Impetus and Impotence

Civil defense remained a peripheral concern for most Washingtonians at the dawn of the scariest decade of the Cold War. Although fear of the Bomb permeated the media and contemporary popular culture, the fallout shelter remained a novelty in D.C. In 1960, the District of Columbia Office of Civil Defense (DCD) headquarters at 4820 Howard Street NW received a mere five or six requests per week for the free instructional booklet entitled “The Family Fallout Shelter.” Only about 200 family fallout shelters had been built in the D.C. metropolitan area. However, following President John F. Kennedy’s address on the Berlin Crisis on July 25, 1961, nervous Washingtonians requested over 1,000 copies of “The Family Fallout Shelter” from the DCD in the first three days following his speech. [i] But private family shelters were hardly adequate to protect a large urban population. The climax of the Cold War would precipitate hundreds of public fallout shelters in the District, despite their uselessness in the event of a direct attack. In the face of almost certain annihilation should the bombs fall on Washington, the DCD chose to focus on the fallout shelter as the best means to overcome the agency’s inability to protect the local population from the legitimate threats the city faced.


Civil Defense Logo

The Federal Civil Defense Act established the civil defense administration in the executive branch in 1950. A decade later, the President assigned federal civil defense responsibilities to the Secretary of Defense in 1961, who established the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) to carry out operations.[ii] As stated by the OCD, the basic goal of civil defense was “the survival of the American population in the event of nuclear attack on the United States.”  However, while the OCD recognized that civil defense could not prevent the immediate death and destruction from a nuclear attack, it could prepare survivors for life post-attack with measures such as fallout shelters.[iii] Though the federal government would initiate the national fallout shelter program, state and local governments carried out much of its implementation.  The Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950 established a joint responsibility for civil defense by both federal and state governments.  Lawmakers reasoned that since disasters can occur in isolated localities, preparations should be made at local levels.[iv] As such, DCD was highly involved in shelter preparation in the city and the impetus behind the program was fundamentally local.

Since its formation by act of Congress in 1950, the DCD struggled to prepare Washington for nuclear war. The DCD organized volunteers, conducted drills, and sponsored public awareness campaigns throughout the 1950s, but because of public apathy, skeleton staff, deficient funding, and inconsistent federal guidance “civil defense in Washington existed mostly in the DCD’s elaborate manuals.”[v] DCD’s impotence was no secret. In 1956, John Fondahl, director of the DCD, called the event of a nuclear attack on Washington “pretty near hopeless.” At odds with his own DCD guidelines, Fondahl publicly stated that no structure within five miles of a hydrogen bomb could provide protection, and basements could only afford five to ten percent shielding. “No one realizes more clearly than the Office of Civil Defense how inadequate preparations are in the District of Columbia to cope with any Civil Defense Emergency,” he lamented. [vi] Even by 1960, no public building in the District had been modified to provide fallout protection and the city had just issued its first permit for a home fallout shelter.[vii]

As far as DCD plans go, fallout shelters seemed the best of bad options when compared to other Washington civil defense schemes. In the 1950s, DCD drafted an evacuation plan for the city to be implemented in case of attack. George Rodericks, successor to Fondahl as director of the DCD in 1959, admitted the plan was “unrealistic.”[viii] The plan stipulated the evacuation of the city if a warning of an attack was given more than one hour in advance, even though the DCD estimated that it would take a minimum of seven hours to evacuate the capital under ideal conditions. Evacuation was preposterous considering that an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) attack would at best afford a warning time of 15 minutes. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara openly questioned the evacuation of the city if an attack was close at hand, suggesting that if an attack was less than 24 hours away, D.C. residents might do better seeking shelter where they were rather than commit “mass suicide” by fleeing the city. Regardless of the evacuation plan, even if residents should escape the blast and heat effects of the bombs, Rodericks stressed that nuclear fallout would endanger the evacuees unless protected by shelters. [ix] While factors such as exact location, weapon strength, and duration of attack could not be predicted, the nation could prepare for the aftermath and attendant fallout. Probability studies by the Department of Defense concluded that tens of millions of people would survive a nuclear blast but would later suffer exposure to fallout radiation.  For the investment involved, a fallout shelter system provided greater potential for survival than any other strategic defense mechanism.[x] Safeguarding the population of a targeted city was a near impossible undertaking, but protecting citizens from fallout resulting from an attack somewhere else—that was a manageable task America’s civil defense planners could get behind.

In the midst of the Berlin Crisis in July of 1961 and at the behest of President Kennedy, Congress appropriated $207.6 million to identify and mark spaces in existing buildings for fallout shelters, stock the shelters with food and other supplies, improve air-raid warning systems, and include space for shelters in new Federal buildings. [xi] With these funds, the Office of Civil Defense, assisted by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Navy’s Bureau of Yards and Docks began organizing surveys to identify possible fallout shelter spaces for 104 million Americans in existing structures.[xii] Soon after civil defense was reorganized under the auspices of the Department of the Defense in July of 1961, McNamara asserted that the first priority in any national civil defense plan should be given to the provision of adequate protection from fallout. [xiii] Rodericks agreed. “Fallout,” said the director of DCD, “is the greatest threat for the country, but also the easiest thing to protect ourselves against. It is within our means; we need the will.” [xiv] A fallout shelter program was about the only significant civil defense initiative within the means of DCD. Civil defense planners had long since deemed blast shelters unfeasible due to the mammoth scale and cost any serious undertaking would entail. In October of 1961, while speaking to the need of fallout shelters located in schools, Rodericks emphasized that the shelters would not protect against blast or thermal radiation and emphasized that he was not advocating for “exotic, underground caverns” that could do so. Rather, the shelters DCD proposed would meet the minimal standards to protect against fallout, a standard the average man could meet in his basement for $200.[xv] Dismissing the threat of a direct attack, Rodericks feebly insisted that there “really wouldn’t be much point” for the Soviets to attack Washington (since the president and other leaders would evacuate in advance), making citywide fallout shelters essential.[xvi]

Click the image for some Cold War hysteria.

DCD began a citywide fallout shelter survey in 1961 to find suitable structures in which to locate shelters. Although Rodericks gushed that the “tempo of public interest in Civil Defense continues to increase at a rate never before demonstrated in this city,” DCD’s efforts remained too slow for some Washingtonians, some of whom were ready to take civil defense efforts into their own hands. [xvii] Wallace and Barbara Luchs opened their newly finished home shelter at 3633 Appleton Street NW for public tours. Heiress and socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post built and stocked five fallout shelters at her Hillwood estate at a cost of $20,000.[xviii] The Woman’s National Democratic Club considered investing $14,000 in a shelter in the basement of their Dupont clubhouse, and was only deterred when the D.C. officials pointed out the likelihood that a public shelter would be established in the nearby old streetcar tunnel underneath Dupont Circle.[xix] But for others, the urgent need for shelters affording more than fallout protection trumped official reassurances. In January of 1962, the D.C. government rejected a local man’s proposal to build a 100-person community shelter under his front lawn and sidewalk at 3803 Military Road NW. Joseph Parry-Hill, a father of eight, said his shelter would have offered 10 times the protection of the family shelter plans released by the federal government. “I’m damned sore,” he said. “It’s taken years for these defense people to even recognize the need for shelters.” Parry-Hill had a petition signed by most of the residents on his block favoring the construction of his shelter. An official explained that the DCD was in the process of surveying available shelter sites and was as yet without a policy setting forth minimum criteria for public shelters, and suggested to Parry-Hill that he apply for a permit to build a private shelter. “Nothing doing,” said Parry-Hill.  “Private shelters are a selfish, immoral approach to the problem.”[xx] Private shelters were also an unrealistic means to protect a large urban population. Public shelters were on the way.

CONTINUE READING: 2: The Public Fallout Shelter

[i] “D.C. School Shelter Adequacy Reviewed,” The Washington Post, November 10, 1961, p. C2.

[ii] Civil Defense 1965 MP-30, Washington D.C.: United States Department of Defense, Office of Civil Defense, 1965, 12.

[iii] Civil Defense 1965 MP-30, Washington D.C.: United States Department of Defense, Office of Civil Defense, 1965, 7.

[iv] Civil Defense 1965 MP-30, Washington D.C.: United States Department of Defense, Office of Civil Defense, 1965, 11.

[v] Krugler, 5, 138, 172.

[vi] Krugler, 138.

[vii] Krugler, 172.

[ix] “New Civil Defense Plan Maps D.C. Evacuation,” The Washington Post, July 30, 1961, p. B1.

[x] Civil Defense 1965 MP-30, Washington D.C.: United States Department of Defense, Office of Civil Defense, 1965, 7.

[xi] “New Civil Defense Plan Maps D.C. Evacuation,” The Washington Post, July 30, 1961, p. B1.

[xii] Krugler, 171.

[xiii] “Surveys Planned Here On Fallout Shelter Sites,” The Washington Post, August 3, 1961, p. A2.

[xiv] “School Fallout Shelters a Must,” The Washington Post, October 12, 1961, p. B10.

[xv] “School Fallout Shelters a Must,” The Washington Post, October 12, 1961, p. B10.

[xvi] Krugler, 184.

[xvii] Krugler, 172

“Firm’s Help In Shelter Study Asked,” The Washington Post, October 19, 1961, p. D1.

[xviii] Krugler, 172.

[xix] “Fall-Out Shelter Waits for Survey,” The Washington Post, October 4, 1961, p. C3.

[xx] “D.C. Rejects 100-Person Shelter Plan,” The Washington Post, January 14, 1962, p. A3.




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