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Journal of Cold War Studies 5.3 (2003) 124-126

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Kenneth D. Rose, One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2001. 312 pp. $30.00.

Kenneth Rose's One Nation Underground explores U.S. nuclear history from the bottom up—literally. He examines the fallout shelter not as Cold War kitsch but as Cold War artifact, a subterranean physical space in which policymakers and citizens alike played out their apocalyptic fears, political interests, and moral quandaries. Rose helps us understand that in the anxious years of the Berlin and Cuban missile crises, the fallout shelter was less a real protective device than a malleable metaphor about the U.S. nuclear predicament. "Like few other icons," Rose argues, "the fallout shelter was a conundrum, a riddle whose meaning was always just beyond reach" (p.213). Rose tries to solve this riddle by excavating the most important political, scientific, and popular cultural debates of the 1950s and 1960s, the decades in which Americans had to reconcile themselves to the real possibility of nuclear war.

Rose begins his narrative by reviewing the development of Cold War diplomacy and nuclear defense policies in the years following World War Two. Some of this is familiar territory, but it provides important background material for the general reader. In line with the findings of recent scholarship on the nuclear age, Rose shows that scientific research, congressional investigation, and bureaucratic expansion proceeded apace ten years after Hiroshima, but none of it yielded a coherent civil defense program. Neither the Truman nor the Eisenhower administration could resolve the basic technological or logistical problems: Blast shelters could not spare people from increasingly powerful bombs, and evacuation from city to suburb to countryside was proven a failure with each trial run. By 1955 the revelation that radioactive fallout could not be safely contained in the blast area exposed the futility of government proposals for blast shelters and evacuation. Rose pointedly reminds readers of some of the ridiculous advice disseminated after this revelation: Val Peterson, the head of the U.S. civil defense agency, proposed that fleeing urbanites could escape fallout exposure by building a roadside trench, covering it with tar paper, and huddling underneath until the air cleared (p.31).

One Nation Underground turns from the fanciful scenarios of defense planners to the disaster plots of postwar multimedia, and this purposeful segue reveals that the producers of nuclear-age fiction, comic books, and B movies shared the doomsday [End Page 124] preoccupations of those in the civil defense bureaucracy. Both camps were wrestling with essential questions about human behavior during and after nuclear attack. Rose identifies a "nuclear apocalyptic," a "distinctive subgenre of speculative literature" (p.38) that explored life after nuclear attack, replete with grisly images of oozing wounds and burned corpses littering the landscape. Most of this literature probed the moral and philosophical dilemmas that would emerge from the scarcity of resources and general social chaos of a post-attack society. Rose smartly points out that this kind of dystopian speculation was not just the stuff of underground magazines. Mainstream newspapers appropriated the conventions of science fiction to spin their own apocalyptic tales to wider audiences. Citing examples from Collier's,Good Housekeeping, and the Los Angeles Times, Rose demonstrates that journalists' hypothetical accounts were often some of the scariest facsimiles of doomsday in circulation. In the end, Rose contends, the "nuclear apocalyptic" literature freighted the shelter debate "with a distinctive millenarian urgency" (p.38), but it did not weigh heavily on those who made policy. And yet, within the apocalyptic literature, Rose suggests, lay a "populist attack on a political establishment that insisted on maintaining a dangerous, even insane, strategy" (p.76) of nuclear annihilation, a strategy that might have generated a sort of people's protest against the notion of burrowing underground.

Rose spends considerable time describing the symbolic politics of the fallout shelter and the implications of moving a polyglot population underground. Critics argued that a massive shelter program would signify to other countries either...