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When Bunkers Last In The Backyard Bloom—d
The fallout-shelter craze of 1961
February/March 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 2
Presidential impulsion—phase one of the shelter craze—sent America flying at once into phase two: a frantic mass search for information, for blueprints, for precise lists of emergency supplies. Once-somnolent Civil Defense offices began jangling with the ring of telephones. Mail poured in until, by the end of August, Civil Defense officials reported that requests for information had reached “tidal wave proportions.” In the aftermath of Kennedy’s speech, Civil Defense officials distributed no fewer than 22,000,000 copies of the Eisenhower administration’s Family Fallout Shelter . And millions of Americans requested another long-neglected government pamphlet: Family Food Stockpile for Survival . For the first time in their careers, Civil Defense officials found themselves in great demand as public speakers. In school assembly halls, church basements, bowling alleys, and rented movie theaters they lectured to large and avid audiences who wanted to know, first, if they lived outside a targeted area and, if so, what they could do about it at once. The answers usually made the front page of local newspapers, for civil defense had become news for the first time since the outbreak of World War II.
In the war-darkened summer of 1961, a West Coast woman interviewed after Kennedy’s speech seemed to sum up perfectly the national mood: “I don’t want a war. I don’t want to build a bomb shelter, but I don’t see what else we can do about it.” The news headlines alone kept the public in a frenzy. On August 13, the world shook with fear and rage when the Communists sealed off East Berlin with barbed wire, preparatory to building the infamous Wall. Several days later the world trembled again when a U.S. military convoy from West Germany made its perilous way along the Autobahn to West Berlin. On August 31, fear and tension boiled over into outright hysteria when Khrushchev announced that the Soviet Union, after a three-year hiatus, was going to resume testing atomic weapons at once. That day there was nobody in America who could possibly have predicted that the shelter craze was a bubble that was soon to burst.
The very opposite seemed true. With public interest at fever pitch, fallout-shelter champions, frustrated for years, quickly launched a furious campaign to promote home fallout-shelter construction, “the greatest campaign of persuasion,” the Nation noted, “in the history of American public relations.” Cheerful optimism was the campaign keynote. “We must get the message into every home” that thermonuclear war is survivable, said Kennedy’s director of the Office of Civil Defense and Mobilization. Comforting statistics filled the air. On September 2, for example, Federal Civil Defense spokesmen assured Americans that even if a hundredmegaton bomb fell in their vicinity, they stood “an excellent chance” of survival in a home shelter just twelve miles from ground-zero. Life magazine estimated that 94 per cent of the population could survive a Soviet attack if shelters were available to everyone. Dr. Libby put the figure at 90 to 95 per cent in a stirring series of syndicated articles he wrote for the Associated Press.
Shelter advocates even declined to concede that home shelters were merely a grim necessity. They put a halo of heroism around them. Building shelters, said Stuart Pittman, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civil Defense, gave Americans an “opportunity”—an opportunity “to demonstrate their will to face up to thermonuclear war.” The shelter builder was deemed a modern-day pioneer showing the stern stuff that made America great when an American “plowed with a musket in his hand.” Linking the thermonuclear present to the comforting pre-atomic past, the Washington Post offered plans for a fallout shelter with a “colonial motif,” while Life , working up the same theme, described a fivefamily shelter being built on Long Island as a “modern stockade” in a somewhat farfetched comparison between rampaging Iroquois and radioactive isotopes.
In case even the pioneer spirit might sound too grim, shelter advocates cheerfully assured Americans that huddling in an eight-by-eight-foot bunker for two weeks might not be as grueling as it sounded. Time magazine suggested decorating one’s shelter with a picture of an outdoor scene as a possible cure for cabin fever. The Library Journal advised future shelter dwellers to try to learn a new language. “The mental gymnastics would be salutary, if not downright fun .”