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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
All the elements of a mass movement seemed firmly in place: millions of shelter manuals now rested in people’s hands, a small army of dedicated Civil Defense officials were fanned out around the country, an international showdown still loomed, a President was at last openly calling for home shelters, and there were now hundreds of eager contractors ready to supply the expected demand. The Nation glumly predicted that the majority of Americans would respond to the call. Amazingly enough they did not. In an age of mass media and mass persuasion, the overwhelming majority of Americans could not be persuaded to do anything. For every American homeowner who decided to build a shelter, there were at least a hundred who still sat on their hands. At the height of the shelter craze the disparity between frantic interest and listless activity was astonishing. According to Civil Defense officials, the popular inertia was due to a merely temporary public “confusion.” Americans, they said, still did not know exactly how to build an adequate home shelter nor did they still know for certain whether they lived sufficiently far away from a presumed Russian target to make a fallout shelter worthwhile. According to the Times , the inertia was due to a “fatalistic” attitude toward “the possibility of surviving atomic war.” The newspaper quoted one Omaha resident who presumably spoke for millions: “Why worry about war? We’re all going to be dead in the first five minutes anyway.”
There were elements of truth in both explanations. The populace was confused about fallout, and millions of Americans were fatalistic. Moreover, even Americans who wanted to build shelters found themselves facing a discouraging battery of unexpected difficulties. The experience of Elk Grove Village, Illinois, was typical of many small towns. In August the whole community was determined to dig in for a thermonuclear showdown. The town fathers promised to do all in their power to help residents build shelters in the crawl spaces beneath their homes. Confusion set in at once, however, when Civil Defense experts pointed out that Elk Grove crawl spaces were too low to provide two weeks of shelter. The town fathers then urged the citizenry to dig underground. Alas, it turned out, the area’s water table was too high to dig a ten-foot hole that stayed dry. “Underground Shelters Would Be Under Water,” warned the Elk Grove Herald . Despite the enthusiasm of early August, three months went by without a single home shelter being constructed in the village.
Discouraging, too, were reports that fly-by-night operators were stalking the land. One Dallas woman had a steel fallout shelter installed by a contractor for $2,500. In the first heavy autumn rainstorm the roof caved in. When she called the contractor to complain, she found that he already had fled the jurisdiction. By mid-October the Federal Trade Commission was so burdened with complaints about unscrupulous shelter builders that it promised henceforth to monitor “fraudulent advertising campaigns for fallout shelters and survival kits.”
Worse than the crooks were the cracks. Despite the cheery do-it-yourself instructions disseminated by Civil Defense spokesmen, it took uncommon skill to build the only kind of shelter that could keep out radiation, namely one that was airtight. One hole was fatal a retired Army officer learned after installing a $1,635 backyard shelter. “Now I have a beehive,” he reported from Tennessee. One Civil Defense official admitted that of thirty home shelters he had inspected, twenty-seven failed to meet even minimum requirements for fallout protection. The glib advice about easy-to-build shelters began to look suspiciously mendacious, especially when Dr. Libby’s nationally famous thirty-dollar shelter was partially destroyed in a brush fire.
Yet all these difficulties could have been overcome were it not for a quite unexpected turn of events. Slowly but surely millions of Americans were coming to the conclusion that private fallout shelters were morally indefensible.