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How the U.S. Military Planned to Survive a Nuclear War with Russia

Russia Nuclear War

The special terror in nuclear deterrence reveals itself during natural rather than human-made disasters. Despite early warnings, extensive transport networks, government preparations and lots of money, thousands still suffer in the aftermath of great storms and fires. Nuclear-tipped ICBMs arrive with the surprise and speed of earthquakes, leaving whole populations sitting like ducks before the fury.

The devastation wrought by the great bombing raids of World War II, culminating in the atomic strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, reinforced a cave-dwelling mindset that arose from the trenches of World War I and the rise of air power in the interwar years of the twentieth century. Early in the Atomic Age it seemed that the bunker building undertaken during the war could be extended in magnitude. As the bombs got bigger, however, the plans for shelter got wilder.

Two factors complicated civil defense from nuclear attack: hazard and numbers. Nuclear weapon effects are so enormous that extreme protective measures are necessary, yet the costs of thus protecting large populations quickly become astronomical. Those costs are not just in the vast constructions required, but also the major social rearrangements demanded of long-term communal shelter life.

Still, answers were found to President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1956 question to the Gaither Committee on civil defense: “If you make the assumption that there is going to be a nuclear war, what should I do?”

One answer came from the wizards of the coast—the RAND Corporation think tank in Santa Monica, California. A man working with Herman Kahn, a large, big-idea thinker about nuclear war, suggested that if escape horizontally from the cities weren’t possible, then the cities should escape vertically—deep underground.

The superb blog Atomic Skies lays out the plan in detail, and what a plan it was. Robert Panero, the likely source of the concept, oversaw a Ford Foundation-funded study in 1957–58 that looked into digging vast bunker complexes under every major American city. Shelters for hundreds of thousands of people would be excavated eight hundred feet below the cities, deep enough to avoid even multi-megaton city-busting H-bombs. Shelter entrances as large as shopping-mall gates and as ubiquitous as subway stairs would connect to giant rampways able to move thousands to shelter within minutes.

Safe within their cavern-towns, the citizens would submit to wartime regimentation, sleeping in huge dormitories and eating in vast cafeterias under the supervision of cadres, exercising and bathing in groups. Americans then and now seem unlikely candidates for such stiff social structure.

The proposed project was stupendous—about half the U.S. GDP in 1957—but the goal was the preservation of 86 percent of the American people from a global thermonuclear war. Kahn & Panero’s proposal was vast, comprehensive and detailed. It also nearly killed civil defense.

Spurgeon Keeney, a member of the Gaither Committee, wrote of the social consequences of shelter regimentation:

“We became increasingly convinced that the distortion of society [by this] would be such [that] no one would tolerate it. . . There was no longer any question but that in a nuclear war you would lose the whole society, even though you could save lives with fallout shelters. The whole experience was extremely disturbing to me and many of the other participants. Was this really a way to solve the problem? The proposed solution seemed to lead to a garrison state.”

In 1959, something more congenial to the American way of life was envisioned by the students at the Cornell College of Architecture. In Professor Frederick Edmondson’s classes they worked out a detailed plan for a post–apocalyptic company town.

The nine thousand inhabitants of the proposed Schoharie Valley Township in upstate New York could enter their communal bomb shelters via the elementary schools and downtown buildings, survive a twenty-megaton strike ten miles away, and keep the factory running and the kids in school until the fallout died down.

The shelters and connecting tunnels would spend most of their days as community resources—meeting halls, shopping malls and additional transit corridors. But like many college projects, the potentially-workable Schoharie Valley Township project vanished despite its impressive list of corporate and government backers.

By framing the true scale of the problem, the RAND men may have frightened workable solutions away. President Eisenhower’s response to the Gaither Committe’s findings was grim as only a soldier’s can be: “You can’t have this kind of war. There just aren’t enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets.”

The history of civil defense in America is one of long neglect and avoidance since the Cuban Missile Crisis. “[P]eople just didn’t want to think about it . . . [I]f bomb shelters reduced casualties from, say, 100 million to 50 million, that still means tens of millions of dead,” says Mark, the author of Atomic Skies. Other than rusting yellow-and-black “Fallout Shelter” signs on public buildings, almost nothing remains of American civil defense efforts.

B-52 Bomber

A U.S. Air Force B-52H Stratofortress, assigned to the 20th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, deployed from Barksdale Air Force Base, La., approaches the flightline at Royal Australian Air Force Base Darwin, Australia, April 6, 2018. Two U.S. Air Force bombers visited the base in Australia’s Northern Territory to support the U.S. Pacific Command’s Enhanced Air Cooperation initiative in cooperation with RAAF joint terminal attack controller teams. The EAC comprises a range of air exercises and training activities designed to enhance regional cooperation, coordination and interoperability between Australian and U.S. service members.

And it need not have been, nor need it be. Switzerland, for example began a most but thorough program of shelter construction decades ago, by legally requiring all new construction to incorporate shelters. By the 1980s over 80 percent of the Swiss population had immediate access to hardened protection. As Herman Kahn argued, nuclear deterrence only works if your opponent believes you’ll risk Los Angeles for Moscow or Beijing. Serious civil defense makes such a threat credible; vacuous civilities about defense endanger everyone.

Steve Weintz, a frequent contributor to many publications such as War Is Boring, is a writer, filmmaker, artist, animator.

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Steve Weintz is a writer, filmmaker, artist, animator. Former firefighter, archaeologist, stuntman.