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One Nation Underground

The Fallout Shelter in American Culture

Kenneth Rose

Publication Year: 2001

For the half-century duration of the Cold War, the fallout shelter was a curiously American preoccupation. Triggered in 1961 by a hawkish speech by John F. Kennedy, the fallout shelter controversy—"to dig or not to dig," as Business Week put it at the time—forced many Americans to grapple with deeply disturbing dilemmas that went to the very heart of their self-image about what it meant to be an American, an upstanding citizen, and a moral human being.

Given the much-touted nuclear threat throughout the 1960s and the fact that 4 out of 5 Americans expressed a preference for nuclear war over living under communism, what's perhaps most striking is how few American actually built backyard shelters. Tracing the ways in which the fallout shelter became an icon of popular culture, Kenneth D. Rose also investigates the troubling issues the shelters raised: Would a post-war world even be worth living in? Would shelter construction send the Soviets a message of national resolve, or rather encourage political and military leaders to think in terms of a "winnable" war?

Investigating the role of schools, television, government bureaucracies, civil defense, and literature, and rich in fascinating detail—including a detailed tour of the vast fallout shelter in Greenbriar, Virginia, built to harbor the entire United States Congress in the event of nuclear armageddon—One Nation, Underground goes to the very heart of America's Cold War experience.

Published by: NYU Press


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p. vii

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pp. ix-x

Niko Pfund at New York University Press believed in this project from the very beginning, and I owe him a great debt for his stewardship of One Nation. Also much thanks to Niko’s successor at NYU Press, Eric Zinner, and to Cecilia Feilla, with whom I worked closely on the final manuscript. As always, Despina Gimbel was diligent in her duties as managing editor, and Rosalie Morales Kearns did a superb job as copy editor.

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pp. 1-13

Only once in our history has the question of nuclear war and survival been embraced by an entire nation as a subject of urgent debate. Discussions about the ramifications of nuclear war had, until that time, been almost exclusively the private preserve of policy makers, scientists, and intellectuals such as Herman Kahn, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Henry Kissinger. But the fallout shelter controversy that began in 1961 (which Business Week succinctly described as “to dig, or not ...

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1 A New Age Dawning

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pp. 14-37

Often forgotten in the post-Hiroshima world is that the most common first reaction to the dropping of atomic weapons on Japan, at least among Americans and their allies, was not universal horror but unalloyed joy and relief. By the summer of 1945 preparations were under way for a November invasion of the Japanese home islands, an operation that had the potential to become a military nightmare.The use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would make that invasion unnecessary.

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2 The Nuclear Apocalyptic

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pp. 38-77

Before examining the political, moral, and scientific aspects of the fallout shelter, it is important to understand that there would not have been a fallout shelter debate without the flowering of a distinctive subgenre of speculative literature, what might be called the nuclear apocalyptic. Based on anxieties about nuclear war and its aftermath, the nuclear apocalyptic was based on the widespread belief during the 1950s and early 1960s that nuclear weapons had brought humanity near the final apocalypse.

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3 Morality and National Identity at the Shelter Door

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pp. 78-112

The first indication that there would be problems ahead for shelters and civil defense was that the Kennedy administration seemed both surprised at and unprepared for the tremendous public reaction to Kennedy’s Berlin speech. Frightened Americans, who previously had tried to ignore the possibility of nuclear war, now besieged their government for information on surviving such a catastrophe.The Office of Civil Defense hurriedly began work on a civil defense pamphlet, and the result ...

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4 Taking Government, Business, and Schools Underground

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pp. 113-149

The survivability of nuclear war was not only an issue for individual Americans, it was also widely debated by those in government, business, and education.The question could be reduced to a simple proposition: Would there be enough left after a nuclear war that would still be recognizable as “America”? While many maintained that any belief in a “recovery” from a nuclear war was illusory, nuclear survival and restoration was official Cold War doctrine for much of this era, and ...

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5 The Theory and Practice of Armageddon

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pp. 150-185

Just as the debate over fallout shelters seemed to create endless conflicts in the political and social realms, so too did it engender friction in the scientific community. Indeed, a lack of consensus among experts on even the most basic premises was one of the hallmarks of the fallout shelter controversy.The issues were extremely technical, hard data were frequently lacking, and the conclusions to be drawn highly speculative.

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6 The Shelters That Were Not Built, the Nuclear War That Did Not Start

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pp. 186-213

Americans had excellent reasons to retreat underground. The day-to-day tensions of the Cold War, the occasional full-blown crises, the ubiquitous reminders in the press of the consequences of nuclear war, and the obvious fact that nuclear weapons were going to be around for a long time should theoretically have provided ample motivation for Americans to become a sheltered nation.Yet the United States did not build a system of community shelters, nor were ...

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pp. 214-224

After 1964, interest in civil defense would languish for well over a decade, although there continued to be support for an ABM program as fears grew over China’s missile capability. In March 1969 Richard Nixon authorized deployment of the Safeguard ABM, a relatively modest system that was installed near the Minuteman ICBM site in Grand Forks, North Dakota, in 1974. The Safeguard would become the only ABM to be deployed in the United States, but was removed in 1976 due to problems with cost and effectiveness.1


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pp. 225-300


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pp. 301-312

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About the Author

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p. 313

Kenneth D. Rose teaches history at California State University, Chico, and is the author of American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition, also available from NYU Press.

E-ISBN-13: 9780814776780
E-ISBN-10: 0814776787
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814775226
Print-ISBN-10: 0814775225

Page Count: 324
Publication Year: 2001

OCLC Number: 53482660
MUSE Marc Record: Download for One Nation Underground

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Subject Headings

  • Fallout shelters -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • Nuclear warfare -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • United States -- Social conditions -- 1945-.
  • Popular culture -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Cold War -- Social aspects -- United States.
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