Home » An Examination of the Causes, Morality, and Demise of American Civil Defense

An Examination of the Causes, Morality, and Demise of American Civil Defense

While there are conflicting and overlapping reasons as to why civil defense became an important issue in America in the 1950s and 1960s, the fact remains that Americans became obsessed with civil protection and the threat of thermonuclear war. This took the form of general preparation for an attack, such as the construction of bomb shelters, stockpiling of food supplies, perfecting emergency drills in schools and homes, and even forming militias like the notorious Minute-men which prepared for a guerrilla war against a possible post-nuclear Soviet invasion of the United States.

In a very interesting argument, Elaine Tyler May links the rise of civil defense to the growing cult of domesticity. She shows that alarm pertaining to the breakdown of the traditional family went hand in hand with the larger fear of American nuclear annihilation. May argues that as a result, civil defense measures were assessed to combat both fears simultaneously. Margot Henriksen contends that this trend of civil defense, and particularly the building of individual bomb shelters, eventually led to a general reexamination of the ethics of civil defense and the morality of nuclear war.

Henriksen shows that both a general long-term apathy toward civil defense, as well as the ethical examination of shelter techniques, led to the quick demise of American civil defense. In a very profound article, Elaine Tyler May argues that profound connections existed among anxieties over sexual roles, the cold war, and a burgeoning family ideology (Tyler 153). After World War II, women were urged, either discretely or explicitly, by government agencies, private interests, and the popular media, to get married and to observe the role of homemaker.

But in order to give the women a sense of national purpose, (analogous of course to the public role that women held in wartime defense industries), women were enlisted in the program of Home Protection and Safety developed by Jean Wood Fuller of the newly created Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA). Women were encouraged to draw upon their natural domestic capabilities to provide a service in the home that corresponded to the realities of the nuclear age. Home nursing, May explains, was one important area.

Mothers could learn first aid in order to enhance and professionalize their nurturing role. In the event of a nuclear attack, they would then, presumably, be equipped to tend to injured family members (155). Basically, the FCDA promoted the idea that traditionally feminine virtues could be assessed, and even required, in the face of the unthinkable. Women were urged to shop and to stock shelters and pantries in case of an emergency; popular advertisements depicted women as the central figure in the new nuclear home.

Polls and studies of the time indicated that peoples concerns lay not only in the problems associated with nuclear attack, but also the disruption of the traditional family and common gender roles. Even more so, stable family life not only seemed necessary to national security, civil defense, and the struggle for supremacy over the Soviet Union; it also promised to connect the traditions of the past with the uncertainties of the present and the future (161). Central to this connection was the woman, the wife and the safe suburban home; Jean Fuller and the NCDA made sure that this popular image became socially entrenched.

The uncertainties of the future that May alluded to, while having existed in the American consciousness since Hiroshima, and more recently revived in the Bikini island blast, were popularized by the promoters of civil defense, and Americas vulnerability to nuclear attack was made clear. Sponsored by government agencies like the FCDA or by independent scientists, civil defense measures emphasized the tremendous destructive potential of a nuclear weapon for an unprotected society (Henriksen 92).

But civil defense was a new concept for the majority of Americans, having always lived with the benefit of geographic security. Much of the public, at first unreceptive to the concept, was led to believe that Americans were in grave danger from atomic attack and from their own apathy about that danger Sudden attack, the possibility of death, and even complete apocalypse, was omnipresent. Survival mandated facing these dangers and preparing for retreat underground (93).

But Henriksen is quick to point out that civil defense proponents both educated and panicked the American populace. As a result, the frightening scenario outlined by its proponents can be partially implicated in the continued American apathy and disdain for civil defense. Eisenhowers disposition reflected the general mood of American society at large, one in which air sirens were more often ignored than heeded. Even after the launch of Sputnik and the subsequent national hysteria that prevailed, Eisenhower did not act to increase civil defense and shelter spending (106).

By 1957, the periodical The Nation claimed that civil defense was a dead issue, asserting that the successful invention of Soviet Inter-continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), which could carry a nuclear warhead and strike an American target within thirty minutes, ended the advantages that were once seen to have been possible through civil defense measures like mass evacuations. Time was no longer on the side of the Americans who would now only have minutes to prepare for the worst.

As a result of this thinking, the concept of nuclear war became, strangely, even more fatalistic: The forces backing a more aggressive stance in the cold war were countered by those now openly proclaiming the apocalyptic reality of the cold war life (194). A sector of the American populace, represented by Nevil Shutes novel On the Beach (in which atomic war survivors in the Southern hemisphere contemplate their inevitable deaths by radiation), became willing to accept and face the consequences of atomic war, primarily that no one would survive or would want to survive (194).

Nevertheless, America did not become entirely unresponsive to the dangers of the atomic world. John F. Kennedy, using the 1961-1962 Berlin crisis as a pretext for ending atomic apathy, urged the country in a nationally televised address to prepare for atomic confrontation by building family fallout shelters without delay. As the crisis intensified and was captured by the media, most memorably through Time magazines image of a dictating Khrushchev framed by a mushroom cloud, the American population became more intimately aware of the dangers of atomic war.

This is precisely what Kennedy wanted; delivered in the midst of the Berlin crisis, Kennedys civil defense speech achieved a public response that exceeded all expectations the obstacles of apathy, complacence, and contempt came tumbling down, and the nation experienced a sort of mass hysteria peculiar to the atomic age (202). As a result, a new outlook arose to challenge what had become known as Armageddon attitude, the popular belief that nuclear war meant the complete annihilation of the human species.

Now it was assumed that nuclear war could be prepared for and casualties could be minimized, and this belief allowed for the fallout shelter mayhem that was witnessed in the following months. Soon after the frenzy began, a debate on the ethics of fallout shelters became common; one man even exclaiming that he would mount a machine gun on top of his shelter in order to keep those neighbors away that hadnt prepared themselves. But initially, the moral debate was overshadowed by the shelter hysteria that was prevalent in late 1961.

Far from a society that was in the grip of a tremendous moral dilemma, triumphant in these summer and early fall months [of 1961] was a sort of panicked but firm determination to come to terms with civil defense and the likelihood of thermonuclear war (205). But as the craze reached fever pitch, symbolized by the incredible swelling of the Minute-man militia organization to 2400 members in a matter of days, extremist attitudes and actions led to an increase in the debate over the morality of shelters and nuclear war in general.

A large public opposition quickly grew, comprised of peace groups, academics, students, scientists and an increasing number of politicians. Specifically, Henriksen stresses that anthropologist Margaret Meads Newsweek article in November 1961 was a major turning point in the reaction against civil defense. Mead voiced her own concerns through the opinions of shocked Europeans, who observed an American civil defense focused not on the protection of community but reflecting only the violent and selfish tendencies of the American people.

In addition, Mead criticized the individual shelters as being visibly class and race biased. However, despite her open cynicism, [Mead] saw the opportunity to use the debate about shelters as a staring point for stimulating a morally regenerated and more generous America (217). The turmoil caused by the debate, and the rift and animosity that it created between neighbors, completely devalued the civil defense plan from the political and administrative point of view. In 1963, Kennedy requested $695 million for his civil defense program but received only $80. million from the House Appropriations Committee, a mere fraction of his objective (233). Margot Henriksen asserts that this conveys the impact of the rebellion on Kennedys fallout shelter campaign. In place of the cultural and societal paranoia that existed briefly, a new conception of society and culture that rejected the immorality and insanity of Americas nuclear policy was constructed (223). The politics of dissent, so lacking in the 1950s, and so indicative of the history of the 1960s, had effectively begun.

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