I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.

Dwight D. Eisenhower[1]

[Everybody here seems to have writer’s block, except for Fred. He called the other day and said he wanted to do a piece on bomb shelters. You never know what Fred’s going to say, so normally I don’t agree until I’ve seen a draft, or at least an outline. This time, however, there were no other volunteers, so I made an exception. But never fear, dear reader, I will maintain some control by asking questions as we go along. So let’s hear what Fred has to say.]

Thanks G. I’m going to talk about the 1950’s, when our economy was on a roll and the international headlines were very, very scary. Back then we had just come out of World War II, but had gotten ourselves involved in another war in Korea. Our great enemies were the Soviet Union and the Chinese, both of whom were our allies during WW II. The rivalry was bad enough, but at the same time we, and they, were developing a new class of weapons that far exceeded the destructive capability of anything we used in WW II. I’m speaking, of course, of nuclear and thermonuclear bombs, warheads, missiles and the like.

Between 1945 and today we, the Russians, the French, the Chinese and some others tested nuclear weapons 2,121 times.[2] Most tests were in the open air and occurred in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The Russians hold the record for the biggest explosion, the so-called Tsar Bomba[3] in 1961. But this was and is more than just posturing to show who had the bigger bombs. Serious intellectuals were (and no doubt still are) plotting tactics and strategies for surviving the next (and probably first nuclear) war. Some of the early strategies surfaced in 1960, so the public had a general idea of what was up.

[You’re talking, of course, about On Thermonuclear War[4], a very influential book back then. I read it, and it was alarming.]

You’re correct, on all points. The book popularized the notion of ‘thinking about the unthinkable,” i.e. dispassionately considering possible scenarios – things that might happen – and how the United States might survive them. It’s very long, about 650 pages, and it’s all words, numbers and tables; no pictures. Nevertheless, some estimates do pop out. The author hypothesized that, if we were lucky, only 500 nuclear bombs, etc. might hit our homeland; if we were unlucky, perhaps 2000.[5] Today that would be enough to hit every major city in the U.S 14.7 to 58.8 times[6]. Back then potential casualties from an unexpected attack were estimated at 50 to 80 million deaths.[7]

Then, of course, there was the problem of fallout. Nuclear weapons, when they explode, produce radioactive isotopes, including cesium-137, strontium 90 and carbon-14. The author concluded that, based on the information he had, increased background radiation might shorten the survivors’ lives by from 3.5 days to 10 years, depending upon the dose over time.[8] The effects of radiation could be ameliorated, of course, by a strong decontamination program, if enough people survived to conduct one. But I should point out that today we know a lot more about genetics and cancer than we did in 1960, so most likely the early estimates are useless, except to show what people knew, or thought they knew at the time.

[OK, fine, I understand. What about bomb shelters? You were going to talk about them.]

Ah, yes. Well, our Government acted decisively to harden some of our important military installations and, of course, to protect the important civilians. Cheyanne Mountain is probably the best-known example of a site hardened by the military. So far as I know, others are not nearly so rugged. [9] And, of course, if you want to see a more luxurious one, check out the one Congress prepared for itself at the Greenbrier, an exclusive resort in West Virginia.[10]

[How about ordinary civilians? What did they have?]

Well, the government did have a program for hardening buildings, marking areas as bomb shelters, and stocking them with food. I really doubt how useful it would have been, since it seemed to emphasize the type of structures common in major metropolitan areas, i.e. the same areas that were prime targets for an enemy strike with multiple nuclear weapons.

But the Government had a different recommendation for people who lived a little bit further out. It suggested that ordinary citizens might build their own shelters. If you want to see a product of that time, check out the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EeLkZIL5kOA . It will take a bit of time to watch, but it can give you a good feeling for how people thought and what they did back then.

[I saw it. The shelter the homeowners built didn’t look all that successful.]

No, it wasn’t.  When explorers opened it last year, it didn’t look very comfortable. It was small, cramped, made of cinder blocks, and flooded. At best you might be able to hide in it for a couple of weeks, assuming no flooding, then come out for food, etc. Of course, if you survived you would have to deal with widespread destruction, elevated background radiation, hungry neighbors (if any were left) and other effects of a general catastrophe.

[That shelter looked kind of creepy, sort of like a potential death trap. Today it would make a good set for a bad sci-fi or horror movie.]

Indeed. Also the politics back then were quite polarized. You remember the dueling slogans, don’t you? Better Dead than Red vs. Better Red than Dead?[11]

[Perhaps you had better explain “Red.”]

Well, for those of our readers who didn’t live through this period – lucky them – a “Red” was a Communist. The Russians were all Red, and so were the Red Chinese. Some Chinese, principally those on Formosa[12], who were allied with us, were not Red. This can be confusing because, of course, today we have ‘red’ states in this country, which means they typically vote Republican, not Communist.

[Yes, English is a wonderful language, where a common word can mean one thing and also its opposite. By the way, are RINO’s[13] Reds in the old sense, i.e. Communists?]

I’m not getting into that and besides we’re talking about back then, not now. Anyway, the people who said Better Dead than Red meant that they would rather die than surrender to the Communists, and wanted the rest of us to do the same. The people who chanted Better Red than Dead said that they would rather convert than die, and that’s what we should do.

[Do you think that today’s Conservatives still adhere to the “Better Dead than Red” slogan? That might explain their heartfelt antipathy to the Affordable Care Act. To Conservative pundits, it’s a Marxist program. Are they saying that people should be willing to die rather than accept benefits from it?]

I’m not going to touch that, either.

Both sides had set up a false dichotomy. There was at least one other way to go, i.e., to contain potential aggression with a combination of military preparedness, covert activities, foreign aid, diplomacy and the like, and to avoid exchanging nuclear attacks with the other side. The theory was that the Communist system, at least as practiced in the Soviet Union, was unworkable and would collapse in time. And of course eventually it did, in 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved.[14]

[Yes, that was the much maligned Cold War which, to my mind, was vastly preferable to a hot one. People who don’t understand that don’t understand atomic weapons. So, do you have anything more to say about bomb shelters?]

Not right now, but I’m thinking of a Part 2, where I might compare today’s reaction to current threats with the past. I’ll let you know more later, when I get my thoughts organized. In the meantime, let’s bookend this piece with a quote from another General. Omar Bradley said “The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.”[15]

So far, we’ve avoided disaster, but not by much. Every year there seems to be some moron who wants to use nukes in one place or another, and some of them live here.

[Amen, brother! It’s time we all grow up.]


[1] Dwight Eisenhower was a five-star general during WW II, and later our 34thPresident. He was well acquainted with war. You can find the quote in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (6th edition, 2004) (hereafter, ODQ at __) at Dwight D. Eisenhower, p. 298, n. 16.

[2] See the Wikipedia entry entitled Worldwide nuclear testing counts and summary at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Worldwide_nuclear_testing_counts_and_summary .

[3] See the Wikipedia description at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsar_Bomba .

[4] See Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (Princeton, 1960, Transaction reprint 2010). Henceforth, the book will be cited as Thermonuclear War at __)

[5] See Thermonuclear War at Table 8, p. 55.

[6] I’m considering any metropolitan area that exceeds 500 thousand in population to be a “major city.” According to Wikipedia, there are 34 of these as of 2012. See the Wikipedia entry entitled List of United States Cities by Population, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_cities_by_population .

[7] See Thermonuclear War at p. 35: “Unclassified published estimates of the casualties that the United States would suffer in a nuclear war generally run around 50 to 80 million.” The author thought they were high.

[8] See Thermonuclear War at Table 10, p. 59.

[9] We touched on this in an earlier blog. Hardening a site did not necessarily involve tunneling under a mountain. To the military, the important thing was to protect our ability to retaliate. Other civilian and military casualties would be regrettable. See the blog of 08/10/2013, EMP: Avoiding a Quick Return to the 19th Century, at https://opsrus.wordpress.com/2013/08/10/emp-avoiding-a-quick-return-to-the-19th-century/ .

[10] If you want to see it, go to the Greenbrier website at http://www.greenbrier.com/ . Specifically, take a look at The Bunker at the Greenbrier at http://www.greenbrier.com/Activities/The-Bunker.aspx

[11]Want to know more? Check out Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Better_dead_than_red for a brief description.

[12] Today we call it Taiwan. For more information, see the Wikipedia entry at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taiwan .

[13] That’s short for Republicans in Name Only, or Republicans who disagree with the pundits on AM Talk Radio.

[14] There’s a short description of the Cold War in Wikipedia. You can find it at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cold_War  . For a lot more information, go to the History.com website at http://www.history.com/topics/cold-war

[15] Omar Bradley was another 5-star General. See ODQ at Omar Bradley, p. 148, n. 23.

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