The rise and fall of the American fallout shelter


“4…3…2…1”
“T-Zero!” This is the Operation Ivy nuclear test in
1952. And this is using a level for really nice
masonry on your fallout shelter. It’s from 1960’s Walt Builds a Family
Fallout Shelter. The idea was that you’d deck out your basement
so you’d be safe when the bomb went off and
this happened. “Well, this finishes my fallout shelter.” Yes, Walt is smoking a pipe. The Federal agency that made this film,
and the agencies that preceded it, helped craft the domestic response to nuclear
armageddon in the 1950s and ‘60s. Fallout shelters like these were an inescapable
part of Cold War culture in America, promising a place to hide from the radioactive fallout. Federal agencies promoted them, Presidents
advocated them, and the effects are still around today. This is the garage in my urban, Washington
DC apartment building. And it’s a designated fallout shelter. That’s the sign. Right here. How am I pointing? There were almost a thousand designated fallout
shelters in Washington, DC, and they’re a reminder of the fallout shelter boom, both
in public fallout shelters like this one, and in private ones where people gave a lot
of tours, like this one. “Well folks, I’m glad you could come down
to see my fallout shelter. Just finished painting it last night.” Fallout culture wasn’t just awkward, though
it was that. “Say, isn’t this nice?” It poses some questions: like where did this
stuff come from? And were duck and cover drills,
and desk crouching, and canned water,
and fallout shelters worth the Cold War paranoia they helped fuel? How did this happen? “Fortunately, there are means of protecting
ourselves.” And would any of it have actually worked? “Folks, here is a message from the honorable
Leo A. Hoegh, director of Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization.” “You’ve just seen how Walt has built a
family fallout shelter in his own home.” “No home in America is modern without a
family fallout shelter. This is the nuclear age.” To understand how we reached that vision of
bunkered down modernity, you have to understand the timeline of Civil Defense. The 1950s and early 60s weren’t just one
period — they were a few different eras that we mush together because of Cold War
kitsch. Timing matters. In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt created a pre-nuclear
council that coordinated some emergency programs. As World War II heated up, Civil Defense grew,
turning into the Office of Civil Defense Planning. In 1949, civil defense became more urgent
when the Soviet Union tested a nuclear bomb. The stakes became higher. So after some more bureaucratic shifts, Congress
created the Federal Civil Defense Administration, which was meant to help guide the states in
defense at home. And that’s the name you see at the beginning
of 1951’s “Duck and Cover.” “There was a turtle by the name of Bert,
and Bert the Turtle was very alert. When danger threatened him he never got hurt,
he knew just what to do. He ducked…and covered…ducked…and covered…” As stupid as that seems, a movie about a nuclear
paranoiac turtle named Bert wasn’t that foolish. Ducking and covering would help provide some
protection. At the time, the Soviet nuclear threat was
terrifying but their bomb was relatively limited in range and would be dropped by a plane,
which meant we’d see them coming. “You may be in your schoolyard playing when
the signal comes.” Running inside might make a difference. Or even ducking and covering. But that explosion in the beginning of this
video? That actually came after “Duck and Cover.” It’s from the United States’ 1952 test
of the hydrogen bomb, which was more powerful than any weapon that came before it. “Remember those final last seconds? “Fiver, four, three, two, one, t-zero.” “This is the largest fireball ever produced. At its maximum limit it measures about three
and one quarters mile in diameter….the fireball alone would engulf about one quarter of the
island of Manhattan.” “Later figures put the Mike yield at ten
megatons, or about 10,000 kilotons. This means there was more energy released
in this one shot, roughly 10 times more than in all previous atomic blasts combined, including
probably those of Russian origin. Or to put it another way, four times more
power in this one shot than in all the high explosives dropped by the entire Anglo-American
air force on Germany and the occupied countries during the last war.” Then the Soviets claimed to have tested their
own hydrogen bomb in 1953, and “Duck and Cover” became outdated. The FCDA questioned its own relevance. Coupled with the Eisenhower Administration’s
preference for evacuation and military deterrence, the organization’s head briefly considered
its elimination. But another hydrogen bomb test in 1954 revealed
a greater threat. “The width of the fireball at this time
about three seconds after detonation was four miles.” But it was the fallout Americans noticed. “It is now known that fallout from the larger
Castle shots blanketed areas of more than 5,000 square miles with radioactive material
that would have been lethal to unprotected personnel.” In America, this new awareness of fallout
forced Civil Defense to pivot. “You need to know about fallout.” “What is this fallout anyhow? Just bits of radioactive matter fall out of
the mushroom cloud of the nuclear explosion and settle on the ground.” The FCDA and subsequent offices of civil defense
recommended finding refuge. “The goal is adequate fallout shelter space
for every man, woman, and child.” They started with recommendations to evacuate
to public fallout shelters. But the 1957 Soviet development of an intercontinental
ballistic missile made even evacuation…outdated. Unlike in the era of planes, there’d be
little warning of a strike. There were big fallout shelter proposals. But the Eisenhower administration balked at
charts like this one from 1957’s Gaither Report. The sweet spot for fallout protection, seen
here, would cost an untenable $25 billion. The government didn’t want to pay that,
but they also couldn’t kill civil defense. In 1958, Eisenhower’s National Shelter Policy
was simple: do it yourself, because we don’t want to bother. The result? Telling people to build their own fallout
shelters, like in this 1960 film. “We all have a responsibility to help.” “Every member of the family should understand
radioactive fallout and how to protect himself from it.” That paired with those aw-shucks-nuclear-devastation-of-everything-we-know-and-love
preparation videos, like Walt’s. “If we should ever have a nuclear war, we
could have a heavy fallout even though we weren’t anywheres near the target area.” But it took one last push to get us here. “From the White House in Washington DC,
we bring you an address from the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy.” “An attack upon that city will be regarded
as an attack upon us all.” John F. Kennedy’s 1961 speech about the
Soviet blockade of West Berlin intensified the Cold War. Military growth was a goal, but the speech
was also a platform to announce a shift in civil defense policy. “Tomorrow I am requesting of the Congress
new funds for the following immediate objectives.” “To identify and mark space in existing
structures, public and private, that could be used for fallout shelters in case of attack….”
Kennedy requested the civil defense budget increase to about $207 million, which was
much less than the $25 billion recommended in the Gaither Report. But it did mark a change in emphasis. It was part preparation, part message to the
Soviet Union that the US could survive an attack. He reorganized the agency yet again. The government had stocked a number of public
fallout shelters, though the effort was scattershot. Some people had made their own home versions. “Then you can rest assured that no matter
what the fallout threat in the future, you and your family will be ready for it.” So would any of this have actually worked? Let’s go upstairs. In 1961, the Soviets tested Tsar Bomba, the
largest bomb…ever. It was more than 50 megatons. Historian Alex Wellerstein created a tool
called Nuke Map that lets you simulate what historical nuclear bombs would look like had
they detonated over various cities. Put in Tsar Bomba and Washington DC, and you
get this. The entire city would be gone, destroyed. The initial blast, the subsequent firestorm…forget
about radioactive fallout. That fallout shelter in my basement would
not exist. All those urban fallout shelters would probably
collapse in a massive nuclear exchange. And beyond those cities? “More than 100 million people living well
beyond the destructive range of blast and heat could be subjected to dangerous or deadly
amounts of radiation from fallout.” Walt out in the suburbs might survive in his
fallout shelter. But he’d emerge in a country where all the
major metropolitan areas were husks. This chart shows the decline in civil defense
spending during the Johnson administration, due both to JFK’s assassination and the
buildup in Vietnam. Civil defense agencies limped along with enough
money to survive and run programs, publish pamphlets, and make some videos. But they didn’t make a meaningful commitment
to a fallout-sheltered nation. The fallout shelter was a place to hide from
the bomb, and radioactivity. But it was also a place to hide from the truth
that there was no good plan. There were only different ways to wait. “This is the nuclear age.” So if hanging out with Bert the turtle didn’t depress you too much, we’ve made another video where I watch the entirety of “Duck and Cover, provide some additional research and an opportunity to laugh at those kids diving into the floor.

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