How The US Was Supposed To Survive A Nuclear Holocaust

How The US Was Supposed To Survive A Nuclear Holocaust

The American people have a well-documented history of panicking during crises. Is it any wonder then that, when faced with possible nuclear annihilation, the US government would use any ploy available to maintain public order? Bomboozled by Susan Roy explains.

In George Orwell’s 1984, citizens of the totalitarian state of Oceania were required to accomplish the impossible task of holding two contradictory ideas in their minds and accepting both of them: War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. Orwell called this “Doublethink.” Similarly, Citizen Cold Warriors in the United States were expected to be able to reconcile these two diametrically opposed thoughts: A nuclear war can destroy all life on earth. You will survive if you build a family fallout shelter.

But the family fallout shelter’s ostensible purpose – to ensure survival during and after a nuclear attack – was impossible to achieve. That wasn’t why it was created. It was part of the propaganda campaign to convince the American people that they could survive a nuclear war.

No one knows exactly how many shelters were built. But tens of thousands of Americans – maybe even hundreds of thousands – actually did build shelters. Millions considered doing so. Why? How could so many people believe that hiding in an underground concrete cube would save their lives during a nuclear attack? And then, if they somehow did survive, why did they believe they could function when they emerged into a post-apocalyptic world with fires raging, cities destroyed, and a landscape littered with the dead and injured? Because by the time the Federal Civil defence Authority launched its Family Fallout Shelter campaign in 1958, Americans had spent nearly a decade steeped in Civil defence campaigns, posters, films, classes, and emergency drills. The idea of being a Citizen Cold Warrior had become embedded in the American psyche. People built shelters because doing so seemed to be their best hope; it was a desperate grab for empowerment in the face of the unthinkable. Doing something felt better than doing nothing.

The roots of the family fallout shelter can be traced back to 1952, when the U.S. created a new bomb – the hydrogen bomb – that was 1000 times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. This bomb would destroy an atomic bomb shelter as easily as the wolf blew down the house of straw in the fairy tale, The Three Little Pigs.

The world witnessed the astounding power of this new weapon on March 1, 1954, when it was exploded above the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. The blast vaporised the island below it and carved out a crater a half-mile wide and several hundred feet deep.

The bomb also threw several million tons of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere. After a nuclear bomb is detonated, it sucks dirt, water, and other matter into the explosion and transforms it into radioactive particles that can be as large as snowflakes or so small as to be invisible. Fallout can drift in unpredictable directions for thousands of miles over a period of years.

No longer was a nuclear bomb’s killing power limited to the place where it was detonated. Now everyone, everywhere was a potential victim of radioactive fallout. The following year, the U.S.S.R. exploded its first hydrogen bomb. Fear of fallout gripped the nation. The government acknowledged that a bomb shelter would be useless against a direct hit by the H-bomb. However, it said, you can protect yourself against fallout. During a nuclear attack, go into your fallout shelter and stay there for two weeks, until the radiation in the atmosphere has dropped to a safe level.

In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared: “The National fallout shelter policy is based firmly on the philosophy of the obligation of each property-owner to provide protection on his own premises.”

The family fallout shelter was a direct descendent of the atomic bomb shelters that Americans built after the U.S.S.R. exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949. These shelters took many forms. Some were prefabricated, like the one modeled on the Andersen Shelter, a small steel shed distributed by the British government to more than two million households during World War II to protect against the Luftwaffe bombings during the Blitz of 1940-1941. These floorless structures were dug into the yard and covered with earth. Others were contractor-built, like the poured-concrete cube installed underground, which was essentially a swimming pool with a concrete lid. Others were re-purposed objects, like the converted septic tank shelter.

In 1959, the government published and distributed millions of copies of a 32-page booklet called The Family Fallout Shelter. It included step-by-step instructions for building the Concrete Block Shelter, a cube constructed of concrete block and mortar. The Family Fallout Shelter was more than a how-to manual. It was a call to arms for the Cold Warrior: “We do not want a war. We do not know whether there will be a war. But we know that forces hostile to us possess weapons that could destroy us if we were unready. These weapons create a new threat -radioactive fallout that can spread death anywhere. That is why we must prepare. No matter where you live, a fallout shelter is necessary insurance. It will not be needed except in emergency. But in emergency it will be priceless – as priceless as your life.”

The Concrete Block Shelter could be installed in the basement. But for optimum protection against radiation, it should be buried in the backyard and covered with three feet of earth. Entry was to be through a ground-level hatch door. Drawings, photographs, and both miniature and full-size models of this shelter were disseminated in brochures, posters, television shows, Civil defence films, public exhibitions, lectures, architectural journals, print advertisements, and large-circulation magazines. It became the iconic family fallout shelter.

Americans saw it on television in a show called Walt Builds a Family Fallout Shelter, produced by The National Concrete Masonry Association, the trade group representing the concrete block industry. The host was Walt Durbhan, the folksy, handyman star of the how-to television show, Walt’s Workshop. The show depicts him constructing the iconic shelter in his basement, one concrete brick at a time. Building a structure designed to save your life during a nuclear attack is presented as though it were just another do-it-yourself project, like a backyard shed.

Millions of Americans saw photographs in Life of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a messianic proponent of fallout shelters, sitting in a mockup of the Concrete Block Shelter in a New York City bank in 1960. Rockefeller installed shelters in his homes in Pocantico, New York, Washington, DC, and in the Governor’s mansion in Albany, New York. He even tried, unsuccessfully, to pass a law that would have required every New York State resident to have a family fallout shelter.

Sensing opportunity in the shelter market, materials makers leapt onto the bandwagon. The National Lumber Manufacturers Association published a booklet called Family Fallout Shelters of Wood, which included plans for a buried cubic room that required 2300 linear feet of lumber. Anticipating arguments that wood’s vulnerability to water makes it unsuitable for a structure to be buried underground, the brochure recommends “mopping the exterior with hot asphalt” before installing it. In Steel Shelters for Fallout Protection, the American Iron and Steel Institute promoted the portability advantages of a steel shelter. Because it is constructed of panels that are bolted or screwed together, “a shelter of steel does not saddle you with a permanent, hard-to-move ‘monument’ in your basement or yard when the current emergency is over.” For people who didn’t want to go the do-it-yourself route, there was a dizzying array of prefabricated shelters from which to choose. They came in the form of cubes, domes, lozenges, cylinders, and pods, and were made of steel, pour-in-place concrete, concrete block, wood, and fiberglass. But whether built or prefabricated, shelters didn’t come cheap. The Concrete Block Shelter, for example, could cost more than $US10,000 in today’s currency. But cost be damned! Building a shelter isn’t throwing money away; it is a prudent and patriotic step that every American must take to ensure his and his family’s survival. As the Civil defence publication Individual and Family Preparedness emphasised, “Protection of our people is not new in the United States. When a free America was being built by our forebears, every log cabin and every dwelling had a dual purpose-namely, a home and a fortress.”

Susan Roy is a writer and editor on architecture, design, and cultural history. The founding managing editor of Allure magazine, she has also held senior editorial positions at This Old House, SELF, Good Housekeeping and Avenue.

Bomboozled: How the U.S. Government Misled Itself and Its People is available from the Pointed Leaf Press and