Is the Government Responsible For Sheltering You From Nukes?

Illustration for article titled Is the Government Responsible For Sheltering You From Nukes?

"EVERYBODY'S TALKING ABOUT SHELTERS" proclaimed Life magazine in its January 12, 1962 issue.

Advertisement

Specifically, everybody was talking about nuclear fallout shelters, since both the United States and the Soviet Union had developed weapons which could unleash unimaginable destruction upon the Earth. The living might envy the dead if nuclear war broke out between the two superpowers, but where would the living live precisely?

A big debate in the United States during the Cold War was over who should be responsible for building fallout shelters. Was it the government's responsibility to build enormous shelters underground to protect its people in the event of nuclear war? Or was it up to each individual to provide for his own safety?

Advertisement

The Twilight Zone tackled the issue of fallout shelters in its September 29, 1961 episode "The Shelter." One family had built a shelter in their basement, while nobody else in the neighborhood had. After news reports of a possible attack started over the radio, the man with the shelter was faced with the dilemma of whether to let his unprepared neighbors into a shelter only built for three people. Not to spoil the episode for you, but things turned to shit pretty quickly.

Illustration for article titled Is the Government Responsible For Sheltering You From Nukes?

We often think of the Cold War era as a time when everybody was deathly afraid of nuclear war, and everybody wanted a shelter. But when we look at research done in the early 1960s, we see less panic than was perhaps dramatized in the media. And most Americans seemed to think that if something terrible did happen, the government would provide some kind of assistance.

Advertisement

For example, a 1963 study by Michigan State University surveyed 3,514 Americans all across the country. Just 1.4 percent had a shelter, while only 5 percent more had made plans to build one in the future. 52 percent had no plans to build one and told researchers they had not even thought about building one. 13 percent had no plans to build a shelter but had thought and investigated what it would take to build one.

Illustration for article titled Is the Government Responsible For Sheltering You From Nukes?
Advertisement

Which brings us back to questions around the role of the government to protect its people. If the government is the one putting its citizens at risk (or, seen in another light, "protecting" them with a nuclear standoff), then shouldn't it provide another layer of protection by building nuclear fallout shelters? The media narrative of the 1950s and 60s in the United States ebbed and flowed, sometimes focusing on personal protection, like in the Twilight Zone episode.

Other media, like the Life magazine issue from 1962, raised the issue that government should play a larger role in providing fallout shelters around the country. The federal government actually investigated large-scale shelters, at one point exploring what it would take to put 4 million people underneath Manhattan. President Kennedy even proposed a $400 million federal program to build shelters all around the country. Obviously, shelter projects of this scale were never actually attempted.

Advertisement
Illustration for article titled Is the Government Responsible For Sheltering You From Nukes?

But we're left with modern questions about preparedness and what our government might owe us. One need only look as far as the devastation in New Orleans proceeding Hurricane Katrina to find the uncomfortable answers: Despite the best (if sometimes incompetent) efforts of agencies like FEMA, you're largely on your own.

Advertisement

What do you think? We still have plenty of nukes floating around in the world, and terrorism (from both foreign and domestic sources) will always be a part of our broken world. What role does the government have in keeping us safe through infrastructure like shelters?


Images: Scanned from the January 12, 1962 issue of Life magazine

Advertisement

Share This Story

Get our newsletter

DISCUSSION

I grew up right in the middle of the fallout shelter craze. In addition to public shelters, the government encouraged homeowners to install their own family shelter, either in the basement or in a hole dug in the back yard. My dad had the salesman come to our house and give us an estimate ($2,000, a lot of money in those days), but he didn't buy it. My best friend's dad did, however. We often played in it; it was the real deal, with cots, food and water, a shortwave radio, a geiger counter, and a shotgun locked in a rack. People were deadly serious about this; a favorite topic of conversation around the barbecue pit was whether you'd really shoot your neighbor if he tried to force his way into your shelter.

The entire shelter idea was from the era of manned bombers, when our DEW Line radars would give us as much as eight hours warning. When the threat shifted to ICBMs around 1960 shelters became obsolete. Warning time was reduced to only 20 minutes or less; there just wasn't time to get to a shelter even if you were warned as soon as the missiles launched.

The government told everyone we'd only have to stay down for two weeks, knowing at the time that it was a lie. Also, most of the shelter plans had entirely inadequate ventilation systems that drew in the contaminated dust you were trying to avoid in the first place, or had no ventilation system at all. The government really just wanted us to dig our own graves.