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When Bunkers Last In The Backyard Bloom—d

July 2024
17min read

The fallout-shelter craze of 1961

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.

Presidential impulsion—phase one of the shelter craze—sent America flying at once into phase two: a frantic mass search for information, for blueprints, for precise lists of emergency supplies. Once-somnolent Civil Defense offices began jangling with the ring of telephones. Mail poured in until, by the end of August, Civil Defense officials reported that requests for information had reached “tidal wave proportions.” In the aftermath of Kennedy’s speech, Civil Defense officials distributed no fewer than 22,000,000 copies of the Eisenhower administration’s Family Fallout Shelter . And millions of Americans requested another long-neglected government pamphlet: Family Food Stockpile for Survival . For the first time in their careers, Civil Defense officials found themselves in great demand as public speakers. In school assembly halls, church basements, bowling alleys, and rented movie theaters they lectured to large and avid audiences who wanted to know, first, if they lived outside a targeted area and, if so, what they could do about it at once. The answers usually made the front page of local newspapers, for civil defense had become news for the first time since the outbreak of World War II.

In the war-darkened summer of 1961, a West Coast woman interviewed after Kennedy’s speech seemed to sum up perfectly the national mood: “I don’t want a war. I don’t want to build a bomb shelter, but I don’t see what else we can do about it.” The news headlines alone kept the public in a frenzy. On August 13, the world shook with fear and rage when the Communists sealed off East Berlin with barbed wire, preparatory to building the infamous Wall. Several days later the world trembled again when a U.S. military convoy from West Germany made its perilous way along the Autobahn to West Berlin. On August 31, fear and tension boiled over into outright hysteria when Khrushchev announced that the Soviet Union, after a three-year hiatus, was going to resume testing atomic weapons at once. That day there was nobody in America who could possibly have predicted that the shelter craze was a bubble that was soon to burst.


The very opposite seemed true. With public interest at fever pitch, fallout-shelter champions, frustrated for years, quickly launched a furious campaign to promote home fallout-shelter construction, “the greatest campaign of persuasion,” the Nation noted, “in the history of American public relations.” Cheerful optimism was the campaign keynote. “We must get the message into every home” that thermonuclear war is survivable, said Kennedy’s director of the Office of Civil Defense and Mobilization. Comforting statistics filled the air. On September 2, for example, Federal Civil Defense spokesmen assured Americans that even if a hundredmegaton bomb fell in their vicinity, they stood “an excellent chance” of survival in a home shelter just twelve miles from ground-zero. Life magazine estimated that 94 per cent of the population could survive a Soviet attack if shelters were available to everyone. Dr. Libby put the figure at 90 to 95 per cent in a stirring series of syndicated articles he wrote for the Associated Press.

Shelter advocates even declined to concede that home shelters were merely a grim necessity. They put a halo of heroism around them. Building shelters, said Stuart Pittman, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civil Defense, gave Americans an “opportunity”—an opportunity “to demonstrate their will to face up to thermonuclear war.” The shelter builder was deemed a modern-day pioneer showing the stern stuff that made America great when an American “plowed with a musket in his hand.” Linking the thermonuclear present to the comforting pre-atomic past, the Washington Post offered plans for a fallout shelter with a “colonial motif,” while Life , working up the same theme, described a fivefamily shelter being built on Long Island as a “modern stockade” in a somewhat farfetched comparison between rampaging Iroquois and radioactive isotopes.

In case even the pioneer spirit might sound too grim, shelter advocates cheerfully assured Americans that huddling in an eight-by-eight-foot bunker for two weeks might not be as grueling as it sounded. Time magazine suggested decorating one’s shelter with a picture of an outdoor scene as a possible cure for cabin fever. The Library Journal advised future shelter dwellers to try to learn a new language. “The mental gymnastics would be salutary, if not downright fun .”

Most of all, insisted shelter advocates, home shelters were cheap and easy to build. Dr. Libby stirred the hopes of millions of modest wage-earners when he announced in his syndicated series that he had built a shelter in the backyard of his Bel-Air, California, home for a mere thirty dollars. Even the most complicated shelter recommended by the Civil Defense manuals, the double-walled, above-ground concrete shelter, replete with joists, block capping, and toggle joints, could be built “by any enterprising do-it-yourself family” said the editors of Life , who appended to their elaborate homeshelter story—“How You Can Survive Fallout”—a letter from President Kennedy urging Americans to “read and consider seriously the contents of this issue of Life .” The presidentially approved issue bore a cover photograph of a man enveloped in a transparent plastic bag described as a “civilian fallout suit.” Its price was $21.95 and its worth as a radioactive shield, when seriously considered, didn’t amount to much.

In truth, by the end of the long, weary summer, fallout began to look like a supremely ripe opportunity for profitable commerce. In September a rash of “survival stores” erupted around the country. There the home-shelter builder could purchase such items as: “a citizen’s instrument kit” ($20.00) which told you how much radiation your body had absorbed while you waited for the all-clear signal; the Surviv-All, Incorporated, food kit ($8.95), which provided two weeks worth of rations for one; General Mills’s MPF or “multipurpose food”; Nabisco’s seven-pound tins of “survival rations,” which reportedly tasted “like animal crackers”; Mead Johnson’s Nutrament, originally developed as a quick lunch for assembly-line workers; a variety of blowers ($74.00) for forcing fresh air into your shelter; air filters ($55.00) to assure that the fresh air was not radioactive; and a profusion of “lifesaving kits” complete with “anti-radiation” pills and salves which turned out to be the lineal descendants of snake oil and the golden elixir.


Despite all the official calls for cheap do-it-yourself construction, shelter manufacturers, too, began appearing in droves. In July, 1961, there were only forty of them in the country. Two months later, reported the New York Times , one hundred and twenty had governmental approval, and there were hundreds more who did not. Most of them were suburban and small-town contractors prepared to make a fast dollar by installing backyard shelters rather than swimming pools. Others, more ambitious, offered completely prefabricated steel or concrete shelters priced, on the average, at around two thousand dollars. The Armco Steel Company of San Francisco combined prefabrication with do-it-yourself by marketing a shelter whose steel modules could be assembled like the parts of an Erector set. Advertising in the press, sending salesmen door-to-door, setting up their sales models in shopping-center parking lots, the “survival merchants,” as Consumer Reports tartly labeled them, added their own promotional appeals to the national campaign for home fallout shelters. In the autumn virtually every state fair in the country displayed home-shelter models. At the Dallas Fair, the Federal Bomb & Fallout Shelter Company’s thirteenhundred-and-fifty-dollar shelter—billed as “the only precast monolithic concrete shelter approved by the Office of Civil Defense!”—reportedly “outdrew the blue ribbon cattle and the midway rides as a popular attraction.” People peeked into the concrete igloo, wondered, perhaps, what it would be like to live in a tomb for two weeks, and then went home and argued about shelters with family, friends, and neighbors.

To build or not build a shelter—that, by early October, had become the question of the hour. It was discussed in downtown cafeterias, suburban kitchens, country club bars, and roadside taverns. To many pro-shelter Americans it was simply a matter of prudence, “insurance” as President Kennedy had put it even before the Berlin crisis. As one New Jersey dentist explained, he carried an umbrella on a cloudy day, and “the world situation looks pretty cloudy today.” Others expected war any moment and were determined to survive it. “I want to be one of the quarter of the population to escape and be around to build for the future,” a Cambridge, Massachusetts, housewife told a Times reporter. There were patriotic arguments, too. Shelter builders insisted, echoing administration spokesmen, that they were helping to strengthen America. A people protected against fallout would discourage a Soviet attack and enable America to get tough with the Russians without fear of “nuclear blackmail.” The arguments appeared unassailable, and on October 5, President Kennedy weighed in behind them with all the immense prestige of his office. That day he called on Americans to build private shelters for themselves and their families. Protection from radioactive fallout, said the President, “is within reach of every American willing to face the facts and act.”


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.

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.

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.”

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.

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