- One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture
One Nation Underground joins a substantial shelf of books dealing with the American homefront in the early Cold War. Kenneth Rose focuses on the era [End Page 249] from the mid-1950s through the early 1960s, with an introductory discussion of the early postwar years and a concluding chapter on the period after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, when nuclear fears and civil-defense preoccupations faded. A postscript treats the early Reagan years, when nuclear anxieties and government-sponsored civil-defense planning again loomed large.
Readers who know the existing literature will find much of Rose’s account familiar. Here again are those eerie photos of nattily dressed suburban families posing in model fallout shelters; the ineffable Herman Kahn thinking about the unthinkable; Bert the Turtle of “Duck and Cover” fame; the “Operation Alert” drills designed to spirit top federal officials out of Washington to secure locations; the impassioned debate over the morality of shooting one’s neighbor at the shelter door, and much else. And a few of Rose’s arguments might be challenged. His contention that the immediate U.S. response to the atomic bombing of Japan was “unalloyed joy and relief” (14), for example, is belied by editorial writers and radio commentators who instantly pointed out that American cities now faced the same possible fate as Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Ranging well beyond fallout shelters, Rose discusses nuclear themes in popular culture, the evolution of U.S. nuclear strategy, Russian civil defense, the diplomacy of the Cuban missile crisis, and other matters. While all these topics relate to the fallout-shelter debate, the book’s scope, and Rose’s tendency to shift rather abruptly from subject to subject, creates a somewhat disjointed effect and works against chronological coherence.
But the book’s strengths far outweigh the drawbacks. (Full disclosure: I provided a jacket blurb.) Even when treating familiar material, or ranging beyond his stated subject, Rose invariably offers fresh insights and arresting new evidence. Citing extensive primary sources and relevant secondary works, he traces Washington’s evolving civil-defense policy, including the late 1950s shift from population-dispersal programs to a fallout-shelter approach, as advocated by California congressman Chet Holifield, a key figure in civil-defense history. Rose also discusses the civil-defense debates that raged in the government, the media, and the religious press, as well as the role of science-fiction stories, movies, Mad magazine, and even folk singers, in shaping popular assessments of the survivability of nuclear war. (One of Bob Dylan’s earliest songs, “Let Me Die in My Footsteps” of 1962, protested the Kennedy administration’s fallout-shelter campaign.)
Rose writes well, with a good eye for the telling phrase and revealing example. Without yielding to the ridicule that his evidence sometimes invites, he makes clear the bizarre nature of many proposals. He reports, for example, the Stanford researcher who countered the argument that fallout shelters were too expensive by suggesting that low-income families could create instant shelters by buying clunker cars from junkyards and burying them in their backyards—an idea, Rose observes, guaranteed to horrify any parents who had taken long car trips with their kids.
One Nation Underground revisits a fast-receding era of U.S. history that seems like ancient history to today’s undergraduates. Along with Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (1988); Allan Winkler’s Life Under a Cloud: American Anxiety About the Atom (1993); Guy Oakes’s [End Page 250] The Imaginary War: Civil Defense and American Cold War Culture (1994); Laura McEnaney’s Civil Defense Begins at Home: Militarization Meets Everyday Life in the Fifties (2000), and other works, it clearly belongs in any core library on the domestic social history of the Cold War.
Rose is particularly good on the critics of the government’s often incoherent and inherently implausible civil-defense policies, including physicists like Harold Urey, biological scientists...