Civil Defense

Copyright 1984,1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

If the bombs were to begin falling today, how many people would be prepared for nuclear war? Unfortunately, for Americans the answer is very few. The United States has ignored the program which could easily prepare the citizenry for a nuclear war. Although in the Cold War era the United States had a Civil Defense program, that program has been allowed to lapse in recent years; however, we can, and must, formulate a new Civil Defense program to prepare for the possibility of a nuclear war. While our present Civil Defense program is practically non-existant, we must have a viable Civil Defense program in the future, and that can only be done if we start today.

Shortly after the dropping of the two fission bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the conclusion of the Scond World War, the implications of this terrible new weapon began to be clear in the minds of the people. At the same time, relations betwen the United States and the Soviet Union enterd a dark phase known today as the Cold War era. In those days the United States embarked upon the first program for Civil Defense in the nuclear age.

Before any plans could be laid, the planners needed reliable data on the problems involved. Acquiring this data required research, and an extensive program of nuclear research began. To ascertain the effects of a nuclear explosion, numerous weapons tsts were made in Nevada and in the Pacific Ocean. Equipment was designed and tested extensively to prove its value in protecting civilians from the various effects of nuclear wapons. Finally shelters were built and equipped, then occupied for various lengths of time by volunters while researchers studied the physical, mental and sociological effects of the stresses of shelter life upon the occupants of these shelters.1 These and other tests produced valuable data for the foundations of a Civil Defense program.

Once the foundations of Civil Dfense as a federal policy had been laid, the program had to be taken to the ordinary citizen. This required an extensive program of educating the civilian population. While civilians in a conventional war had time to learn survival skills from experience, civilians in a nuclear war would have no second chance to learn. Survival skills had to be learned before a nuclear war if they were to be of any value.2 To this end, the federal government produced an enormous volume of bulletins, pamphlets and other printed matter instructing civilians in preparing for a nuclear war. Federal, state and local officials offered training courses to civilians wishing to learn further survival skills. Everywhere the government was educating the civilian populace on the correct action to take in a nuclear war.

The populace needed protection from radiation in fallout, protction which required the preparation of fallout shelters. To protect a large number of civilians, public shelters were designed. Large amounts of money were appropriated for the National Shelter Survey, which located, modified and equipped shelters in existing buildings.3 Shelters for workers in vital industries were constucted in the factories themselves.4 But these public shelters could not hold all the people. To cover this matter, the government also encouraged homeowners to construct and equip home fallout shelters for the protection of their families.

As the populace would be unable to make the best use of available protection if they had no warning of a nuclear attack, the government devised warning sysems to alert the populace of an atttack. The familiar local Civil Defense sirens were developd and installed at this time. For families not living within range of a siren, the National Emergency Alarm Repeater (NEAR), a device to b plugged into ordinary house outlets and produce a distinctive tone when activated by Civil Defense officials, was planned.5 To provide further information during the attack, CONELRAD (CONtrol of ELectromagnetic RADiation) was planned. In the event of a nuclear attack, all radio stations would broadcast only on the 640 and 1240 emergency frequencies, and on reduced power, carrying only official Civil Defense information.6 These warning systems would protect civilians in a nuclear war by alerting them to the need to take shelter and providing information for their use once they arrived in those shelters.

All these plans to protect the populace would be useless if there was nothing left for them when they emerged from their shelters. To assure that there would be a society for the survivors, government and industry laid vast construction plans to rebuild society after a nuclear war. To assure the continuance of American finances, the Federal Reserve Board stored money, documents, records and other vital instruments of economy.7 The Department of Commerce developed a stockpile of strategic materials unavailable in America sufficient to last for years.8 Other agencies made similar preparations. To assure that these stores would be put to use wisely and efficienctly, both government and industry developed extensive lines of successsion to assure the continuancy of their organizations should key executives be killed.9 Other plans, secret by their very nature, provided for the handling of sensitive matters. All these myriad plans were designed to assure the survival of the American political, economic and social systems.

Achieving these far-reaching goals required an extensive organization on many levels. The federal Office of Civil Defense (CCD) divided the United States into eight regions, each with its own regional OCD headquarters. Subordinate to these regional headquarters were the state and local Civil Defense organizations.10 With this extensive organization, the American Civil Defense organization seemed certain to achieve its far-sighted goals.

While the Cold War era Civil Defense program was an extensive, nationwide effort, today's Civil Defense program has dwindled to virtual non-existance. Far from being protected, the American people are exposed, virtual hostages in the nuclear struggle. How could this dreadful state of affairs have been permitted to come to be?

First, the education about nuclear war that most citizens have received in recent years is negative, even defeatist. America has been demoralized by many myths about nuclear war, every one of which is utterly false.11 These myths have diverted valuable energy which should have been used for Civil Defense to hopeless whining and doomsaying.

For instance, a common nuclear myth postulates an irrationally large attack and enormous amounts of fallout.12 Such an attack would be wasteful of weapons and delivery systems, much like a hunter expending all his shells on the first deer he sights. Like the wise hunter who only uses the shells needed, a competent, professional Soviet general would use only the number of weapons needed to achieve the objective, not irrationally launch every weapon in the arsenal.13

Another popular myth grossly exaggeratees the power of nuclear weapons effects, leaving people with a feeling of hopelessness and futility.14 Enormous blast radii, "walls of fire" incinerating huge areas and other greatly exaggerated effects are common components of this myth.15 Such effects are solely the product of imagination, not scientific fact. The often-mentioned firestorms, for example, actually are self-limiting in nature and probably could not start in most American cities of steel and concrete.16

Another popular myth speaks of the ecology collapsing after nuclear war.17 Readers familiar with Nevil Schute's On the Beach will recall the vivid description of a cloud of fallout from a war in the Northern Hemisphere arriving in Australia and wiping out the last few human survivors. Similarly, John Wyndham's Re-Birth detailed huge areas poisoned by radiation for thousands of yars, as well as innumerable mutants. All thes components of this popular myth are wrong. The On the Beach type radiation cloud would require far more weaons than are possessed in all modern arsenals combined.18 The idea of a poisoned world for centuries to come fails to take into account radioactive decay, which produces stable, non-radioactive isotopes.19 And as for mutants, genetic damage caused by a nuclear war will not be particularly noticible amidst the spontaneous rate of deformity.20 When the facts are examind, this myth is as foolish as all the rest.

Perhaps the most foolish nuclear myth of all postulates the survivors meekly resigning themselves to the difficulties of recovery, which are regarded as insurmountable.21 No reaction more contrary to human nature could be imagined. Far from giving up, most survivors would regard the difficulties of reconstruction as challenges spurring them to new heights of achievement. The time after a nuclear war would not be a time of savagery, but rather another of many difficult ages for us to work our way through.22

All these myths are untrue. They are composed largely of facts taken out of context and bound together with the opinions and fears of those who create and perpetrate nuclear myths. However, we have allowed these myths to demoralize us into believing that there is nothing that we can do in a nuclear war. That idea is at the root of the current withering of Civil Defense.

Unfortunately, what little Civil Defense does exist often represents wasted effort, for the United States lacks a co-ordinating program. A sad example of this is the crisis relocation program, a plan to evacuate target areas during a time of international tension which portends nuclear war. Government documents provide extensive instructions for evacuating for any family in target areas.23 This information gives a false impression; however, as the crisis relocation program lacks vital preparation. There is little or no food or medicine stockpiled in the host communities scheduled to receive these evacuees from the target areas.24 In an actual emergency, the orderly evacuation would probably degenerate into chaos almost immediately.

Worse yet, we have largely squandered the fortune of preparations from the Cold War era. The most obvious example of this is the shameful state of the fallout shelters that were prepared in those years. Many of those shelters were in buildings that no longer exist.25 The remaining shelters are woefully inadquate. Some are not readily accessable.26 Subsequnt alterations by the building owners have blocked off or filled the areas dsignated as a shelter.27 Almost all remaining shelters lack basic necessities such as stored food and water, lights, sanitary facilities and ventilation.28 Many shelters with fans will not bnefit from them; these fans could b rendered inoperable by electromagnetic pulse (EMP) or blast overpressure as low as 1 psi.29 Also, many public shelters lack reliable radiation-detecting equipment and people trained to use it.30 Furthermore, no preparations for the mental and sociological health of the shelterees have been taken.31 This is the present situation of the wealth of public fallout shelters.

The warning systms designed to alert civilians of nuclear attack are also of questionable value as they now stand. The National Warning System (NAWAS) is a wire-line servic carrying attack warnings and information to local sirens and radio stations.32 The Emergency Broadcasting System (EBS) uses regular AM radio stations to carry warnings and information to the public during a nuclear attack.33 The emergency weather radio stations also erport nuclear attack. Nowever fine this may look on the surface, several flaws in the system could prove disastrous. NAWAS, EBS stations and the emergency weather radio stations are all vulnerable to EMP. Furthermore, the area of the country with the most nuclear targets has the fewest emergency weather radio stations.34 Many of the local sirens no longer work properly, and factory whistles or other devices may be substituted during an attack.35 The worst problem by far is public ignorance. Many people cannot identify the siren tone, and many more would not take the warning seriously unless there had been a lengthy, well-publicized crisis beforehand.36 All these problems could destroy the effctiveness of thes warning systems in alerting the populace to take survival measures.

The worst problem is the lack of government involvement. American government activity in Civil Defense has been sporadic and prone to sudden shifts of emphasis.37 Civil Defense has sufferred from poor priorities, poor policies, and poor judgement.38 Poor funding has complicated the problem. While China spends $5 per capita on civil defense; Switzerland $10; and the USSR, $20; the US spends a mere 40 per capita.39 Consequently, state and local Civil Defense activities declined. Many communities have only a minimal Civil Defense program, or even none at all.40 Civil Defense as it now stands can do nothing to help the populace during a nuclear war.41

The future is like a lump of clay, waiting for us to shape it. We can easily choose to shape it in the image of the present, being content with our shameful vulnerability. To pursue such a path of non-action would be a betrayal of the promise of the future. Instead, we must mold into that futur a viable Civil Defense program which will protect our children, and our children's children.

To do this we must first educate the populace. First, the government must tell the truth about Civil Defense as a federal program.42 No longer can the pretense of activity be tolerated. Then the public must be instructed in vital survival skills.43 Citizens must know how to respond quickly to the first signs of nuclear attack, and how to respond to problems that may arise at a result of the attack.44 Most importantly, citizens must be mentally and emotionally prepared for nuclear war to avoid being paralyzed by terror at a critical moment.45 Education cannot include only facts and instructions, but must provid rasons for instructions as well.46 Properly educated, Amricans will be better equipped to face a nuclear war.

Secondly, we must have a fallout shelter program. We must build new public shelters to replace those which are beyond repair or restoration. New constructions can include fallout shelters without substantial increase in cost.47 Then we must restore the remaining public shelters from the Cold War era. Old and new shelters alike must be equipped and maintained if they are to remain useful. Also, the construction of home fallout shelters should be encouraged, perhaps by offering an income tax deduction for families building shelters. For those unable to use public shelter or construct permanent home sheltrs, expediency shelter instructions must be available as well. Whatever we do, we must protect the populace from fallout.

The finest shelters will be useless, however, if the populace is not alerted to the need to take cover in them. Thus we must drastically upgrade our warning systems. First we must install new local sirens and repair or replace malfunctioning sirens to assure that every community will be warned of an attack. Then we must protect all warning equipment -- NAWAS, EBS stations, emergency weather radio stations, and local sirens -- from the effects of EMP.48 Lastly, we must maintain those warning systems so they will be available should their need arise.

We must also have a comprehensive reconstruction plan to ease the difficulties of the post-war years. We must have duplicate government and industrial records, updated regularly, to replace those destroyed in an attack. We must have stockpiles of vital resources, and means to continue industrial production. But most of all, America must be able to restore mechanized agriculture as swiftly as possible aftr a nuclear war. We simply cannot rely upon primitive subsistiance farming.49 Without reconstruction plans, America cannot survive as a nation. With such plans, America can weathr the crisis of a nuclear war.

But to effect all these plans we must have government involvement on all levels. America is still a democracy. If enough people demand a preparedness program and make their determination painfully clear to the elected officialdom through the voting booths, Civil Defense as a government policy will be restored.50 Then the federal government will direct and co-ordinate a national Civil Defense program that this nation desperately needs, steering state and local efforts to a larger design.

Although in the Cold War era the United States had a Civil Defense program, that program has been allowd to lapse in recent years; however, we can, and must, formulate a new Civil Defense program to prepare for the possibility of a nuclear war. While our present Civil Defense program is practically non-existant, we must have a viable Civil Defense program in the future, and that can be done only if we begin today. It will take vast sums of money, much labor, and many sacrifices, but human lives are worth such efforts.


  1. Robert C. Suggs, Survival Handbook, 184.
  2. "Civil Defense," Encyclopedia Brittanica, II-955.
  3. Suggs, 112.
  4. Ibid. 202.
  5. Ibid. 194.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid. 200-201.
  8. Ibid. 200.
  9. Ibid. 200-201.
  10. Ibid. 2.
  11. Cresson H. Kearny, Nuclear War Survival Skills, 9.
  12. Ground Zero, Nuclear War: What's in it for You? 139-141.
  13. Bruce D. Clayton, Ph.D. Life After Doomsday, 28.
  14. Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth, 17-21.
  15. Clayton, 25.
  16. Ibid. 26.
  17. Schell, 22-23.
  18. Clayton, 35.
  19. Ibid. 32.
  20. Ibid. 36.
  21. Ground Zero, 152-153.
  22. Clayton, 36.
  23. Protection in the Nuclear Age, Defense Civil Preparedness Agency, Department of Defense.
  24. Clayton, Preface.
  25. John L. Shaffer, Director, Vermilion County, Illinois, Emergency Services Disaster Agency (ESDA), "Disaster Preparedness in Vermilion County," Novmber 28, 1984.
  26. "Fallout Shelters," Academic American Encyclopedia, VII-15.
  27. Shaffer. Many Danville, Illinois, shelters have been modified until they are useless as fallout shelters. For instance, the shelter in the Commercial-News building now stores rolls of newsprint for the pressses. The First National Bank shelter houses a new computer. The shelter in Saint Elizabeth's Hospital is now filled with pips for the new addition. There is no fallout shelter program as such. (If this is the situation in a county described as "on of the best in the nation" by federal inspectors, what is the state of affairs in other areas?)
  28. Kearny, 42-43.
  29. Ibid. 42.
  30. "Civil Defense" Encyclopedia Americana, 6-75.
  31. Jim McKeever, Christians Will Go Through the Tribulation, 121.
  32. Kearny, 18.
  33. "Civil Defense," Encyclopedia International, 4-447.
  34. Clayton, 50.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Kearny, 19.
  37. "Civil Defense" Academic American Encyclopedia, V-9-10.
  38. Kearny, 229.
  39. Ibid. 239.
  40. "Civil Defense," Encyclopedia Americana, 6-759.
  41. Clayton, 36.
  42. Kearny, 230.
  43. Ibid. 8.
  44. Ibid. 20.
  45. Ibid. 16.
  46. Ibid. 31.
  47. "Fallout Shelter," World Book Encyclopedia, F-22.
  48. "Electromagnetic Pulse," Academic American Encyclopedia, E-116.
  49. Kearny, 77.
  50. Kearny, 230-231.


"Civil Defense," Academic American Encyclopedia, 1983 ed.

"Civil Defense," Encyclopdia Amricana, 1981 ed.

"Civil Defense," Encyclopedia Britannica, 1975 ed.

Clayton, Bruce D. Ph.D. Life After Doomsday, New York: Dial Press, 1980.

"Electromagnetic Pulse," Academic American Encyclopedia, 1983 ed.

"Fallout Shelter," World Book Encyclopedia, 1981 ed.

Ground Zero. Nuclear War: What's In It for You? New York: Pocket Books, 1982.

Hayes, John D. "Civil Defense," Encyclopedia International, 1982.

Kearny, Cresson H. Nuclear War Survival Skills, Coos Bay, Oregon: NWS Research Bureau, 1982.

McCullough, James M. "Fallout Shelter," Academic American Encyclopedia, 1983 ed.

McKeever, Jim. Christians Will Go Through the Tribulation. Millford, Oregon: Omega Publications, 1978.

Protection in the Nuclear Age. Defense Civil Preparedness Agency, Department of Defense.

Rdigway, James M. "Civil Defense," World Book Encyclopedia, 1981 ed.

Schell, Jonathan. The Fate of the Earth. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1982.

Suggs, Robert C. Survival Handbook. New York: Macmillan Company, 1962.

Copyright 1984, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

This paper was originally written for a class in college-preparatory English, taught by Mrs. Eells, Bismarck-Henning High School.

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