- Historic Sites
When Bunkers Last In The Backyard Bloom—d
The fallout-shelter craze of 1961
February/March 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 2
Father McHugh’s “essential morality” of the hatchway made headlines across the country. Here, stated with force and clarity, was the new “nuclear ethic” predicted by the Vanderbilt divine, but the “thousands of public-spirited preachers” refused to proclaim it. Instead they assailed it with uncommon fury. On October 13, the Reverend Angus Dun, Episcopal Bishop of Washington, D.C., struck the first major blow against “nuclear ethics.” To repel with a gun neighbors seeking shelter, thundered Bishop Dun, was “utterly immoral.” He professed himself appalled “at this business of preparing people to push their neighbor’s children out of a shelter. … I do not see how any Christian conscience can condone a policy which puts supreme emphasis on saving your own skin, without regard to the plight of your neighbor.” Across the country clergymen echoed Bishop Dun’s sense of outrage. A Jesuit priest in Chicago called his fellow Jesuit’s arguments the “morality of the cornered rat.” The worldfamous Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr accused Father McHugh of giving the shelter controversy “a new and horrendous” twist by “justifying murder.” Readers of America , too, vented their outrage in angry letters to the editor. “Is life so precious,” asked one, “that we must turn into savages to protect it?” The Methodist Bishops Council, representing 10,000,000 American Methodists, assailed fallout shelters. The evangelical clergy of the country also took a “dim view” of them, reported the Religious News Service after taking a poll. The leading evangelist of them all, Billy Graham, opposed home fallout shelters. Jewish religious leaders, too, condemned them. Building them meant “abandoning all moral conduct,” said one. Shelter builders themselves became the target of moral condemnation. Hailed in August as modern-day pioneers, they found themselves assailed in October as the sort of people America could well do without. As Bishop Dun put it: “The kind of man who would be most needed in a post-attack world is least likely to dig himself a private mole-hole that has no room for his neighbor.”
The clergy had drawn the line sharply: a good Christian would not build a home shelter; a shelter builder was not a good Christian. The moral argument, no doubt, was debatable, but who would wish to take the opposing side in a public debate? To the clerical onslaught there was no public reply from home-shelter champions. As for the shelter builders themselves, they presumably disagreed with the clergy but they behaved in remarkably furtive fashion. Shelter contractors reported “an almost universal insistence that their projects be secret.” Customers simply could not bear to face the scorn and opprobrium of their neighbors. “We use unmarked trucks,” a Milwaukee shelter manufacturer advertised in deference to the passion for secrecy. If, as one shelter advocate had put it, “every man who decides to protect himself and his family adds a stone to the rampart of our total defense,” then most rampart builders no longer wished to be caught in the act. The American clergy had voiced the deepest moral sentiments of the country and had strengthened those sentiments immeasurably.
The religious assault on home shelters marked the beginning of the end of the shelter craze, for it encouraged skeptics and critics to speak out strongly for the first time. On the eighteenth of October General Dwight Eisenhower himself informed the press that he would not build a home shelter. “If I were in a very fine shelter and they [his wife and children] were not there,” said the former President with simple eloquence, “I would just walk out. I would not want to face that kind of world.” Backed by religious leaders and a former President, emboldened, too, by the slow winding down of the Berlin crisis itself, scientists and technical experts, hitherto silent, began giving voice to serious doubts about the efficacy of home fallout shelters. Within a matter of weeks they completely undermined the cheery optimism of the prevailing shelter propaganda. Radioactive fallout, the shelter champions had insisted for years, was the major peril to life in a thermonuclear war. That, it turned out, was not necessarily true as Rockefeller Institute scientists reported on the first of November. If the Russians chose to explode a bomb high above the ground (as we ourselves did when we bombed Hiroshima), there would be little or no radioactive fallout. Instead, the explosion would produce a mighty firestorm capable of destroying everything miles beyond the blast area. A fifty-megaton bomb, reported Gerard Piel, publisher of Scientific American , would generate a firestorm one hundred miles in diameter. Within that vast area every home fallout shelter would become a “firetrap.” If the Russians exploded their big bombs high above America’s cities, then suburban and exurban shelters would not be havens but ovens. Fallout shelters, said Piel in a November tenth speech in San Francisco, were “a hoax on public opinion.”