- Historic Sites
When Bunkers Last In The Backyard Bloom—d
The fallout-shelter craze of 1961
February/March 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 2
Doubts about the morality of home shelters had been bubbling under the surface almost from the moment the frenzy began. What stirred them initially were the widely reported remarks made by an Austin, Texas, hardware dealer when his ninetythousand-dollar home shelter was completed in early August. He had outfitted his elaborate bunker, he told local reporters, with four rifles in order to shoot any neighbors who tried to invade it when the bombs began to fall. Moreover, in case they jumped into his haven before he did, “I’ve got a .38 tear-gas gun, and if I fire six or seven tear-gas bullets into the shelter, they’ll either come out or the gas will get them.” The Texan’s views were brutally expressed but they were also undeniably logical. If you built a home shelter you would need a gun to keep out your shelterless neighbors, and in the hysteria of a thermonuclear alert you probably would have to do more than just wave it in the air. Civil Defense officials saw no moral difficulties in that. “There’s nothing in the Christian ethic which denies one’s right to protect oneself and one’s family,” said a Riverside County, California, Civil Defense official in the course of advising local residents to put pistols in their survival kits to fight off invading hordes from Los Angeles. In a frank August 18 article entitled “Gun Thy Neighbor?” Time came down squarely on the side of gunning. Why help those who had refused to help themselves? Against the ruthless moral logic of home shelters there was no public outcry at first. Because of that very silence an angry teacher of divinity at Vanderbilt University savagely taunted his fellow clergyman in print. Writing in the August 23 issue of the Christian Century he sarcastically called upon “ethicists and theologians” to contrive a new “nuclear ethics” based on the Gospels but with a few awkward injunctions left out, such as loving one’s neighbor. Theologians, he said, now had a golden opportunity because “thousands of publicspirited preachers are awaiting some comfortable word which they can proclaim” to their shelter-building, gun-toting parishioners “during the coming months.”
Despite the silence of the nation’s clergy, however, those who wanted home shelters often felt qualms of conscience about building one. According to contractors, their customers would say things like, “I feel sort of ashamed of doing this,” or “I know it sounds selfish, or perhaps immoral, but I have myself and my family to look out for and I don’t want to have to share my shelter with anyone.” Other shelter builders confessed to having “mixed emotions” about their shelters, a Times survey reported. Some contractors, too, felt moral pangs. “What sends chills up and down my spine,” said one shelter manufacturer in Highland Park, Illinois, “is imagining a child or two out there saying ‘Let me in!’ when you’re full and you just can’t let them in.”
Such moral qualms remained private until late September when, ironically enough, a Jesuit priest made a bold public effort to set them at rest. Writing in the Jesuit magazine America , Father L. C. McHugh, an associate editor of the magazine and a former teacher of ethics at Georgetown University, described home shelters as a “grass-roots movement for survival” being hindered by baseless moral scruples. The American people, he said, “need a little instruction in the grim guidelines of essential morality at the shelter hatchway.” According to Father McHugh, the Christian right of selfdefense justifies “the use of violence to defend life and its equivalent goods,” such as a lifesaving shelter. To love one’s neighbor as thyself, he argued, was undoubtedly a “heroic” Christian virtue, but it was not a Christian duty. Indeed, it was “misguided charity” not to shoot a neighbor trying to invade one’s jam-packed shelter.