Susan Roy | Essays

Better Homes & Bunkers: The Fallout Shelter for the Nuclear Family

© Bomboozled / Pointed Leaf Press

In George Orwell’s 1984, citizens of the totalitarian state of Oceania were required to accomplish the impossible task of holding two contradictory ideas in their minds and accepting both of them:

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

Orwell called this “Doublethink.”

Similarly, Americans during the early years of the Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. — the 1950s and early 1960s — were expected to be able to reconcile these two diametrically opposed thoughts:

A nuclear war can destroy all life on earth.
You will survive if you build a family fallout shelter.       

The family fallout shelter’s ostensible purpose — to ensure survival during and after a nuclear attack — was impossible to achieve. That wasn’t why it was created. It was part of the propaganda campaign to convince the American people that they could survive a nuclear war.

Tens of thousands of Americans — maybe even hundreds of thousands — actually did build shelters, and millions considered doing so. Why? How could so many people believe that hiding in an underground concrete cube would save their lives during a nuclear attack? And then, if they somehow did survive, why did they believe they could function in a post-apocalyptic world with fires raging, cities destroyed, and a landscape littered with the dead and injured?

People built shelters because it was a desperate grab for empowerment in the face of the unthinkable. Doing something felt better than doing nothing.

© Bomboozled / Pointed Leaf Press

The roots of the family fallout shelter can be traced back to 1952, when the U.S. created a new bomb — the hydrogen, or thermonuclear, bomb — that was 1,000 times as powerful as the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

The world witnessed the astounding power of this new weapon on March 1, 1954, when it was exploded above the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. It threw several million tons of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere, fallout which can drift in unpredictable directions for thousands of miles over a period of years.

No longer was a nuclear bomb’s killing power limited to the place where it was detonated. Now everyone, everywhere was a potential victim of radioactive fallout.

The following year, the U.S.S.R. exploded its first hydrogen bomb. Fear of fallout gripped the nation. The government acknowledged that a bomb shelter would be useless against a direct hit by the H-bomb, which would destroy a bomb shelter as easily as the wolf blew down the house of straw in the fairy tale, The Three Little Pigs. However, it said, you can protect yourself against fallout. During a nuclear attack, go into your fallout shelter and stay there for two weeks, until the radiation in the atmosphere has dropped to a safe level.

In 1959, the government published and distributed millions of copies of a 32-page booklet called The Family Fallout Shelter. It included step-by-step instructions for building the Concrete Block Shelter, a cube constructed of concrete block and mortar.

The Concrete Block Shelter could be installed in the basement. But for optimum protection against radiation, it should be buried in the backyard and covered with three feet of earth. Entry was to be through a ground-level hatch door. Drawings, photographs, and both miniature and full-size models of this shelter were disseminated in brochures, posters, television shows, Civil Defense films, public exhibitions, lectures, architectural journals, print advertisements, and large-circulation magazines. It became the iconic family fallout shelter.

Millions of Americans saw photographs in Life of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a messianic proponent of fallout shelters, sitting in a mockup of the Concrete Block Shelter in a New York City bank in 1960. Rockefeller installed shelters in his homes in Pocantico, New York, Washington, DC, and in the Governor’s mansion in Albany, New York. He even tried, unsuccessfully, to pass a law that would have required every New York State resident to have a family fallout shelter.

© Bomboozled / Pointed Leaf Press

Sensing opportunity in the shelter market, materials makers leapt onto the bandwagon. The National Lumber Manufacturers Association published a booklet called Family Fallout Shelters of Wood, which included plans for a buried cubic room that required 2300 linear feet of lumber. In Steel Shelters for Fallout Protection, the American Iron and Steel Institute promoted the flexibility of a steel shelter. Because it is constructed of panels that are bolted or screwed together, “a shelter of steel does not saddle you with a permanent, hard-to-move ‘monument’ in your basement or yard when the current emergency is over.” For people who didn’t want to go the do-it-yourself route, there was a dizzying array of prefabricated shelters.

But whether built or prefabricated, shelters didn’t come cheap. The Concrete Block Shelter, for example, could cost more than $10,000 in today’s currency. But cost be damned! Building a shelter isn’t throwing money away; it is a prudent and patriotic step that every American must take to ensure his and his family’s survival. As the Civil Defense publication Individual and Family Preparedness declared, “Protection of our people is not new in the United States. When a free America was being built by our forebears, every log cabin and every dwelling had a dual purpose — namely, a home and a fortress.”

© Bomboozled / Pointed Leaf Press

Shelter mania peaked starting with the Berlin Crisis in 1961 and ended after the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when the world came as close to nuclear war as it ever had, before or since. Once that crisis was safely resolved, Americans lost their interest in family fallout shelters. Polls showed that Americans rejected shelters because they had no faith that a shelter would protect them. Many people adopted a fatalistic attitude. As one poll respondent succinctly said, "Why should we do anything? If that bomb is dropped, we'll all be blown to bits anyway."

So, the Kennedy administration quietly abandoned its endorsement of the family fallout shelter. It shifted its attention to its National Fallout Survey, a program of identifying potential shelter space in existing buildings and marking these spaces with the now-iconic "Fallout Shelter" sign — three yellow triangles set inside a black circle on a yellow background.  Now, fifty years later, these signs remain, rusted and faded legacies of the Cold War.

This piece is adapted from  Bomboozled: How the U. S. Government Misled Itself and Its People into Believing They Could Survive a Nuclear Attack by Susan Roy (Pointed Leaf Press, June 2011).

Posted in: Media

Comments [10]

Has anyone ever seen one of these personal fall out shelters on someones property? I've been on many of rural properties and don't think I've ever seen one. Maybe I have and just thought it was a storage shed or root cellar.
I've seen many of the public shelters.
Harold Lambing

I love the graphics. The last booklet shows dad taking it easy while the wifey works at preparing a meal. He's smoking a pipe to boot! Pescious air supplies be damned! ladida ladida...

Nuclear war won't destroy all life on earth. This pamphlet is interesting but all the editorial content accompanying it is simply not true. Is this Susan Roy some kind of nuclear weapons expert? Does she have some crystal ball telling exactly what will happen in the event of nuclear war?

Human survival in a post-apocalyptic world is not only possible but a near-certainty. An earth and concrete-reinforced bunker obviously won't survive a direct hit but will make every other scenario totally survivable. Someone standing unprotected 5 or 10 miles from a nuclear blast will certainly die. Someone in an underground bunker will certainly live. Them's the facts people.

Winston Smith

Fifty years from now there will be a similarly mocking story on all the idiots that fell for the Global Warming scam by purchasing "carbon credits" thinking they were saving the world. Hope I'm around to see that one!!!

Anybody see Zardoz? Watch it. Not so much for the story, but the beginning and the depiction of the existing social order. Then decide if it is actually WORTH surviving....
james bain

Considering all of the deaths and damaged the South East United States has experienced due to tornadoes I know that shelters such as these could have saved a lot of lives.
Curtis M

Yes, of course nuclear war won't destroy all life on earth. How dare Susan Roy have suggested such a concept, a major war between the soviets and the US would kill a few hundred million at most. Things wouldl get back to normal pretty darn quickly after maybe a couple of rough weeks. Get back to my tennis game, the wife will start playing gin rummy again.
And maybe some lead clothing can help even more to survive. People without shelters can prepare with plastic sheeting and duct tape, maybe a portable air filtering device, as for me I'll be down in my shelter, smoking my pipe, reading Phillip K Dick.
G. Orwell

Dawn. You speak the truth.


Georgia O'Keefe paid locals in Abiquiu, New Mexico to install a bomb shelter at her home. I can imagine they thought "Crazy gringo bitch, stole our water, now hopes to see us fry."

Since Abiquiu is fifty miles from nowhere, I can't see how she expected to survive once it was safe to go out.

It would make an interesting story combining elements from the Twilight Zone and the Milagro Bean Field War.

Pro Lific

I thought I might want that book by Chuck West and only found one available at bookfinders. At $154, it's a tad more than I'd like to invest, unfortunately.

I remember much talk of fallout shelters back in the early 60s, but never saw any, probably due to our high water table in FL.

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