"Thinking the Unthinkable"

Civil Defense, Nuclear Strategy, and Popular Culture in Cold War America

Civil defense during the Cold War was a method of escape on the part of officials and public advocates who were obsessed with thinking the unthinkable.  Unwilling to believe or admit that the U.S. was helpless in defending its population from Soviet nuclear attack, civil defense advocates encouraged Americans to "stand-up to the bomb" and communist aggression by preparing for nuclear war.  The task was a difficult one for these proponents.  Though consistently favoring the general concept of civil defense, most Americans, stricken by apathy or fatalism, simply didn't want to think about it.

This dissertation analyzes the support for and opposition to civil defense between 1945 and 1988 and it has four objectives in mind.  First, it tries to assess the role that civil defense played in the devising of nuclear strategic doctrine between 1945 and 1988 as a method of escaping the reality of nuclear war.  Second, it attempts to evaluate the extent to which civil defense, which ultimately depended on public support for its implementation, serves as a barometer of the public's perception of nuclear war, its attitude towards survival, and its support of nuclear deterrence.  Third, this project strives to measure the influence of cultural strategies used to promote civil defense, and the success or failure of such strategies within the public arena.  Finally, it seeks to define the lines of the debate over civil defense and gauge the effectiveness of the opposition, particularly in the form of grassroots activists.

Following is a detailed description of the dissertation chapters.

Chapter 1 - "The Age of Vulnerability" - This chapter details the initial reactions to the destructive power of the atomic bomb by the public, elected officials, and policy analysts.  American reactions were a combination of awe, ambivalence, and apathy.  By the end of 1950 with the increased tensions of the Cold War and little doubt that the U.S.S.R. had developed its own atomic bomb, Americans came to accept the necessity of civil defense.

Chapter 2 - "A Shield and a Sword:  The Strategy of Civil Defense" - Chapter 2 deals with the strategic concepts of civil defense and its relationship to nuclear strategic doctrine.  Was the rationale for civil defense to be insurance, an element of strategy, or both?  This chapter details the debates within the Truman and Eisenhower years.

Chapter 3 - "Dig, Die or Get Out:  Implementing Civil Defense in the 1950s" - Conceptualizing civil defense was much easier than actually implementing it.  This chapter discusses the problems of devising a program in the late 1940s and 1950s.  Before 1960, civil defense planners continuously faced obstacles as the technology and destructiveness of nuclear weapons advanced faster than did the means of defending a population against these weapons.

Chapter 4 - "Family Room of Tomorrow:  Selling Survival and the Public's Response" - Civil defense officials tried to "sell" the public on the concept of survival by using themes that included patriotism, self-interest, and cultural integration.  This chapter also addresses the public's response before 1961 - either through support, apathy, or outright opposition. 

Chapter 5 - "The Great Shelter Debate:  Civil Defense in the 1960s" - Chapter 5 deals with the Kennedy program proposed in 1961, the public's reaction, and its fadeout by early 1964.  Kennedy proposed civil defense on the basis of an insurance rationale, but its deterrent value was never far from public discussion by defense and government officials.  The public hysteria that followed Kennedy's call for shelters seriously undermined public support for a program when the Berlin Crisis abated.

Chapter 6 - "Civil Defense in the Age of Mutual Assured Destruction" - This chapter details the fadeout and resurgence of civil defense in the context of the debate going on over counterforce doctrine and mutual vulnerability.  Civil defense eroded when MAD was embraced as a doctrine, and was resurrected as a strategic concept when the Nixon Administration embraced a counterforce doctrine, even as it was supporting arms control agreements under the rubric of MAD.  This was not a smooth transition, however, as indicated by the debates within the Carter years over MAD and counterforce, and the role that civil defense should play.

Chapter 7  -  "Thinking the Unthinkable in the 1980s:  Civil Defense in the Reagan Years" - The debate over MAD and counterforce intensified with the election of Ronald Reagan and his intention to implement a "war-fighting doctrine."  Such a strategy, however, could only be credible if the population was sufficiently protected from nuclear attack.  Some Americans answered the call for civil defense, but most did not.  This chapter details the policy progression of Reagan's nuclear strategy and its relationship to the public through home front protection.

Chapter 8 - "Evacuating Skeletons:  The Case Against Civil Defense" - Since the Truman Administration, every proposal for civil defense had encountered some form of resistance from a small minority.  The significance of the Reagan years is how effective that minority was through the larger Peace Movement.  The American public was receptive to these protests because by and large it no longer believed that nuclear war could be survived, let alone won.  Without active public support, the Reagan Administration could not implement a civil defense plan.  It could (and did), however, offer a strategic defense plan which not only would ensure its counterforce doctrine, but did not require public participation.