their desks, and so survive an attack. Bert the Turtle stressed the need to take cover from flying glass and other debris in case of a raid. He starred in an animated film that contained a lively jingle:

There was a turtle by the name of Bert.
And Bert the Turtle was very alert.
When danger threatened him he never got hurt.
He knew just what to do.
He’d Duck and Cover. Duck and Cover.
He did what we all must learn to do.
You and you and you and you.
Duck and Cover!

Then came the development of the hydrogen bomb. “The present national dispersion policy is inadequate in view of existing thermonuclear weapons effects,” the Atomic Energy Commission declared in late 1954. And both the shelter program and the “Duck and Cover” campaign were clearly obsolete.

The administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower instead promoted a program of evacuation to rural regions if attacked. The orientation changed, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “from 'Duck and Cover’ to ‘Run Like Hell.’”

But evacuation required an adequate system of roads. The 1956 act creating an interstate highway system provided easier access to the suburbs as well as a means of exiting the cities in case of nuclear war.

The whole notion of evacuation, however, was compromised by the growing awareness of the consequences of fallout. The creeping radioactive cloud that accompanied any nuclear blast minimized the value of running away, for the insidious dust remained deadly without some shield. And so now there was growing interest in fallout shelters, far cheaper than blast shelters, that could provide protection from radioactive dust.

Shelter-building came of age in the Eisenhower years. Life magazine ran a story in 1951 about backyard shelters in California that ran the gamut from an $8 wood-covered dirt hole to a $5,500 complex with telephone, radio, water supply, and Geiger counters inside and outside. At the end of 1960, according to the estimate of one federal agency, there were a million family shelters nationwide.

Even with shelters, survival was not assured. People then and now were no safer in the cities than in the suburbs. Indeed, in the words of physician David Bradley, who witnessed the atomic tests near the Bikini atoll in 1946, there really was “no place to hide.”

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norman markowitz - 10/19/2001

Allen Winkler's narrative concerning the history of Civil Defense is instructive and timely. One might add that the development of nuclear weapons, which made the original A bombs seem like pop guns made the comment of Physicist Philip Morrison,
"There will be no defense. The only answer is international peace" a view that more and more people, however powerless they felt politically came to see in the 1960s. In this cass, global police and intelligence cooperation and a more realistic approach to security at centers of transportation, communication, and other major targets offers to be much more helpful and effective.
Norman Markowitz