Re­liv­ing the nu­clear worry

The North Korean threat awak­ens past fears

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Thomas V. DiBacco Thomas V. DiBacco is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Amer­i­can Univer­sity.

In­tel­li­gence re­ports to the ef­fect that North Korea has pro­duced a minia­ture nu­clear war­head that can be placed in­side its mis­siles jolts the his­to­rian to re­live a past that most Amer­i­cans don’t re­call. It was on Aug. 22, 1953, that the Soviet Union det­o­nated its first hy­dro­gen bomb. Like most Au­gusts in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, the sum­mer heat had driven of­fi­cial­dom from the city. As one news­pa­per put it: “There was a min­i­mum of of­fi­cial com­ment, with Pres­i­dent [Dwight] Eisen­hower and most law­mak­ers out of town on va­ca­tion, and no sign that there would be any im­me­di­ate change in United States pol­icy.”

Still, de­bate soon raged in the press and on Capi­tol Hill about what Amer­ica should do as a re­sult of the Sovi­ets get­ting the H-bomb. Some an­a­lysts sug­gested a no-worry stance on the grounds that the Sovi­ets didn’t have the where­withal ac­tu­ally to de­liver a bomb to a far­away tar­get. Oth­ers sug­gested boost­ing re­search and weaponry, and still oth­ers, such as Sen. Charles Pot­ter, Michi­gan Repub­li­can, pointed the blame fin­ger: Soviet tech­nol­ogy was at­trib­ut­able to es­pi­onage com­mit­ted in this coun­try.

A big­ger bomb­shell came in 1957 when a com­mit­tee ap­pointed by Eisen­hower re­leased a re­port call­ing for not only in­creased mil­i­tary spend­ing, but $30 bil­lion for the build­ing of fall­out shel­ters in the event of a nu­clear at­tack. Called the Gaither Re­port, af­ter its chair­man, H. Rowan Gaither, head of the Ford Foun­da­tion, Ike’s ad­min­is­tra­tion paid lit­tle heed, in part, be­cause the U-2 spy planes in­di­cated that Soviet nu­clear progress ap­peared min­i­mal.

If all this has a fa­mil­iar ring in view of the cur­rent North Korean threat, there is a no­table dif­fer­ence: Fall­out shel­ters by pri­vate Amer­i­cans were be­ing built, en­cour­aged in part by the lit­tle-known Fed­eral Civil De­fense Ad­min­is­tra­tion cre­ated dur­ing Ike’s years. I was a teenager grow­ing up in Flor­ida at the time and re­call drills my school had in the event of a nu­clear at­tack. And a cou­ple of my friends’ par­ents had shel­ters of sorts that wouldn’t pass muster be­cause the Sun­shine State’s sandy, wa­tery soil pre­vented build­ing an un­der­ground re­treat.

Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy, more so than Ike, en­cour­aged the build­ing of more shel­ters. “We owe that kind of in­surance to our fam­i­lies and our coun­try,” JFK said on Oct. 6, 1961. “The time to start is now. In the com­ing months, I hope to let ev­ery cit­i­zen know what steps he can take with­out de­lay to pro­tect his fam­ily in case of at­tack. I know you would not want to do less.”

Of course, even a fall­out shel­ter, it was soon reck­oned, was an im­plau­si­ble re­sort. One needed thick con­crete, depth, ven­ti­la­tion, power, wa­ter, san­i­ta­tion and food. And even in the best of nu­clear cir­cum­stances, exit from the shel­ter could be for only short pe­ri­ods — a few hours at most. And not un­til, it was es­ti­mated, at least two weeks had passed af­ter an at­tack.

But the $30 bil­lion for pub­lic and pri­vate shel­ters that the Gaither Re­port had rec­om­mended didn’t ma­te­ri­al­ize. Congress only ap­pro­pri­ated $169 bil­lion of the $209 bil­lion that JFK had urged, and much of that money was spent not on cities where bombs, it was be­lieved, would de­stroy vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one, but in ru­ral ar­eas. Some stand to­day as mon­u­ments to fu­til­ity, such as the one in Los Al­tos, Calif., near San Fran­cisco. Some 15 feet deep, the shel­ter was 25 by 48 feet, de­signed to ac­com­mo­date 96 peo­ple.

The shel­ter ef­fort got some pub­lic­ity as, for ex­am­ple, on the cover of Life mag­a­zine on Jan. 12, 1962, but af­ter the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis was eased later that year, the nu­clear worry faded. Also get­ting pub­lic­ity was the re­ally big fed­eral shel­ter in Green­brier, W.Va., de­signed to hold all mem­bers of Congress — and about which se­crecy still abounds.

Au­thors and movie mak­ers try­ing to bring home the rel­e­vance of nu­clear catas­tro­phe found an un­re­cep­tive au­di­ence, as il­lus­trated by the film, “On the Beach,” based on the book by Nevil Shute and re­leased in 1959. Di­rected by Stan­ley Kramer with a star-stud­ded cast — Gregory Peck, Ava Gard­ner, Fred As­taire and An­thony Perkins — the movie dealt with the few re­main­ing sur­vivors of nu­clear war in 1964. They’re in Aus­tralia where in a few months ra­di­a­tion clouds will even­tu­ally reach them. There the last re­main­ing nu­clear sub­ma­rine, the USS Saw­fish, picks up a Morse code sig­nal em­a­nat­ing from the West Coast of the United States.

So the sub­ma­rine ven­tures to San Fran­cisco, then San Diego, and no life could be de­tected. The rest of the film is pre­dictable. All die, by sui­cide or ra­di­a­tion.

The film lost $700,000 — a big sum in those days — with au­di­ences un­moved by the like­li­hood of such a catas­tro­phe. Yet it had a moral, as one critic wrote: “‘On the Beach’ should be re­quired view­ing for ev­ery politi­cian who takes an oath of of­fice, the globe around, just to be cer­tain.”

Au­thors and moviemak­ers try­ing to bring home the rel­e­vance of nu­clear catas­tro­phe found an un­re­cep­tive au­di­ence, as il­lus­trated by the film, “On the Beach.”


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