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c h a p t e r 3 Morality and National Identity at the Shelter Door 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 was finally released to the public in December 1961 under the title Fallout Protection:What to Know and Do about Nuclear Attack. In many ways a peculiar document,Fallout Protection was uneasily poised between impressing its readers with the serious consequences of a nuclear attack and reassuring them that everything would somehow work out. Predicting that nuclear war would be“terrible beyond imagination and description,”the authors of Fallout Protection then seemed to argue the contrary: “If effective precautions have been taken in advance, it need not be a time of despair.”1 The main argument presented in Fallout Protection, which was premised on the effects of a five-megaton bomb detonated at ground level, was that shelters “could greatly reduce the number of casualties.”2 78 Fallout Protection did not have a kindly reception, prompting instead a chorus of jeers from the critics.The Washington Association of Scientists (WAS), a local chapter of the Federation of American Scientists, derided the pamphlet for understating the dangers of nuclear fallout, and for its assumption that the enemy would restrict its attack to a five-megaton ground blast. The scientists maintained that the circumstances in which fallout shelters would save lives were extremely limited, and that in truth “no individual can by his own efforts insure his survival in a nuclear war.” The best long-term security, according to WAS, rested in a recognition that “nuclear war is not a feasible means of resolving international conflicts .”3 A Commonweal article also excoriated Fallout Protection, describing the five-megaton premise as “either scandalous ignorance or scandalous deception.” Another supposition of the pamphlet, that nuclear attack would be directed solely at military targets and would consist only of groundbursts (both were preconditions for fallout shelters to be effective), was described by Commonweal as “almost pathetically unlikely.” Commonweal concluded that the shelter debate could be reduced to the following formula: under certain (improbable) conditions—involving one particular (unlikely ) pattern of nuclear attack, by means of a certain (minimal) number of bombs, exploded in a certain (relatively inefficient) way, on certain (extremely limited) targets—some kind of fallout shelter program, if not the present confused efforts, might indeed save millions of lives that otherwise would be lost.4 Even Time magazine, which claimed that “cheap fallout shelters are a modest insurance for everyone,” acknowledged that the government pamphlet “offers far too rosy advice on how Americans can protect themselves , at cut rates, against nuclear onslaught.”5 Before Kennedy’s Berlin speech, the number of fallout shelters that had been built in the country was relatively small.As late as March 1960, the Holifield committee reported a total number of 1,565 home fallout shelters in thirty-five states.As Chet Holifield put it,“very little has been accomplished.”6 A little more than a year later the Berlin crisis had produced an explosion of public interest in fallout shelters, encouraging many to believe that the business of building shelters would be a guaranteed success. There were expectations that annual sales could run between $2 billion and $20 billion, and that shelter building would achieve Morality and National Identity at the Shelter Door 79 the magnitude of other federally promoted programs such as highway building and urban renewal.7 Fear of nuclear war was certainly on many people’s minds, and the shelter business was quick to capitalize on such apprehensions, nurturing customers with what Newsweek called “equal parts of show biz., peep show, and hard sell.”In a Prince Georges County shopping center outsideWashington,D.C., shoppers were treated to a recording of air raid sirens, exploding bombs, and an anguished male voice that cried out, “My wife, my children . . .” The moral of this drama? “If I’d only listened to Civil Defense . . . I’d be in that shelter now.”8 At least one Virginia realtor placed advertisements in Washington , D.C., papers promoting “life and peace of mind outside the Washington target area.”9...


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