- Historic Sites
When Bunkers Last In The Backyard Bloom—d
The fallout-shelter craze of 1961
February/March 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 2
Ten days after Piel’s speech the famed physicist James Van Alien publicly denounced Dr. Libby’s Associated Press articles as “extremely dangerous” and cited facts and figures to prove that they gave Americans “a false sense of security.” In December, hundreds of Midwestern professors signed an open letter to President Kennedy denouncing fallout shelters as a “quack cure for cancer.” As for deterring a Soviet attack—an official argument made for shelters—military experts pointed out that shelters could do nothing of the kind. All the Soviet Union had to do in riposte was build more and bigger missiles. A national fallout-shelter program would merely stimulate the arms race. With such considerations in mind, another American elder statesman dealt a blow to the shelter movement. In December the aged Herbert Hoover gave a speech in Nebraska opposing fallout shelters of any kind, public as well as private. Instead of digging underground, said the former President, “We should keep our heads up looking for honorable solutions.” Like the touching words of his fellow ex-President, this was the voice of an older America, but it proved to be, in this case, the voice of an entire people.
Despite the furious spate of official propaganda, exceedingly few home shelters were ever built, just how many nobody knows to this day. A sampling of figures telb the tale of the boom that never boomed. In Cook County, Illinois, where 260,000 copies of Family Fallout Shelter had been distributed, only 19 people out of a population of 3,500,000 had applied, as of November 19,1961, for a permit to build a home shelter. A full year after the craze began, the Federal Housing Administration reported that only 3,500 people had asked for a home-shelter loan. The shelter craze died, not with a bang but a whimper, the whimper of shelter merchants going broke. “The market is dead—the manufacturers have had it,” reported the president of Chicago’s Atomic Shelter Corporation in May, 1962. Some six hundred shelter manufacturers, he estimated, already had gone out of business. An Oklahoma City contractor reported in May that he had received just one inquiry about shelters in the entire month of April. It was, as one bankrupt Los Angeles manufacturer put it, “a real loused-up deal.”
In a symbolic sense, at least, the end came on April 1,1962. On that day the bankrupt Living Circle Company of Oakland, California, which had sold just one prefabricated shelter in fifteen months, held a public auction of its unwanted wares. Nine shelters were sold for a knockdown price of around six hundred dollars each, but the purchasers no longer had fallout in mind. One buyer said he had bought himself a shelter because he thought it would make “a dandy darkroom.” Another said he intended to use his as a shed for storing garden took Instead of burrowing beneath their gardens, Americans had once more returned to cultivating them.