Decline of Civil Defense in D.C.

Types of interior and exterior fallout shelter signs.

In March of 1963, years before DCD’s fallout shelter efforts reached their apex, The Post already noted “diminishing public interests in the national civil defense program.” [i] Nevertheless, fallout shelter establishment would continue in Washington and across the nation through the rest of the decade. As of April 1965, 151,000 structures had been identified in the national fallout shelter survey as meeting the minimum requirements for fallout shelter protection. These structures could potentially house more than 131,000,000 people. Sixty percent of the shelters were in cities with populations of more than 250,000 people.[ii] By the close of the 1960s, fallout shelter spaces for 46 million people were marked with the black and yellow signs in American cities.[iii] But enthusiasm for civil defense was on the wane. DCD abandoned its volunteer programs by the mid-1960s and by the 1970s, public apathy was pervasive. As indicative of the decline in public awareness, a 90-second test of Washington air raid sirens in July of 1972 appeared “to make absolutely no difference to anyone.” The fears of a decade previous had faded. “The public has refused to become overly educated about civil defense during times of peace,” said one DCD official. “They only get concerned when things get tough.”[iv] Tough times seemed past with Détente, and the Federal government began phasing out funding for stocking shelters in the early 1970s.[v]

By the mid-1970s, civil defense was all but forgotten in D.C. The DCD had been recast as the Office Emergency Preparedness, and now dealt almost exclusively with preparing for natural disasters and crowd control for parades and demonstrations.[vi] The Post would write of D.C. shelters as a historical curiosity, reminding readers of the vintage crackers, portable toilets, water drums, and tins of rock candy moldering in basements across the city. [vii] But some found utility in the old shelter stock. In 1974, twenty tons of whole-wheat crackers—fallout shelter rations baked in 1962—were removed from the streetcar tunnel shelter beneath Dupont Circle and sent to Bangladesh to feed victims of monsoon floods. Street people had also made a home of at least one shelter among the stacks of old cots, mattresses, stretchers, and toilets. [viii] Hundreds of other District shelters were dismantled and forgotten as the years progressed, the interior and basement spaces retaken for other purposes, and the provisions eventually discarded.

Today, fallout shelter signs are the only remains of a decade of civil defense preparations in Washington.

[i] “673 Buildings Licensed As Fallout Shelters Here,” The Washington Post, March 28, 1963, p. B2.

[ii] Civil Defense 1965 MP-30, Washington D.C.: United States Department of Defense, Office of Civil Defense, 1965, 15.

[iii] Krugler, 172.

[iv] “Public Is Indifferent to Tests of Air Raid Sirens,” The Washington Post, July 16, 1972, p. D7.

[v] “Nuclear Fallout Shelters Are Persisting Despite World Détente,” The Washington Post, November 16, 1972, p. G6.

[vi] Krugler, 184.

[vii] “Bangladesh Hungry to Get Biscuits Kept in CD Tunnel,” The Washington Post, September 14, 1974, p. D1.

[viii] “Bangladesh Hungry to Get Biscuits Kept in CD Tunnel,” The Washington Post, September 14, 1974, p. D1.


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