Intelligence reports to the effect that North Korea has produced a miniature nuclear warhead that can be placed inside its missiles jolts the historian to relive a past that most Americans don’t recall. It was on Aug. 22, 1953, that the Soviet Union detonated its first hydrogen bomb. Like most Augusts in the nation’s capital, the summer heat had driven officialdom from the city. As one newspaper put it: “There was a minimum of official comment, with President [Dwight] Eisenhower and most lawmakers out of town on vacation, and no sign that there would be any immediate change in United States policy.”
Still, debate soon raged in the press and on Capitol Hill about what America should do as a result of the Soviets getting the H-bomb. Some analysts suggested a no-worry stance on the grounds that the Soviets didn’t have the wherewithal actually to deliver a bomb to a faraway target. Others suggested boosting research and weaponry, and still others, such as Sen. Charles Potter, Michigan Republican, pointed the blame finger: Soviet technology was attributable to espionage committed in this country.
A bigger bombshell came in 1957 when a committee appointed by Eisenhower released a report calling for not only increased military spending, but $30 billion for the building of fallout shelters in the event of a nuclear attack. Called the Gaither Report, after its chairman, H. Rowan Gaither, head of the Ford Foundation, Ike’s administration paid little heed, in part, because the U-2 spy planes indicated that Soviet nuclear progress appeared minimal.
If all this has a familiar ring in view of the current North Korean threat, there is a notable difference: Fallout shelters by private Americans were being built, encouraged in part by the little-known Federal Civil Defense Administration created during Ike’s years. I was a teenager growing up in Florida at the time and recall drills my school had in the event of a nuclear attack. And a couple of my friends’ parents had shelters of sorts that wouldn’t pass muster because the Sunshine State’s sandy, watery soil prevented building an underground retreat.
President John F. Kennedy, more so than Ike, encouraged the building of more shelters. “We owe that kind of insurance to our families and our country,” JFK said on Oct. 6, 1961. “The time to start is now. In the coming months, I hope to let every citizen know what steps he can take without delay to protect his family in case of attack. I know you would not want to do less.”
Of course, even a fallout shelter, it was soon reckoned, was an implausible resort. One needed thick concrete, depth, ventilation, power, water, sanitation and food. And even in the best of nuclear circumstances, exit from the shelter could be for only short periods — a few hours at most. And not until, it was estimated, at least two weeks had passed after an attack.
But the $30 billion for public and private shelters that the Gaither Report had recommended didn’t materialize. Congress only appropriated $169 billion of the $209 billion that JFK had urged, and much of that money was spent not on cities where bombs, it was believed, would destroy virtually everyone, but in rural areas. Some stand today as monuments to futility, such as the one in Los Altos, Calif., near San Francisco. Some 15 feet deep, the shelter was 25 by 48 feet, designed to accommodate 96 people.
The shelter effort got some publicity as, for example, on the cover of Life magazine on Jan. 12, 1962, but after the Cuban missile crisis was eased later that year, the nuclear worry faded. Also getting publicity was the really big federal shelter in Greenbrier, W.Va., designed to hold all members of Congress — and about which secrecy still abounds.
Authors and movie makers trying to bring home the relevance of nuclear catastrophe found an unreceptive audience, as illustrated by the film, “On the Beach,” based on the book by Nevil Shute and released in 1959. Directed by Stanley Kramer with a star-studded cast — Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins — the movie dealt with the few remaining survivors of nuclear war in 1964. They’re in Australia where in a few months radiation clouds will eventually reach them. There the last remaining nuclear submarine, the USS Sawfish, picks up a Morse code signal emanating from the West Coast of the United States.
So the submarine ventures to San Francisco, then San Diego, and no life could be detected. The rest of the film is predictable. All die, by suicide or radiation.
The film lost $700,000 — a big sum in those days — with audiences unmoved by the likelihood of such a catastrophe. Yet it had a moral, as one critic wrote: ” ‘On the Beach’ should be required viewing for every politician who takes an oath of office, the globe around, just to be certain.”
• Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.
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