On September 15, 1961, millions of Americans who subscribed to Life magazine pulled the latest issue from their mailboxes and beheld something remarkable inside: a letter from President Kennedy addressed to them. But if the fact of the letter was a pleasant surprise, the glow wore off quickly: JFK’s news wasn’t good. “My Fellow Americans,” he wrote, “nuclear weapons and the possibility of nuclear war are facts of life we cannot ignore today.”
Kennedy went on to explain that the federal government would soon begin a program “to improve the protection afforded you in your communities through civil defense.” A national survey was in the offing, one that would identify “all public buildings with fallout shelter potential,” and mark them accordingly.
In other words, the federal government was devising a way for 50 million Americans to survive a nuclear war by scurrying to the nearest basement. The National Fallout Shelter Survey and Marking Program had begun.
It’s the stuff of nostalgia now. Kennedy’s letter and the shelter program he announced happened 56 years ago. It’s a Cold War footnote, a misty memory lost in the era of bouffant hairdos and Gunsmoke.
Or perhaps not.
With North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, pointed west and President Trump’s atomic sabre-rattling, fears of nuclear war have crept slowly back into the public consciousness. If the headlines rekindle some of the old unease about air-raid sirens and mushroom clouds, they’re also an occasion to consider a singular relic of the period that, oddly enough, never left us—the fallout-shelter sign.
Dented and faded now, the Kennedy-era signs still cling to the sides of buildings across the country. “They’re an enduring symbol of the Cold War,” says popular-culture historian Bill Geerhart, who since 1999 has maintained CONELRAD.com, a meticulous chronicling of the duck-and-cover era. “They outlasted everything, including the Berlin Wall. They’re tangible artifacts of that era.” And though their original purpose has vanished, the signs still have much to say. They are the products of an ill-conceived program, designed to appease a population with little faith in that program even working.
Kennedy was privately skeptical about the value of a public shelter program. A surer way to protect Americans from a nuclear attack—which, with the Berlin crisis of 1961, looked increasingly possible—was to build reinforced-concrete blast shelters around the nation that could actually withstand an explosion. But the price tag for those was prohibitive ($200 billion by one estimate), so the feds opted for the next-best thing: shelters that would shield citizens from the radioactive particulates likely to be blowing around in the weeks after an attack. While fallout shelters would do nothing to safeguard people from an actual bomb, they would, in the words of JFK’s civil-defense chief Steuart L. Pittman, give “our presently unprotected population some form of protection.”
Americans got their first look at that protection in January of 1962, when fallout-shelter signs began appearing in 14 cities across the country. Designed by Robert W. Blakeley of the Army Corp of Engineers, the signs featured three yellow triangles inscribed in a black circle—an arresting image approved by government psychologists. As a test, Blakely had envisioned the signs put up in downtown Manhattan “when all the lights are out and people are on the street and don’t know where to go.” And since half of Americans at the time were smokers, Blakeley specified the use of yellow reflective paint to make the signs visible in the glow of a cigarette lighter. The 3M corporation (best known today as the maker of Scotch tape and Post-It notes) manufactured 400,000 shelter signs, for which Uncle Sam paid less than a penny apiece.
The signs popped up everywhere. In New York alone, the Army Corps of Engineers contracted with 38 architectural firms to inspect 105,244 large buildings. Eventually, some 19,000 of them would become shelters.
And what sorts of quarters awaited those who staggered down the stairs? Only a handful were relatively posh; Chase Manhattan Bank, for one, dropped $49,000 on “compressed” wheat biscuits in banana and chocolate flavors to stock its five-story shelter. But most citizens would find only dank, low-ceilinged basements equipped with the barest necessities: bedding, drums of potable water, medical kits and government-issue wheat crackers. And while Uncle Sam thoughtfully provided toilet paper, the toilets themselves were harder to come by. A handy tip from a government booklet advised: “Make a commode by cutting the seat out of a chair and placing the pail under it.” It’s little wonder that the medical kits also included phenobarbital to chill everybody out.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the trouble with such crude accommodations became obvious almost immediately. Mere months into the program, reports emerged of leaking water drums and shelters that had never received any supplies. In a New York Times story in June of 1963, a Harlem woman asked, “Who’d want to go down there?” referring to the fetid tenement cellar meant to serve as her shelter space. The “rats are as big as dogs,” she said. “If fallout came, I’d just run.” In fact, the untenability of the shelters was public knowledge before they had even opened. A November 1961 story on the front page of The Washington Post bemoaned that most of the designated shelters would be little more than “cold, unpleasant cellar space, with bad ventilation and even worse sanitation.”
Conditions were a serious problem, but location was a bigger one. Two-thirds of the fallout shelters in the U.S. were in “risk areas”—neighborhoods so close to strike targets that they’d likely never survive an attack in the first place. In New York, for example, most of the government shelters could be found in Manhattan and Brooklyn—despite the fact that a 20-megaton hydrogen bomb detonated over Midtown would leave a crater 20 stories deep and drive a firestorm all the way to the center of Long Island. Even out there, Life magazine said, occupants of a fallout shelter “might be barbequed.”
What were the feds thinking? According to Kenneth D. Rose, author of the book One Nation Underground, defense officials placed their faith in the counterforce doctrine, a game theory that held that atomic war would be waged with only military installations as targets. But that was wishful thinking. “It wouldn’t take much for the whole theory to totally go south,” Rose said. “If a bomber missed its target and hit a city by mistake, then of course the gloves would come off and both sides would concentrate on cities as well.”
The shelters’ dubious utility also hinged on the shaky bet that the Soviets would drop only one bomb on a city like New York, an assumption that Khrushchev himself later ridiculed in his memoirs. If he’d managed to get “one or two big ones” into Gotham, wrote the Soviet Premier, “there wouldn’t be much of New York left.”
And Americans knew it. Anyone who read the newspapers understood not just that an inbound ICBM would leave them only 15 minutes, if that long, to get to a fallout shelter—but also that few structures in the city would survive a strike anyway. As Steven R. David, professor of international relations at John Hopkins University, observes: “People reasoned, when faced with the prospect of nuclear war, climbing into a shelter probably wasn’t going to do that much good.”
In fact, mere weeks after the shelter program got started, The Washington Post was already reporting “a public feeling of helplessness” about civil defense. In January of 1962, Life magazine encapsulated the sentiments of many when it quoted a bank teller named Dorothy Gannaway. “An attack wouldn’t be one bomb, it would be many,” she said. “We’d die in those shelters.”
The correctives put into place after the Cuban Missile Crisis—the nonproliferation treaty and the hotline to Moscow—spelled the beginning of the end for the beleaguered shelter program. By 1971, the government decided to phase out the stocking of shelters. Eventually, it stopped keeping a list of them. Some building owners donated their shelter rations to the charity CARE, which shipped them to Africa and Bangladesh. In New York, some of the biscuits wound up with an upstate farmer, who fed them to his pigs. Looking back on the civil-defense program in 1976, The New York Times observed: “the only reminders of fallout shelters [now] are the yellow-and-black signs placed outside buildings.”
That’s where thousands remain to this day—eerie reminders of a tense past that, as recent headlines remind us, feels unwantedly familiar. “They couldn’t have come up with a more ominous symbol,” reflected Eric Green, keeper of the Civil Defense Museum website, whose personal collection of fallout-shelter artifacts includes over 140 signs. “That’s the most ominous looking sign—the black and yellow and those triangles. It looked like exactly what it meant: This is the end.”