We Build Underground Bomb Shelters

Bunker Down

by Stephen I. Schwartz, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Readers of a certain age will recall civil defense measures against atomic attack with nostalgia, amusement, fear, or some combination of all three. Growing up in Los Angeles in the mid-to-late 1960s and early 1970s, I missed out on the zenith of public concern over fallout shelters, the period from 1961--62, which, as author Kenneth Rose states, is the only time in U.S. history when "the question of nuclear war and survival has been embraced by an entire nation as a subject of urgent debate."

Yet, throughout my elementary and junior high school years, regular and unannounced "drop drills" took place. At the sound of a special series of bells and the instruction of our teachers, we were to dive under our desks, face away from the windows and crouch with our arms over our heads, which were pressed against our legs. My classmates and I were told--and believed--that these drills were held to prepare us in the event of an earthquake, a not infrequent occurrence in southern California. That explanation made sense, and the exercise was reassuring, even fun--it provided a few minutes of excitement in an otherwise uneventful school day.

As I realized years later, though, these drop drills probably evolved from the "duck and cover" exercises my predecessors were subjected to, beginning in the early 1950s. Like our drills, they were often unannounced, leaving more than a few students unsure if a nuclear attack was under way or if it was merely a test. And although hiding under a desk might provide protection from an earthquake, it would be of little help in avoiding the effects of a nearby nuclear bomb blast, a conclusion many students and parents reached as more information about the effects of nuclear weapons became available.

One Nation Underground is a richly detailed and beautifully written account of a pivotal period in the Cold War civil defense debate, a time when Americans collectively confronted the implications of the Bomb. On July 26, 1961, President John F. Kennedy, just back from a meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna (where Khrushchev threatened to declare Berlin, a neutral city, off limits to the West), gave a nationally televised address concerning the Berlin crisis. Asserting his intention to keep the city free and accessible, Kennedy declared, "We do not want to fight, but we have fought before."

In his speech, Kennedy proposed spending an additional $3.2 billion for the military, as well as $207.6 million for a civil defense plan to "identify and mark space in existing structures--public and private--that could be used for fallout shelters in case of attack." Should an attack come, he said, "the lives of those families which are not hit in a nuclear blast and fire can still be saved if they can be warned to take shelter and if that shelter is available. . . . We owe that kind of insurance to our families and to our country. . . . The time to start is now." Kennedy concluded with the sobering comment that "in the thermonuclear age, any misjudgment on either side about the intentions of the other could rain more devastation in several hours than has been wrought in all the wars of human history."

Kennedy's speech, along with the erection of the Berlin Wall on August 13, and a Soviet nuclear test on September 1 (ending a three-year bilateral testing moratorium), dramatically increased fears of nuclear war and drove Americans to think about fallout shelters as never before. Kennedy's speech set off a national debate--and, for a brief period, a frenzy of shelter building. Americans were fearful, but they also supported the president's stand. A Gallup poll released four days after the speech found that "82 percent favored the maintenance of American, British, and French forces in Berlin 'even at the risk of war.'"

Given all that, Rose sensibly asks why more Americans did not build fallout shelters. In June 1961, governors from 40 states "reported that more than 60,000 family fallout shelters had been built or were under construction." "By 1965," Rose writes, "as many as 200,000 may have been in place," but he considers that number "highly speculative."

Rose concludes that "Americans talked a great deal about fallout shelters, but relatively few Americans actually built fallout shelters." The significant cost of constructing a viable shelter was a major impediment, as was the realization that it might not fully protect against the destructive shock wave or the tremendous heat of a nuclear blast. The impracticality of constructing shelters in urban areas also played a role, as did strong congressional opposition and, by the late 1960s, dwindling federal funding (thanks to the escalating costs of the war in Vietnam). Military leaders were also less than enthusiastic. As Gen. Curtis LeMay said, "I don't think I would put that much money into holes in the ground to crawl into. . . . I would rather spend more of it on offensive weapons systems to deter the war."

A kind of patriotic fatalism also dampened enthusiasm. Polls taken before and after Kennedy's speech showed a strong and consistent preference "for annihilation over communism" (a position that appalled many outside the United States and led Bertrand Russell to complain that when Americans said they "'stand for freedom' it meant 'you must be quite willing to perish in order to be free in hell'"). But Rose rejects the idea that Americans were passive. "Americans actively took part in the debate over shelters, and their rejection of fallout shelters was a conscious decision based on the social, moral, and economic implications of building those shelters." Fundamentally altering the American way of life in order to save it was deemed unacceptable.

Rose believes that above all, moral issues caused Americans to reject fallout shelters. In the wake of Kennedy's speech, there were furious debates over whether it would be right to turn away neighbors or strangers seeking safety in one's small family shelter. And many people evidently concluded that the smoldering, radiating ruins awaiting the survivors' return to the surface would not be worth surviving for. "Even Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed (in a 1962 Redbook article) that if he found himself in a shelter without his family, he 'would just walk out. I would not want to face that kind of a world and the loss of my family.'"

One Nation Underground is much more than an exploration of these issues, however. It is also an engaging history of civil defense, drawing on a wide-ranging set of sources (including a number of Bulletin articles). In its pages, one learns, for example, that dog tags were issued to schoolchildren in San Francisco, Seattle, New York, and other cities to aid in identifying the lost, dead, or wounded (tattooing was considered but rejected, according to a Milwaukee school administrator, "because of its associations and impermanence in the case of severe burns").

Ever mindful of the need to protect not just people, but everything they would need to survive, government preparations for the post-nuclear war period included an Agriculture Department publication for farmers called Bunker-Type Fallout Shelter for Beef Cattle.

Rose also provides an excellent overview of the treatment of nuclear weapons in literature and film (and how books and movies influenced attitudes toward nuclear war); examines how businesses prepared for nuclear holocaust; and explores the Abo Public Elementary School in Artesia, New Mexico, the only public school built entirely underground and equipped to function as a fallout shelter.

Despite--or perhaps because of--the subject matter, Rose subtly weaves humorous anecdotes into his account. He relates the story of 12 families from the New York area who in the fall of 1961 decided to leave en masse for Chico, California, to escape the threat of nuclear war. "Chico, a town of 15,000 in 1961, was chosen because its topography and wind patterns supposedly created a favorable environment for protection from the ravages of nuclear war. . . . The choice of Chico befuddled most observers, however, as a Titan missile base was being installed seven miles north of town. Alvin Bauman [the group's leader] seemed unfazed ('We knew we couldn't escape every possible danger')."

Shortly after the Kennedy speech, ads for a variety of fallout shelters began to appear. Wood, Inc., an organization touting Colorado timber products, displayed a wooden shelter design at a shopping center in Denver. "When he was interviewed by the Denver Post, company president Clark Gittings seemed a bit defensive about the viability of a wooden shelter against nuclear attack (perhaps because of the widespread public perception that wood burns)."

Addressing the subject of the comparative effectiveness of Soviet civil defense measures (a matter of considerable debate in the 1960s and again in the 1980s), Rose quotes from a 1961 Bulletin article debunking a Rand Corporation analyst who claimed in congressional testimony that the Moscow subway could shelter 2 million people (each person would have an average of 3.75 square feet of floor space). "Apparently the sturdy Muscovites are capable of standing (sitting would require six square feet) in the same position, motionless, for two weeks or so, while engaging in all of those basic processes essential to human survival!"

My favorite story concerns the tale of Willard Libby, the former Atomic Energy Commission chairman who opposed public funding for shelters and insisted they could be constructed cheaply. To promote his cause, Libby wrote a 15-part newspaper series titled "You Can Survive Atomic Attack," featuring a less-than-$30 "poor man's shelter" he had built in West Los Angeles out of railroad ties, old tires, and bags of dirt. "Libby's argument for the viability of the poor man's shelter was undercut somewhat when this structure was subsequently destroyed in a brushfire." When physicist and former colleague Leo Szilard heard about the fire, which occurred during the Cuban missile crisis, he said it proved not only "that God exists, but that He has a sense of humor."

Survival City is another well written (if slightly less focused) book about overlooked aspects of the Cold War--part travelogue, part architectural history, and part rumination on the impact of nuclear weapons on the American psyche. Author Tom Vanderbilt takes to the interstate highways (constructed in part to facilitate the swift evacuation of cities in the event of attack) to discover the influence of the Cold War on the American landscape. "The Cold War was--and is--everywhere in America," he writes, "if one knows where to look for it. Underground, behind closed doors, classified, off the map, already crumbling beyond recognition, or right in plain view, it has left an imprint as widespread yet discreet as the tracing of radioactive particles that blew out of the Nevada Test Site in the 1950s."

Vanderbilt's travels take him to the destruction of a Minuteman II silo in North Dakota (and to the last remaining intact Minuteman II silo in South Dakota, soon to be a National Historic Monument); the remnants of the Safeguard site (the only operational U.S. missile defense system), also in North Dakota; Wendover Air Force Base in Utah (where Col. Paul Tibbets secretly trained B-29 bomber crews to drop the first atomic bombs); New Mexico's Kirtland Air Force Base (home to the "Trestle," an enormous all-wood structure used to test the electromagnetic pulse effects on aircraft and other military equipment, and the location of the first atomic test in 1945); a Titan II missile silo outside Tucson, Arizona, converted to a museum; a defunct Nike missile site near Los Angeles; and the Nevada Test Site, the location of the various buildings exposed to nuclear tests--the "survival city" of the title.

While touring the test site, Vanderbilt has a surreal exchange with an Energy Department official, demonstrating that in some places at least, the Cold War lives on. Viewing the Sedan Crater, a hole 1,280 feet wide and 322 feet deep created by a 104-kiloton test in 1962 that was part of the Plowshare program, Vanderbilt notices that the southern end of the military's secret "Area 51," believed by many UFOlogists to be the highly classified location of alien bodies and spacecraft, is visible in the distance beyond a ridge of mountains. When he asks his guide if he can photograph the crater, she responds, "You can photograph the crater, but you can't photograph the sky behind the crater."

"The underground," writes Vanderbilt, "is the paranoid aspect of the Cold War, the dark space beneath the symbolic order reigning above." Accordingly, "one could not understand the Cold War period, with its superficial consensus, progress, and stability, without considering its subterranean chambers of reinforced concrete, locked doors, secret communication networks, and men with guns. In the underground world, complexes were built to replicate the governing structures above; the home fallout shelter promised security beneath the backyard; it was the only place eventually deemed acceptable for nuclear weapons testing; and tunnels were built to siphon information from hostile embassies. Finally, in the Cold War's aftermath, it was where we chose to bury the untouchably toxic residue that had accumulated."

Vanderbilt visits the luxurious Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, for 30 years the site of a massive, 112,000-square-foot bunker (Project Greek Island) meant to house the entire U.S. Congress and selected staff members in the event of nuclear war. Kept secret until its cover was blown in a Washington Post Magazine article in 1992, the facility included decontamination showers, dormitory and meeting space, a complete medical clinic, a television studio, a crematorium, and enough food for about 1,000 people for two months. A woman in Vanderbilt's tour group (the site opened to the public in 1996), observing the elaborate measures taken to protect senior government officials in contrast to the relatively paltry efforts to safeguard the general public, remarked, "I want to know where we were supposed to go. That's what I want to know."

Vanderbilt ponders the mindset of the people who "conceived, engineered, and maintained [the bunker] (not to mention the feelings of those who kept fresh rations on hand, or updated the names of congressmen on the dormitory beds when new members were voted into office)." The site, he decides, "is a permutation of the 'banality of evil,' the rational response to an irrational policy." The complex's 19.5-inch-thick, 25-ton steel blast doors speak "less to the strength of the facility than to the rather sobering question of what would have happened to everyone beyond the door."

The author also tours a rudimentary fallout shelter intended for President Kennedy and his family off the coast of Palm Beach, Florida; the headquarters of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) inside Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado; an Atlas F silo converted into a unique luxury home in upstate New York; and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico, the final resting place for bomb-manufacturing buildings, equipment, and clothing contaminated with plutonium.

Vanderbilt makes a good case for calling more attention to the architecture of the Cold War, even when it is barely visible on the surface. Take the program to construct intercontinental ballistic missile silos, which an air force historian, Jacob Neufeld, described in a 1990 book as "the largest and most extensive building program of its kind at that time" (1960--67). One site alone (Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri) consumed 168,000 yards of concrete, 25,355 tons of reinforcing steel, 15,120 tons of structural steel, and hundreds of miles of wiring and cables. Nearly 1,300 silos and launch control centers were constructed across the country (largely in the West) at a cost of around $20 billion (in today's dollars), not including the cost of the missiles and warheads themselves.

Unfortunately, the secret and often obscure nature of underground complexes, together with their seeming banality makes them less than attractive candidates for historical preservation and interpretation. Vanderbilt shrewdly notes that such sites, at once in plain view and yet invisible, are "an apt metaphor for a war that was real yet imaginary, abstract yet concrete, everywhere and nowhere."

No one likes to think about the consequences of nuclear war, or even the explosion of one nuclear weapon. It is simply too horrific--and abstract--to dwell on. But it is one thing to block out an unpleasant reality and quite another to be ignorant of it. Survival City, by taking us on a tour of important places we've probably never been, is both a call to preserve Cold War history and a valuable reminder of the continuing impact of nuclear weapons on the American cultural and physical landscape.

Stephen I. Schwartz is publisher of the Bulletin and the editor and co-author of Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 (1998).