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Tim Kelly, Ph.D.
Instructor of History and Poli Sci

West Valley College
14000 Fruitvale Ave
Saratoga, CA  95070
(408) 741-2546

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THINKING THE UNTHINKABLE
The Civil Defense Debate in the 1980s

Professor Jon Timothy Kelly, PhD.
Marymount College

Presented at the 26th Annual Conference for the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations
Ryerson Polytechnic University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
June 23, 2000

Do not cite without author's written permission.

   

In the autumn of 1981, Thomas (T.K.) Jones, Deputy Under-Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering in the Reagan Administration, explained to a Los Angeles Times reporter the importance a strong civil defense could have in adding credibility to America 's strategic posture.  Nuclear war was not nearly as devastating as Americans had been led to believe, he said, adding that the United States could fully recover from an all-out Soviet strike within two to four years.  Saving the population was just a matter of primitive shelters.  "Dig a hole, cover it with a couple of doors and then throw three feet of dirt on top," Jones explained.  "It's the dirt that does it....If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody's going to make it."[1]  Jones' comments about shovels were not endorsed by the Pentagon, but his notions of civil defense were essential to the military posture that the Reagan Administration sought to establish in the 1980s.  Without measures to provide for the survival of the government and a substantial portion of the population, America could not "win" a nuclear war.

Ronald Reagan entered office determined to rebuild America 's nuclear defense force on a "war-fighting" basis as he publicly repudiated the virtues of mutual vulnerability and assured retaliation.  To achieve his goals, Reagan officials needed to convince Americans that surviving a nuclear war was possible - if only they took the necessary precautions.  Reaganites also needed to persuade the public that protecting itself from nuclear disaster would allow more flexibility in executing strategic counterforce options and could, perhaps, mean the difference between defeat and victory in a nuclear war.  To this end, the President proposed $4.2 billion for blast shelters and urban evacuation plans with which individuals and their local communities could provide for themselves the needed protection.  But a civil defense plan on the scale Reagan proposed could only have been implemented with the active support of the millions it sought to protect - a support the Administration did not have.   

Throughout the post-World War II era, civil defense was promoted by federal, state, and local officials as a way that Americans could make a concrete contribution to the Cold War effort by standing up to thermonuclear war.  Yet even while a majority of Americans supported Reagan's defense build-up, most did not agree with the Administration's view that a nuclear war could be survived, let alone won.  The doctrine of assured destruction was too deeply ingrained within the public's psyche.  The irony of Reagan's program is that rather than creating a home front where Americans could play a part in contributing to the Cold War, the futility of civil defense as a means of survival became a point from which critics could argue against the Administration's counterforce doctrine and urge state and local communities not to participate in civil defense planning. 

Civil Defense and the Search for Nuclear Options

From its origins, Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) was a policy difficult to justify.  As enunciated by Robert McNamara, MAD sought to dispel the notion that there was a tolerable way to fight a nuclear war and that it was possible "for either the United States or the Soviet Union to achieve a meaningful victory over the other" in such a war.[2]  Advocates were faced with the unenviable task of promoting mutual vulnerability and a balance of terror as virtuous.  Counterforce proponents throughout the 1970s called MAD immoral, unimaginative, and a nihilistic doctrine with no realistic concept of victory in a general nuclear war;[3] and in 1974, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger announced that strategic targeting would no longer be based on assured destruction but instead on selective nuclear options.  Yet what these critics failed (or refused) to recognize was that MAD was more than just a stated policy; it was the reality of a strategic environment in which even the loser in a nuclear conflict had the ability to destroy the winner.  Repeated attempts to subvert this reality through "war-fighting" doctrines and civil defense, argues political scientist Robert Jervis, is nothing more than an attempt to avoid coming to grips with the "nuclear revolution" and to escape the reality that American safety depended on the Soviet Union's restraint from using nuclear weapons.[4]

This method of escape was common among officials of the Reagan Administration which made perfectly clear its distaste for MAD, censuring it as mutual suicide and a danger to deterrence.  In its efforts to integrate war-fighting doctrine into American strategic policy, the Administration recruited counterforce proponents such as Fred Iklè, Colin Gray, and Paul Nitze.  Though extreme in their views to some, these strategists were not part of a lunatic fringe but rather of a long-time effort to create an aggressive counterforce nuclear strategy.  If the United States developed a first-strike capability to destroy a large portion of Soviet nuclear forces and then defend or "limit damage" to American society against surviving Soviet weapons, they argued, the U.S.S.R. would never attack.  These strategists did not seek to wage a nuclear war but instead to deter it through a credible threat of winning should war come.[5]

Discrediting MAD was of primary importance to these officials who pointed to the possibility that a "shelter gap" between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. could be destabilizing if in fact the Soviet Union believed it could "prevail" by launching a first-strike and protecting a sufficient portion of its population and industries from a counterstrike.  Prior to entering the Administration, Nitze argued that Soviet civil defense efforts served as a vivid symbol of the one-sidedness and bankruptcy of MAD.  "As the Soviet civil defense program becomes more effective," Nitze wrote in Foreign Affairs, "it tends to destabilize the deterrent relationship" because the United States can "no longer hold as significant a proportion of the Soviet population as a hostage to deter a Soviet attack."[6]  President Reagan was receptive to these views, expressing to a reporter that the U.S.S.R. had built up a "great civil defense program, providing shelters, some of their industry [being] underground, and all of it hardened to the point of being able to withstand a nuclear blast."  This proved, he argued, that Soviet leaders believed nuclear war "winnable," and that America ignored the shelter "race" at its own peril.[7]

For some Administration officials, whether Soviet civil defense efforts would actually be effective was unimportant.  Richard Perle, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy, expressed to a Senate subcommittee in 1982 some doubts as to the efficacy of the Soviet program, but he defended the Pentagon's civil defense proposal on the grounds that it might "help to dispel any possible delusions the Soviet leadership might harbor today or in the future that they can exploit the absence of any civil defense program here to deepen our sense of vulnerability and thereby intimidate the United States."[8]  Such Soviet confidence, he argued, was itself destabilizing to deterrence.[9]

The Administration set in motion its civil defense plans with the signing of National Security Decision Directives (NSDD) 23 and 26 (February 3, 1982 and February 25, 1982, respectively) which explicitly described civil defense as "an essential ingredient of our nuclear deterrent forces" and "a matter of national priority" in ensuring that a "substantial portion" of the population survive "even in a protracted general war involving nuclear destruction."[10]  Key elements of these civil defense initiatives were population protection (with primary reliance on evacuation and relocation), dispersal of key industries, and sheltering of key industrial workers and political and military leaders.  These measures implemented strategies set out in NSDD-12 and NSDD-13, which had outlined U.S. plans to prepare for, and if necessary fight, a protracted nuclear war with the U.S.S.R. that could be won.[11]  Maintaining the vitality of the U.S. population and the continuity of central government between nuclear exchanges were the goals of NSDD-23 and NSDD-26.

Implementing Civil Defense

As the Administration sought to implement its civil defense program, it decided to forgo mass shelter attempts of the 1950s and '60s and instead focus on evacuation plans developed under the Ford and Carter administrations.  The Crisis Relocation Plan (CRP) was expected to save 80% of the American population (forfeiting 42 million lives).  Its provisions called for the evacuation within a few days of millions of residents in high risk cities of over 50,000 and communities located near military installations during times of international crisis to host communities which were deemed to be less "at risk."  Evacuation maps, along with instructions of what to do and where to go, would be printed in telephone books.  Schools, churches, and public buildings would house city evacuees who would be put to work operating kitchens and shoveling dirt around shelters.[12]

Planning for the first day of World War III was particularly arduous because Reagan officials sought to create operational procedures not only to protect the population but to ensure the continuity of the state.[13]  Never before had an administration provided such detailed post-attack plans that bordered on the macabre and on the absurd.  According to the Federal Reserve System, nuclear war would not prevent checks from being cleared - "including those drawn on destroyed banks" - or credit cards from being accepted; and Internal Revenue Service officials discussed whether a national sales-tax might be more beneficial than an income tax.  A Treasury spokesman, however, denied reports that the Federal Reserve was considering the use of salt instead of currency in a post-attack economy.  "That really sounds crazy," he told a reporter.[14]

Neither rain, nor sleet, nor nuclear war would prevent the U.S. Postal Service from delivering mail, and it anticipated moving postal operations into remote areas in order to maintain communication and provide fallout protection for postal officials and employees.  So that the Post Office would know where to deliver the mail after a nuclear attack, it kept in reserve emergency change of address forms.  The form included a line to be completed in case the recipient was dead.  "There won't be a lot of people left to read and write those letters," said Congressman Edward Markey (D-MA) at a House Subcommittee meeting discussing the Postal Service's plans.  "But," responded a postal official, "those that are left will get their mail."[15]

One plan in particular to save essential workers deserves final mention.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) asked the University of California's Livermore Laboratory to conduct a study on how to save factory workers in the event of a nuclear attack.  "A body of water could provide a unique protection option for some individuals," read the report submitted in the summer of 1984.  Considerable protection could be obtained from the immediate nuclear effects by wearing numerous layers of clothes, diving about four feet down, and spending as little time as possible at the surface for air.  Workers taking advantage of this protection should not only be good swimmers, the report continued, "but they should also tether themselves to a flotation device with a 10 foot line."  Alternatively, workers could seek protection from a nuclear blast by wrapping themselves in a "wet, opaque blanket."  FEMA called the report "ludicrous" and its conclusions "absurd" as it moved to cancel the $174,000 federal study grant.  Said lab director Robert Hickman, "It's not uncommon for project managers to ask for revisions or additions."[16]

The Public Response

Civil defense in twentieth-century America has always been closely tied to the principle of home-front participation and community self-help.  In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan encouraged Americans to take pride in the building of a stronger America, and citizens like those who belonged to the Idaho Civil Defense Association agreed that civil defense was one way to endorse the military buildup.  "We strongly support," they wrote in a 1984 letter, "decisive strength and American Civil Defenses that will insure peace with freedom....We unswervingly back what you are doing to provide for the common defense of we Americans!"[17]  Other groups came together to do their part in standing up to thermonuclear war.  One known as SAFE (Shelter and Fallout Education), organized in Montana in response to the belief that nuclear war was imminent, waged an information campaign and tried to raise money to equip fallout shelters.  AT&T was one of several corporations which constructed a network of fallout shelters to house executives responsible for keeping the communications system open in case of attack.[18]  And the Florida based, non-profit American Civil Defense Association held annual conferences at which it displayed and discussed the latest technologies in nuclear survival.[19] 

Public opinion polls throughout the early to mid-1980s confirm a greater public concern about the chances of war.  A 1981 Newsweek poll found that seven out of ten Americans felt nuclear war could break out at any time, and in July 1982 the Gallup Organization released a FEMA sponsored poll which found that 61% of the public approved strongly or somewhat strongly of a government crisis relocation plan.  Of those polled, 67% said the government should have such plans, and 59% said they would disapprove of a decision to end the civil defense program.[20]  Yet despite the positive support civil defense consistently received, that endorsement was neither strong nor stable.  Most Americans simply would not take the necessary measures of self-protection that the Administration called for.

A 1979 FEMA study by Ralph Garret on public attitudes and civil defense argued the lack of intensity in public support for such a program stemmed from two factors.  First, the message of civil defense was an extremely unpleasant one.  Citizens were expected not only to think about the unthinkable but to prepare for it as well, a task that was "psychologically not tolerable or credible."  It is easier for Americans to either distort the message or simply not hear it.  The second reason for the lack of intensity was that Americans consistently viewed civil defense as a governmental rather than an individual responsibility, despite repeated attempts to promote a program on the basis of self-help.[21]

More important, however, was polling data which indicated Americans had wholeheartedly embraced the concept of MAD despite Reagan's assurances that nuclear war was survivable and winnable.  When Gallup asked Americans in 1981 what they thought their chances were of surviving a nuclear attack, 60% answered "poor."  By 1983, this response had grown to 69%.[22]  Daniel Yankelovich and John Doble of the Public Agenda Foundation found 89% of those polled agreed with the statement, "There can be no winner in an all-out nuclear war; both the U.S. and the Soviet Union would be completely destroyed."  And 68% rejected the concept that "if we had no alternative we could fight and win a nuclear war against the Soviet Union," with only 20% endorsing it.  Yankelovich and Doble concluded that nuclear war was "no longer seen as a rational policy for the U.S. government to consider."[23]  One example of this is what happened in Allentown when in January of 1984 it activated its 40 air-raid sirens after Pennsylvania officials erroneously warned 44 counties that the state was under a military attack.  Residents paid no attention to the screaming sirens.  Said civil defense director Jerry Duckett, "People feel that if there is a nuclear attack, 'forget it, I'm not going to be around anyway.'"[24]

The Case Against Civil Defense

This combination of public apathy and fatalism played into the hands of a vocal minority of public activists, intellectuals, and political leaders, many of whom were already involved in some capacity within the peace movement, and who directed their fire at the Administration's civil defense plans.  Historian Robert Kleidman has suggested that peace groups are most effective when they can turn "threatening events and public fears into opportunities for gaining greater visibility, support, and impact."[25]  For groups such as the Nuclear Freeze, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and SANE, civil defense served as a tangible symbol of the threat of nuclear war on a personal level.  Ironically, this was the same threat that proponents used to advocate self-protection when they argued that the time to take precautions was now, rather than later.  In contrast, critics of civil defense sought to head off the need for any civil defense at all by attacking the nuclear strategy behind it that heightened public concern.  And as one newspaper editorialized, "If that concern increases pressure for serious arms control talks, then the program may be more of a true 'civil defense' plan than even Mr. Reagan has imagined."[26]  Civil defense, these groups contended, was a cruel deception of the public because nuclear war simply could not be survived.

What was the rationale used by opponents of civil defense?  They, like the Administration, preached the responsibility of the individual to "stand up" to nuclear war - but through the rejection of civil defense.  Helen Caldicott of Physicians for Social Responsibility encouraged her audiences to voice their opposition rather than numb themselves to the "evil" of Reagan's nuclear doctrine.  "You must take the ultimate responsibility.  The only weapon we can use is this," she would say pointing to her throat, "the larynx."[27]  Opponents made ample use of the national media to shape the debate against civil defense, as editorial boards, columnists, and cartoonists viciously attacked the Administration's plans.  The New York Times described Reagan's program as "mad" and "irresponsible."  "Who is the mastermined who thinks this could ever work?" the paper asked.  And the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called civil defense "a suicidal illusion" that is based on a belief that nuclear war can be conventionalized.  "If political leaders accept that false argument as fact, then the world is in grave danger."  Nationally read columnists such as Jack Anderson, Art Buchwald, Ellen Goodman, Mary McGrory, and Tom Wicker were among the many who criticized the Administration's program.  Most of these commentators, as well as the reporting on civil defense in general, stressed the insurmountabilities of evacuation and the "Strangelove" quality of it all.[28]

Administration leaders were no doubt disappointed that Americans did not embrace their civil defense plan, even as public opinion polls indicated a majority of Americans were sympathetic.  But, as FEMA officials noted, crisis relocation had the advantage of being designed to function with a minimum of preparation by individuals until just before an attack.[29]  FEMA believed and hoped it could rely on states and their communities to implement this huge movement of people.  Yet it was precisely at the local level where civil defense opponents were most effective in blocking the Administration's program by leading the charge against CRP.

The case against civil defense received a sympathetic reception on the part of local officials because so many communities could not overcome the impossible obstacles that evacuation posed.  Amarillo, Texas, a city of only 125,000 with no major geographical features to inhibit movement, discovered in 1982 that it would take five days of warning and three days of activity to evacuate.[30]  In Seattle, the CRP proposal called for moving part of the population almost 200 miles to the desert through mountain passes that were clogged with snow in the winter to a relocation site near a plutonium factory which, if bombed, would leave the area radioactive for 1,000 years or longer.[31]  And in Los Angeles, Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, a strong advocate of civil defense preparedness during the Kennedy Administration, produced a report in 1982 which disclosed that, under optimum conditions, it would require three to five days to evacuate 7.2 million residents from the county.  Even if 4.8 million automobiles made it to the desert, the logistical problems in caring for these residents would be staggering.  Such a task, Hanh argued, was impossible.  "They should have this information in Washington," he said, "[where] they are making the international decisions for the national security of America."[32]  Indeed, hundreds of cities and counties sought to make their views known to national leaders as the 1980s saw a surge of American municipalities seeking to influence both national and international affairs through local action.

Local communities found that they could exert such influence simply by refusing to prepare to survive a nuclear war.  Former Irvine, California Mayor Larry Agran believes that municipalities "effectively destroyed the nuclear war-civil defense planning of FEMA by our non-cooperation."[33]  In any event, the refusal to participate in the Administration's crisis relocation plan was part of a larger movement by local communities to engage in "municipal foreign policy."  Says political scientist Michael Shuman, "It used to be that one could envision a local authority as a kind of hermetically sealed island which could not be influenced by outside events."  But cities now have to deal with cuts in domestic spending, trade oscillations and competition, and environmental problems, all of which are "reminders that cities must take international affairs seriously."[34]  Because both national and international developments were felt first and last in the cities, many local leaders believed they had no choice but to assume a larger role in the debate over these issues.

Instances of municipal foreign policy included cities opening trade offices in foreign countries, establishing sister city relationships with the Soviet Union and Nicaragua against the wishes of the Reagan Administration, and divesting billions of dollars from firms that did business in South Africa.  Specifically with regard to the arms race and President Reagan's defense policies, local communities took action in a number of ways.  For example, they endorsed the Bilateral Nuclear Weapons Freeze.  By the decade's end, over 900 local governments had passed a nuclear freeze resolution and 160 had declared themselves "nuclear free zones" - a move tantamount to the rejection of any government nuclear policy.  In 1987, a delegation of American mayors and city council members issued the Nevada Declaration, calling upon the Administration to negotiate an end to nuclear weapons testing.  Meanwhile, almost 800 local officials had joined two organizations committed to reversing the arms race:  Local Elected Officials of America and Local Elected Officials for Social Responsibility.  Thus it is not surprising that over 120 communities refused to participate in FEMA's crisis relocation plan.[35]

The city council of Cambridge, Massachusetts, led the way in September of 1981 when it published a ten-page booklet entitled "Cambridge and Nuclear Weapons."  Its central message:  the best civil defense is a political offense.  The booklet was prepared in response to the civil defense plan for Cambridge developed by the Massachusetts State Civil Defense Agency.  In case of nuclear attack, residents had been told to evacuate to the "host" community of Greenfield, about 75 miles to the northwest.  Should you find yourself in a traffic jam en route to Greenfield, the report read, "turn off your engine, remain in your car, listen for official instructions and be patient."  Said city Councilwoman Saundra Graham, "I thought it was a comic book."  The council held hearings on the subject and concluded that any civil defense was futile.[36]

The protest that started in Cambridge soon spread across the country.  By the end of 1982, New York City's council voted 35 to 5 to reject the Administration's plans; the city of Alexandria, Virginia, whose residents were expected to drive 300 miles on one tank of gas to its host community of Webster Springs, West Virginia, unanimously rejected its emergency evacuation plan; and an official in the Emergency Management Agency in Greensboro, North Carolina, removed the "fallout shelter" signs from the 170 buildings so designated by FEMA because, she said, they did not offer shelter from radiation or starvation.[37]  In addition to Los Angeles, other California communities refused to participate as well, including San Francisco, Humboldt, Monterey and Palo Alto.  "The bottom line," said one Marin County supervisor as his Board in 1982 withdrew from FEMA's CRP, "is that there's no way we can evacuate skeletons."[38]  By 1984, state governments in Maryland, California, New Mexico, Maine, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts all had refused to participate in FEMA projects or simply diverted federal funds earmarked for nuclear planning to natural disaster relief.[39]

The towns of Burlington, Connecticut and Becket, Massachusetts, however, decided in September 1982 to put FEMA's CRP plan to a test.  But the Burlington Organization for the Movement of Bodies to Safety (BOMBS) and the Becket League to Assist the Scorched and Terrified (BLAST) set about in a less serious fashion than perhaps FEMA would have preferred.  After a cablegram was sent to the Soviet government, advising it that Burlington's actions would not be a prelude to nuclear attack, about 150 spirited Burlington residents drove the 65 miles up Route 8 to Becket, halting on two occasions because autos ran out of gas.  Upon reaching the host community, residents were welcomed with the sign, "Water contaminated, cold beer ahead" while two teenagers in surgical masks ominously scanned entrants with Geiger counters.  The citizens of Becket saluted the evacuees for carrying out the exercise in less than three of the allotted four hours, as well as executing the requirement to haul innumerable portable toilets and boxes of diapers.

Participants, of course, realized that the host community of Becket was located 12 miles from a General Electric plant that produced parts for the Polaris missile, making it a prime target for nuclear attack.  Recognizing the futility of it all, Mrs. Bill Tomaney, one of the BOMBS organizers, said that if there really was an attack, Becket residents "would all be in Canada by the time we got there."  Still, such sober thoughts were not allowed to puncture the euphoric spirit of a block party.  The drill was followed by a parade and the presentation of a charred key to the city of Burlington.[40]  In this nation-wide debate, civil defense was considered so fantastic, so impossible to implement, that it became a subject to be ridiculed as much as be debated.

The Decline of Civil Defense

As opposition grew against FEMA's evacuation plans, the Administration, in an astonishingly ironic action, contributed to the decline of its own civil defense program by asking Americans to embrace a totally different type of protective system:  the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).  "Would it not be better to save lives than avenge them?" Reagan asked rhetorically in March 1983 as he called upon the scientific and technical community to devise the means to render nuclear attack impossible through a space shield.[41]  Star Wars took the debate over MAD and civil defense to its ultimate conclusion.  Instead of relying on a deterrence that could fail and thus have to prepare for that failure, why not simply do away with the "ability" to wage nuclear war?  Americans found SDI appealing because they could go on with their daily lives knowing that "something" was being done yet without the reminder of Armageddon that fallout shelters and evacuation plans provided. 

However, the Administration made such extravagant promises regarding a comprehensive protective system that, rather than complement one another, SDI and civil defense appeared to be in contradiction.  Star Wars was initially sold as a shield to protect the public from nuclear attack.  But to also advocate civil defense would have admitted that SDI was less than perfect -- that an impregnable shield was impossible to achieve.  If the Reagan Administration continued to promote civil defense, how could it justify spending billions of dollars on a strategic defense system that in the end would not change the mutual hostage reality of MAD?

In any event, the Administration was stymied in its drive for Congressional support for civil defense as the peace movement effectively fueled antagonism against FEMA's programs on Capital Hill.[42]  With its own growing interests in strategic defenses, the Administration appears to have lost faith in its civil defense plans by mid-decade, slashing its FY1986 budget proposal by half from $248 million to $120 million and emphasizing the insurance benefits of civil defense to the population rather than its role as an essential ingredient of deterrence.[43]  By April of 1987, CRP was abandoned.  Of the $154.8 million dollars the Administration requested for its 1988 civil defense budget, over three-fourths was earmarked for federal salaries and expenses.  FEMA had become just another federal bureaucracy, and the Administration's dreams of a strong civil defense program to bolster its counterforce strategy evaporated.[44]

Conclusions

What relegated the Reagan Administration's grand civil defense plans to the dust bin?  A number of contributing factors can be identified.  First, the project got off to a bad start with careless and simplistic comments about nuclear war and its consequences which gave opponents the ammunition they needed to frame the debate to their advantage within the media.  A second factor was the lack of strong public support.  While opinion polls showed that most people favored the concept of civil defense, only a small portion of Americans actually made the effort to prepare for a nuclear war.  The vast majority were either apathetic, since there was no real crisis to motivate the public, or fatalistic due largely to the shared belief that nuclear war could not be survived.

To the Administration's misfortune, its own enthusiasm energized the opposition, which was a third factor in the demise of Reagan's program.  When the Administration talked of fighting and winning a nuclear war, it provoked a vocal and persuasive minority to detail the horrors of nuclear war, speak of the impossibility of survival, and charge the White House with fostering a false sense of security.  By focusing on the vital point where civil defense was to be implemented, the local level, the peace movement was remarkably successful in discrediting civil defense, even while it largely failed in its goal of derailing Reagan's military buildup.

Finally, the consequences of the Administration's shift from civil defense to strategic defense cannot be underestimated.  Ironically, in SDI the American public finally found an appealing alternative to MAD, as long as the goal of strategic defense was to provide protection for cities, not silos.  But Reagan officials faced a contradiction in promoting both civil defense and strategic defense, a contradiction which alienated those who believed SDI could be 100% effective.  If a choice had to be made between the two, it was not a difficult one to make for the Administration.  Evacuation plans and fallout shelters represented the total vulnerability of America, while space based defenses symbolized its invincibility through the promise of technology.  Accordingly, civil defense plans were quietly shelved to make way for strategic defense, thus perpetuating the Administration's attempts to escape the horrors of nuclear war.


[1]Robert Scheer, With Enough Shovels:  Reagan, Bush & Nuclear War (New York:  Random House, 1982), pp. 20, 21.

[2]Robert McNamara, The Essence of Security:  Reflections in Office (New York:  Harper & Rowe, Publishers, 1968), pp. 58-59.

[3]Colin Gray and Keith Payne, in an influential 1980 Foreign Policy article, argued that nuclear war was a "rational" option in the support of U.S. foreign policy objectives and that America should embrace a war-winning strategy with civil defense measures that would "hold U.S. casualties down to a level compatible with national survival and recovery" -- about 20 million deaths.  Colin Gray and Keith Payne, "Victory is Possible," Foreign Policy 39 (Summer 1980), pp. 14, 26, 25.  See also Richard Foster, "From Assured Destruction to Assured Survival," Comparative Studies 2 (March 1980), pp. 58-59.  For an opposing view, see Michael Howard, "On Fighting Nuclear War," International Security (Spring 1981), pp. 3-17.  Gray and Howard would later debate the topic in the same publication, Summer 1981, pp. 185-187.

[4]Robert Jervis, The Illogic of American Nuclear Strategy (Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1984), p. 26.

[5]Phillip K., Lawrence, Preparing for Armageddon:  A Critique of Western Strategy (New York:  St. Martin's Press, 1988), p. 3.

[6]Paul Nitze, "Assuring Strategic Stability in an Era of Detente," Foreign Affairs 54 (January 1976), p. 223.

[7]Scheer, With Enough Shovels, p. 105;  Robert Scheer, "Civil Defense Program to be Revised," Los Angeles Times, 15 January 1982, p. 1.

[8]Judith Miller, "Despite Foes and Skeptics, Administration Presses Ahead on Civil Defense," New York Times, 10 June 1982 , p. B20.

[9]The belligerent language by those in the Soviet Union who spoke of the need to prepare to win a nuclear war only heightened American Cold War fears.  Soviet civil defense chief and deputy defense minister General A.T. Atunin wrote in 1982 that adequate preparation for nuclear survival "has become without a doubt, one of the decisive factors ensuring the ability of the state to function in wartime, and in the final analysis, the attainment of victory."  (Dusko Doder, "Soviet Official Urges 'War Footing' to Combat U.S. Goal of Superiority," Washington Post, 11 March 1982, p. PA1.)  For critique of the effectiveness of Soviet civil defense efforts, see Fred M. Kaplan, "The Soviet Civil Defense Myth," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 1978, pp. 15-20 and Robert Scheer, "Civil Defense Program to be Revised," Los Angeles Times, 15 January 1982, p I1; Michael Nacht, The Age of Vulnerability:  Threats to the Nuclear Stalemate (Washington, D.C.:  The Brookings Institution, 1985), pp. 111-115.

[10]Partial Text of National Security Decision Directive Number 23, 3 February 1982 , RWRL.  National Security Decision Directive Number 26, 25 February 1982 , RWRL.

[11]NSDD-12 page 1, cited from Christopher Simpson, National Security Directives of the Reagan and Bush Administrations (Boulder:  Westview Press, 1995), pp. 46-47.  NSDD-13 remains classified.  This account is taken from Robert Scheer, "Pentagon Plan Aims at Winning Nuclear War," Los Angeles Times, 15 August 1982 , p. 1.

[12]Orr Kelly, "New Civil Defense Aim:  Empty Major Cities," U.S. News and World Report, 12 April 1982 , p. 45.

[13]The most comprehensive study on continuity of government during and after a nuclear attack is Edward Zuckerman, The Day After World War III (New York:  The Viking Press, 1984).

[14]"A Complex of Tricky Issues," Newsweek, 26 April 1982 , p. 31.  Jack Anderson, "After the Bomb, Plan to Collect Survivor's Taxes," Washington Post, 18 May 1982 , p. B5.

[15]Bill Prochnau, "There's No Escaping 'Bolt Out of the Blue,'" Washington Post, 30 April 1982 , p. A1; "Return to Sender," New York Times,  15 August 1982 , sec. IV, p. 20.

[16]"Agency Labels Study's Survival Tips for Nuclear War 'Absurd,'" Los Angeles Times, 22 October 1984 , p. 5.

[17]Letter, Captain Thomas J. Wadsworth to the President, 7 March 1984 , ID#212102, PR003, WHORM: Subject File, RWRL.

[18]Ellen Kerrdoja, "Fallout Shelters:  Making a Comeback," Newsweek, 22 February 1982 ,  p. 10; "Official Backs Need For Nuclear Shelters," Los Angeles Times, 18 May 1980 , p. 3.

[19]One such idea was by Bruce Clayton, a California ecologist, who devised what he called a "nuclear-safe trench" you could dig in a backyard and cover with an automobile.  David Lomb, "Civil Defenses Termed Inadequate," Los Angeles Times, 10 October 1981 , p 11.

[20]For Newsweek poll, see "Poll Finds 7 out of 10 Imagining Outbreak of Soviet Nuclear War," Washington Post, 27 September 1981, p. 17; "Federal Agency Says Poll Finds Support For Evacuation Plan," New York Times, 5 July 1982, p. 17.

[21]Ralph Garret, "Civil Defense and the Public:  An Overview of Public Attitude Studies" (Washington, D.C.:  Federal Emergency Management Agency, August 1979), pp. 23, 25.

[22]George Gallup, The Gallup Poll:  Public Opinion 1981 (Wilmington: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 1982), p. 163; George Gallup, The Gallup Poll:  Public Opinion 1983 (Wilmington: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 1983), p. 266.

[23]Daniel Yankelovich and John Doble, "The Public Mood:  Nuclear Weapons and the U.S.S.R.," Foreign Affairs 63 (Fall 1984), pp. 34, 36.

[24]"Pennsylvanians Told They're Under attack," San Francisco Chronicle, 5 January 1984 , p. 17.

[25]Robert Kleidman, Organizing for Peace:  Neutrality, the Test Ban, and the Freeze (Syracuse:  Syracuse University, 1993), p. 2.

[26]"Civil Defense on Ground Zero," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 23 August 1982 , p. A18.

[27]Bill Soiffer, "Anti-Nuclear Speech Draws 1500 in S.F.", San Francisco Chronicle, 17 March 1983 , p. 2.

[28]"The Shelter Fraud," New York Times, 13 April 1, 1982, p. 23; "A Worse Than Bad Idea," St. Louis Post- Dispatch, 7 January 1982 , p. A14.

[29]Officials in both the Ford and Reagan administrations argued this point.  Norman Kempster, "Two U.S. Agencies Plan Civil Defense Moves," Los Angeles Times, 7 November 1976, p. 1; "Statement by Louis O. Giuffrida Before the Subcommittee on Military Installations And Facilities, 12 March 1982, p. 5, FG331, Box 1, folder 055000-076999, WHORM:  Subject File, RWRL.

[30]Thomas J. Kerr, Civil Defense in the U.S. :  Bandaid for a Holocaust? (Boulder:  Westview Press, 1983), p. 184.

[31]Prochnau, p. A1.

[32]John Kendall, "Hahn Assails Civil Defense Planning:  Says County Couldn't Be Evacuated in Case of Nuclear War," Los Angeles Times, 23 January 1982 , p. I, 20.

[33]Agran quoted in Paul Rauber, ""U.S. Cities Starting to Act on the International Stage," In These Times, 13:33 (September 6-12, 1989), p. 1.

[34]Shuman quoted in Rauber, p. 1.

[35]See Larry Agran, "Mayor as Global Leader," Macalaster College Mayor's Forum, Saint Paul, Minnesota, 7 March 1989, and Michael H. Shuman, "Dateline Main Street:  Local Foreign Policies," Foreign Policy, 65, Winter 1986-87 for discussion on municipal action to influence national policy.

[36]Charles Kimball, "Democracy:  The Only Atomic-proof Defense," Los Angeles Times, 20 September 1981 , p. V5.

[37]Leslie Bennetts, "City Says No to 'Crisis Relocation,'" New York Times, 10 June 1982, p. 1; Ben Franklin, "Festival Rings With Ridicule of Civil Defense Plan," New York Times, 30 May 1982, p. 20; "A Complex of Tricky Issues," Newsweek 26 April 1982, p. 31; Reginald Stuart, "Some Local Officials Refuse to Plan Mass Relocation in an Atom Threat," New York Times, 12 May 1982, p. A20.

[38]Jack Viets, "Marin Opts Out for Nuclear War," San Francisco Chronicle, 17 March 1982 , p. 2.  The Board of Supervisors also published an information booklet on the effects of atomic weapons to encourage residents to support a mutual verifiable disarmament policy.  Marin County Board of Supervisors, The Nuclear Threat To Marin County:  A Prevention and Source Document, undated, "California Room Collection," Marin Country Free Library.

[39]Phil McCombs, "Digging In for the Bomb," Washington Post, 19 January 1984, p. D1; "Mainers Sound Off About Federal Nuclear Evacuation," Christian Science Monitor, 27 March 1984, p. 1; Carl Ingram, "State Official Labels Nuclear Evacuation Plan Hoax on Public," Los Angeles Times, 18 March 1982, p. 3.

[40]Janet Domowitz, "A Picnic, Dance, and Nuclear War Evacuation," Christian Science Monitor, 10 September 1982 , p. 14; Allan Appel, "Burlesque in Burlington ," The Progressive, February 1983, p. 36.

[41]Gerold Yonas, "The Strategic Defense Initiative," in Weapons in Space, eds. Franklin A. Long, et al. (New York:  W.W. Norton & Co., 1986), p. 73.

[42]FEMA had become a lightening rod for controversy as other Federal agencies grumbled about its lack of cooperation and coordination.  The National Security Council, which wanted to keep the White House profile low after so many negative stories concerning civil defense, complained confidentially that FEMA showed "no imagination in selling the program" while defending it publicly as if it were just "another element of salaries and expenses rather than a policy."  For criticism of FEMA, see Memo, Bob Helm to Robert Kimmitt, 27 September 1983, ID#179880, ND002, WHORM: Subject File, RWRL; Memo, John Grimes and John Douglass to Robert McFarlane, 26 September 1984, ID#246645, ND002, WHORM: Subject File, RWRL.

[43]National Security Decision Directive Number 259, 4 February 1987 , ID#44478255, ND002, WHORM: Subject File, RWRL.

[44]Budget information cited from Curt Suplee, "Where to Go On H-Day?  Forget It," Washington Post, 26 April 1987 , p. D2.