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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
It all began on the evening of July 25, 1961, when President John F. Kennedy went before television cameras to explain to his countrymen the grave meaning and still graver consequences of the deepening crisis over Berlin. The Russians were threatening American access rights to that isolated city, the President told an audience of 50,000,000 tense and expectant Americans. Those rights might be terminated on December 31 when Premier Khrushchev signed, as he threatened to do, a separate peace treaty with East Germany. If the Russians used force to override our rights, Kennedy warned, they would be met with still greater force: “We do not want to fight but we have fought before.” In consequence, he was calling upon Congress to appropriate $93,000,000 to provide shelter for the population against radioactive fallout. “In the coming months I hope to let every citizen know what steps he can take without delay to protect his family in case of attack.” With those few ominous words about civil defense, set against a looming confrontation with the Kremlin, President Kennedy triggered off what was to become a national craze, a spectacular bubble, and one of the most revealing moral debates in our history as “one nation under God.” The subject: building fallout shelters for oneself and one’s family in hopes of surviving attack in a thermonuclear war.
On the face of it, that enterprise seemed perfectly practical, prudent, and straightforward—with or without presidential prompting. For a half-dozen years Americans had been told the basic facts about radioactive fallout. Should an atomic bomb burst in Times Square with the explosive force of five megatons (equivalent to 5,000,000 tons of TNT), virtually everything within a two-mile radius would be destroyed by the blast. Several miles from “groundzero,” however, the great peril to human life was the radioactive dust and debris kicked up and sent flying by the explosion. That killing radiation could not penetrate concrete or steel or even earth or brick. Outside the target area a household that built a concrete shelter in its basement or underneath its garden could well survive a thermonuclear war, provided the family stocked its shelter with sufficient provisions to last two weeks. Why not build such a shelter just in case the “unthinkable” burst into reality?
The proposition was not even new on July 25, 1961. New York’s Governor Nelson Rockefeller had been an outspoken champion of home fallout shelters for years. Henry Luce and his mighty magazines also had been urging Americans for a long time to build their own private shelters. So had a number of eminent scientists, most notably the Nobel laureate Dr. Willard Libby of the Atomic Energy Commission. So, too, had the Eisenhower administration. From mid-1958 onward, the administration’s Office of Civil Defense and Mobilization not only had promoted home shelters but also had put prototype shelter models on display around the country and had published a small library of manuals teaching Americans how to build one themselves. The results had been virtually nil. When Kennedy took office there were only about fifteen hundred home shelters in the entire country.
On the morning of July 26, however, the bully pulpit of the White House had once again demonstrated—so it seemed—its awesome power to mold public sentiment. President Kennedy had, quite simply, delivered one of the most frightening speeches in American history, a speech foreshadowing not merely a war but the unthinkable war: a war fought with soaring missiles, a war whose weapons were measured in million-ton units of TNT, a war that would not kill soldiers but the civilian population of the country. And the deadline for the end of peace, the end of the world as men knew it, might be sometime around December 31, just five months away.
On July 27, the New York Times reassured its readers that they were “calm” and “confident,” that they showed “no shock and no sense of panic.” Saying it did not make it so. The President, as James Reston of the self-same Times rightly put it, had scared “the daylights out of people,” especially, as one Chicago housewife told a reporter, “when he started talking about civil defense and bomb shelters.” Nothing had made the prospect of thermonuclear war seem more real than that, and Kennedy was well aware of it. The day after his electrifying speech the President drove home the point again. He was asking Congress for $10,000,000 to build an alarm system for private homes—the National Emergency Alarm Repeater, acronymically known as NEAR. You plugged a little device into your wall socket (price five to ten dollars) and the Air Defense Command would activate it when Soviet missiles began flying. That would give you about a half-hour to leap into a home shelter if, as the President had obliquely suggested, you had built one “without delay.” On July 29, the administration gave home fallout shelters yet another push forward. Henceforth, announced the Federal Housing Authority, home-shelter builders would be eligible for insured home-improvement loans.