One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture. (Reviews).
One Nation Underground joins a substantial shelf of books dealing with the American homefront in the early Cold War. Kenneth Rose focuses on the era from the mid-1950s through the early 1960s, with an introductory discussion of the early postwar years and a concluding chapter on the period after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, when nuclear fears and civil-defense preoccupations faded. A postscript treats the early Reagan years, when nuclear anxieties and government-sponsored civil-defense planning again loomed large.
Readers who know the existing literature will find much of Rose's account familiar. Here again are those eerie photos of nattily dressed suburban families posing in model fallout shelters; the ineffable Herman Kahn thinking about the unthinkable; Bert the Turtle of "Duck and Cover" fame; the "Operation Alert" drills designed to spirit top federal officials out of Washington to secure locations; the impassioned debate over the morality of shooting one's neighbor at the shelter door, and much else. And a few of Rose's arguments might be challenged. His contention that the immediate U.S. response to the atomic bombing of Japan was "unalloyed joy and relief" (14), for example, is belied by editorial writers and radio commentators who instantly pointed out that American cities now faced the same possible fate as Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Ranging well beyond fallout shelters, Rose discusses nuclear themes in popular culture, the evolution of U.S. nuclear strategy, Russian civil defense, the diplomacy of the Cuban missile crisis, and other matters. While all these topics relate to the fallout-shelter debate, the book's scope, and Rose's tendency to shift rather abruptly from subject to subject, creates a somewhat disjointed effect and works against chronological coherence.
But the book's strengths far outweigh the drawbacks. (Full disclosure: I provided a jacket blurb.) Even when treating familiar material, or ranging beyond his stated subject, Rose invariably offers fresh insights and arresting new evidence. Citing extensive primary sources and relevant secondary works, he traces Washington's evolving civil-defense policy, including the late 1950s shift from population-dispersal programs to a fallout-shelter approach, as advocated by California congressman Chet Holifield, a key figure in civil-defense history. Rose also discusses the civil-defense debates that raged in the government, the media, and the religious press, as well as the role of science-fiction stories, movies, Mad magazine, and even folk singers, in shaping popular assessments of the survivability of nuclear war. (One of Bob Dylan's earliest songs, "Let Me Die in My Footsteps" of 1962, protested the Kennedy administration's fallout-shelter campaign.)
Rose writes well, with a good eye for the telling phrase and revealing example. Without yielding to the ridicule that his evidence sometimes invites, he makes clear the bizarre nature of many proposals. He reports, for example, the Stanford researcher who countered the argument that fallout shelters were too expensive by suggesting that low-income families could create instant shelters by buying clunker cars from junkyards and burying them in their backyards--an idea, Rose observes, guaranteed to horrify any parents who had taken long car trips with their kids.
One Nation Underground revisits a fast-receding era of U.S. history that seems like ancient history to today's undergraduates. Along with Elaine Tyler May's Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (1988); Allan Winkler's Life Under a Cloud: American Anxiety About the Atom (1993); Guy Oakes's
The Imaginary War: Civil Defense and American Cold War Culture (1994); Laura McEnaney's Civil Defense Begins at Home: Militarization Meets Everyday Life in the Fifties (2000), and other works, it clearly belongs in any core library on the domestic social history of the Cold War.
Rose is particularly good on the critics of the government's often incoherent and inherently implausible civil-defense policies, including physicists like Harold Urey, biological scientists Bentley Glass and Barry Commoner, the founders of Physicians for Social Responsibility, and that worthy and venerable publication The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In his postscript, he credits two 1982 books, Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth and Robert Scheer's With enough Shovels, with helping crystallize opposition to the Reagan administration's s nuclear saber rattling and its plans for nuclear preparedness through a combination of shelters and population dispersal. Admittedly, the opposition's task was made easier by members of the Reagan team, including the lugubrious Committee on the Present Danger with its alarming (and quite fanciful) claims about Russia's awesome civil-defense program; the Pentagon's T.K. Jones with his much-quoted comment that "Everybody's going to make it if there are enough shovels to go around"; and the Federal Emergency Management Agency with its jesuitical insistence that while an atomic war might be an "unparalleled disaster," it need not be an "unmitigated disaster." As for evacuating cities in a nuclear emergency, California governor Edmund C. Brown Jr. offered the definitive comment: "Los Angeles cannot even evacuate itself on a Friday afternoon."
For all the talk about fallout shelters, and the exhortations of civil-defense officials, Rose shows, comparatively few Americans actually built them. Even during the 1961 Berlin crisis when Kennedy warned the nation to gird for nuclear Armageddon, the response proved tepid. In one public opinion poll, 97 percent of Americans reported that they had made no particular preparations for atomic war. Entrepreneurs who started fallout-shelter businesses lost their shirts. Cost was a significant negative incentive, Rose suggests, as well as moral qualms over saving one's family while neighbors perished, and the undeniable fact that fallout shelters tended to "cast a pall over suburban life" (191). He notes the irony that the whole civil-defense campaign served to increase nuclear fear, rather than allaying it.
Fundamentally, Rose contends, most people instinctively recognized the futility of going underground as a response to nuclear threats. In rejecting fallout shelters, he convincingly argues, the American people made "a conscious decision based on the social, moral, and economic implications" of building them (p. 207), and in so doing "showed a maturity that was often lacking in their political leadership" (213).
True enough, but perhaps as we recall the immediate aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001--citizens fearful of flying or opening their mail, and besieging their pharmacists for anthrax medication--we can better understand the anxieties that gripped the nation in those distant early days of the nuclear era.
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|Author:||Boyer, Paul D.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2002|
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