The History of Fallout Shelters In America
The constant disagreements between the United States of America and the Federation of Russia were so heated that the threat of nuclear war became a reality. To protect U.S. citizens from potential death, the Department of Defense devised the Fallout Shelter Program. These shelters were meant to house families and numerous people and keep them safe from the potential excess smoke and debris, aka, the "fallout". Keep reading to learn how it helped keep Americans together and the effect that it had on U.S. culture.
The Cold War
The Cold War was a period of pure tension between the Soviet Union (now Russia) and the United States. The eminent threat that Russian was going to bomb the United States with their nuclear missiles at some point during the war made the U.S. more prepared for what could come their way.
In an attempt to create safety and security for the country and the citizens, the United States government decided to develop fallout shelters. These shelters were built as bunkers beneath buildings and houses to protect people from nuclear smoke, waste, and other poisonous residues.
Before fallout shelters were made, there was NEAR, or the National Emergency Alarm Repeater program. This program was developed in 1956, and it was curated by the United States government as a warning sign of approaching danger including gas leaks, onset national attacks, and nuclear attacks, symbolized by their logo featured below.
The alarm repeater program was created as an addition to the siren warning systems and radio broadcasts in the event of a nuclear attack from their opposing country and their allies. Unfortunately, the program disbanded and shelters were used instead.
After realizing that the sirens by themselves were not enough and that the shelters had more of a better success rate at protecting the citizens, the United States implemented the Community Fallout Shelter Program as a propaganda tactic to prepare families for nuclear war that could happen at any moment.
The program was developed in September 1961 under the direction of Steuart L. Pittman (featured), the then Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security. The program was agreed upon by the government and even backed by President John F. Kennedy.
In 1964, President John F. Kennedy (left) wanted to show his commitment to a fallout shelter program and pledged to "let every citizen know what steps he can take without delay to protect his family in case of attack." Therefore, he called for the protection of fallout shelters and the immediate construction of them.
At the same time of encouraging private shelter construction companies, he also presented the case to Congress and requested a $207 million appropriation for the first (and only) large-scale public shelter program proposed at the federal level. Low and behold, it was approved.
To enhance their ploy to persuade U.S. citizens that fallout shelters were the way to go, President John. F. Kennedy decided to interview on a more social level. Kennedy decided to write a letter to one of the most popular magazines of the 60s, Life Magazine, to advise the use of fallout shelters throughout the country.
Additionally, in November of the same year, Fortune magazine published an article outlining plans for a concrete-lined underground shelter. Its goal would be to create a gigantic network of shelters throughout the U.S. that could shelter millions of people in case of nuclear war.
To make the fallout shelter initiative a reality, wealthy men decided to help out with the plans to create a network of underground shelters. One of the first to want to help was Nelson Rockefeller, an American businessman, and politician who served as the 41st vice president from 1974-1977.
There was also Edward Teller (featured), a Hungarian American theoretical physicist and the "father of the hydrogen bomb", Herman Kahn, a futurist and military strategist, and Chester Holifield, a U.S. businessman, and California politician who worked with issues on atomic energy.
More than anyone, scientists were the most skeptical about the efficacy of fallout shelters as a strategic move for mass survival. Reasons for this reasonable doubt included that the limited urban attack scenarios were based on different variables like the weapons used and the height and location of the detonation.
The effects of the powerful explosions could also travel for miles, which could have made it difficult to find the right place for a community shelter. Because of the indecisiveness, once the public found out, it became more of a "bet" to see who was more prepared for nuclear death, and people tried to create their own shelters.
Polling data focused on the private fallout shelters that were built following the pursuit of creating personal protection instead of community security. In March 1960, approximately 1,565 personal home shelters were built, and by June 1961, 60,000 had emerged, whether they were useful or ineffective.
By 1965, an estimated 200,000 private home fallout shelters had been erected in the U.S. This may seem like a big number, but after calculation based on the number of houses, that number represents only 1 in 266 homes or 0.4%.
Rockefeller vs. Kennedy
Nelson Rockefeller (featured) was sold on the idea of creating only private family shelter programs and put major efforts to require them in every home, versus Kennedy's plan for community shelters. Yet, Rockefeller fell short and his feat was largely rejected by the public because it would require each family to fund their own shelter, which many of them could not afford.
The rejection was brought to the public and media and incurred national intervention. In essence, the rejection of Nelson's plan is essentially what influenced the existence of the Kennedy public shelter program.
Creating the community fallout shelters was the most imperative - and challenging - part of the shelter program due to the cost that it would take to create such a mass object. There was also the feat of building them strong enough to withstand the smog and smoke of any radiation that may occur.
Typically, each shelter was based on several factors including the locations and depths of the underground shelters, climate and humidity control to prevent health issues, the quality and quantity of shield that protects the shelter, and the various knick-knacks that were needed for survival.
Some public shelters were on the middle floors of some tall buildings or parking lots. For this to be safe, the upper floors were paved with thick metals, and the windows were small and out of sight of the radius blast.
You may think that most fallout shelters were underground but think again. It was just as easy to spot an above-ground shelter based on the location of what the shelter was connected to. Above-ground buildings already had concrete walls with steel frames, which made them a strategic place to house people. Some were even made of wood.
Additionally, because most above-ground shelters were about one mile high, it was able to rise above the atmosphere where the nuclear waste survived. Other places in the United States were creative and created their fallout shelters in dense trees or in between mountain ranges.
Can you imagine spending at least two weeks in a random underground bunker or tunnel with hundreds to thousands of other people? Well, the people of the 1960s did and they had certain precautions that they had to take to ensure their safety.
For starters, a minimum of two weeks was required for the dirty air to clear out. Fortunately, citizens were allowed one hour of outside time at the end of the week for sanity reasons. They also had to take potassium iodide each day. This was an additional measure to protect their thyroid gland from taking in any radioactive iodine from the fallout.
Due to the fallout shelters being mostly within concrete and metal infrastructure, climate control was a huge deal to ensure minimal health risks like bacteria development, dehydration, and human-to-human sicknesses like the flu or any other type of airborne illnesses.
Dry earth was the best thermal insulator, although, after several weeks, the temperature would increase significantly. At that point, the easiest way to keep people cool was to use a wide fan with flaps that kept the air pumping through the tunnels and bunkers.
Packaged Ventilation Kit
A packed ventilation kit - or PVK - was a compact, portable ventilation device that could be electrically operated, or pedaled manually if the electricity was out or on low power. They were generally used below ground as an emergency to increase the habitability of any and all types of community shelters.
Engineers that worked with the U.S. government carried out a Small Structures Survey to map out the tunnel to determine the most effective place to station the PVKs in 1963. However, the PVK program was short-lived and by 1965, the government ceased funding for the instruments.
The shielding of the shelter was the most important part because its job was to protect the internal contents of the bunker from major radiation exposure. The required shielding was achieved with 10 times the thickness of any quality of material capable of cutting gamma-ray exposure in half. Then multiple thicknesses were applied, the shielding power multiplied.
Let's not forget about the blast doors. Blast doors were designed to absorb the shock wave of a nuclear blast. It worked by the blast hitting the door and soaking in the impact, which literally bent it out of shape before it returned to its original rectangular form.
Within these super shelters, certain items were standard to ensure the safety of the people that resided in there for days, to weeks, to even months. A battery-powered radio was one of them that helped to get reports of the pattern of the fallout and the clearance level of it.
Other "Minimum Pre-Crisis Preparations" included radios, hammers, and nails, along with a pick and some furniture, and a toilet. Ventilation pumps and chemicals like hypochlorite bleach were also available, alongside a barrel filled with 17 1/2 gallons of clean, drinkable water.
Kearny Fallout Meter
A Geiger counter is an electronic instrument used for detaching the measuring radiation that could be spreading within the air. They were used to detect possible radiation, but they were very expensive to make and required frequent recalibration, which didn't help.
Therefore, the Kearny fallout meter, or KFM, was developed. It was a radiation meter that was designed to catch and determine levels of possible biological threats in the air. No batteries were needed for adjustment either, just the blueprint, a coffee can, fishing line, and aluminum foil.
All of the precautions were used for one purpose: to keep them safe and alive from the few poisonous types of radiation that could end their life slowly and painfully. Different types of radiation emitted from the fallout included alpha radiation, beta radiation, and the third type (and most dangerous), gamma radiation.
The U.S. government used media outlets to explain the severity of how radiation could affect someone. On the light side, it could cause skin burns and "radiation sickness" in the form of vomiting. On a heavier note, it could cause major health effects like cancer and cardiovascular disease.
From any atomic blast that you witness, you'll notice that alpha radiation is always the first detected. Thankfully, it is the best-case scenario compared to beta and gamma radiation. Alpha particles were researched and were found to have little penetration power through the human skin, or even a sheet of paper.
However, if alpha radiation were to make surface contact with the skin, it could cause swelling, blisters, and surface burns like the hand featured in the picture. This was the easiest radiation type to avoid by simply staying out of direct contact with the blast site and the air within a two-mile radius.
After alpha, comes beta radiation (middle), which is a bit stronger than alpha considering that it can pass through paper. However, after the wealthy partners and researchers conducted experiments, they concluded that beta radiation was not strong enough to pass through certain items like wood, aluminum foil, or human body tissue.
Like alpha waves, the best way for people to avoid the effects of beta radiation was to stay out of direct contact with the blast. The worst-case scenario was someone experiencing skin burns, which could be shielded by regular clothing.
Beta burns were considered a small-scale effect compared to the largest effect of death, and were quite simple to cure if anyone obtained them. Medical personnel within the tunnels, as well as some citizens and parents, would teach the inhabitant how to get rid of the burns if they were experiencing irritated skin.
One of the options was to remove the person's outer clothing and follow the decontamination procedures with the shelter. Luckily, the particles would cease to be radioactive enough to cause further burns once the clothes were discarded, and burns would fade after a few days.
Gamma radiation (symbol featured) was the biggest threat to the people and the country because of its powerful and poisonous effects. Most fallout shelters were designed with lead to protect mostly from gamma radiation due to it being the only type of metal that can at least slow it down.
Although helpful, some gamma radiation was still strong enough to surpass the lead walls and find its way into the best shelters. Yet, because of the daily intake of potassium iodine, its effects could be reduced if a blast were to ever occur.
Gamma Radiation Reduction
Certain measures created by the medical liaisons and the United States government were set in place to reduce the gamma radiation and the death toll it could cause. For instance, windows had to be bricked to make the cracks smaller, and gaps in the shielding had to be blocked using water containers.
On radioactively contaminated sites like the one featured in the picture, roads were pressure washed to move the radiation-filled debris out of the city ranges. Also, deforestation occurred and nearby trees had to be eradicated to reduce the dose of potential fallout that could rested on and in the branches and leaves.
Types of Fallout Shelters
As basic as a fallout shelter seems, they came in various shapes and sizes based on the location of the blast, and the underground blueprint from which the structure could be created. Different materials were used to create either pods, domes, tunnels, cylinders, or cubed-styled fallout shelters.
No one style of shelter was better than the other, yet some shelters had more space than others simply because of the shape they were built in. Popular materials for construction included steel, concrete, aluminum, fiberglass, and even wood. It all depended on how close the shelter was to the atomic blast.
Pod fallout shelters were considered one of the smallest types and were mostly used for families or small groups under 10 people. They were primarily made with steel infrastructure and beams with concrete being used as the outer covering for protection against alpha and beta waves.
Because pod-type fallout shelters were the smallest - and in some cases, the weakest form - they were typically built deeper underground or further away from the blast site, approximately two to three miles out. Small groups would have to travel to the shelters if they wanted a chance of residing in one.
Dome-shaped structures were typically built above ground and led underground via a narrow staircase. It was built and commonly called "bomb shelters" because of the protection it provided, and the aesthetics, considering that it was in a round shape, like a bomb.
They were made mostly out of concrete with some aluminum lining on the inside for added protection. They also doubled as a utility room or guest house when not in use for protection against radiation. It would cost about $1,200 to make one in 1951, which is north of $13,000 today.
Cube shelters were usually built as an attachment to a building or house. Cube shelters, like domes, were generally built with concrete and used wooden beams on top and inside the structure to create balance from another blast that could occur. Some of these concrete blocks were also filled with sand to further reduce the amount of radiation that could come in.
The United States Department of Defense helped by providing a proper protocol for creating personal fallout shelters if people did not want to travel. Considering that beams and cinder blocks were square, cube-style shelters were the easiest to make.
Tunnel Shelters were the largest form of fallout shelter and could house thousands of citizens at once, although the shortcoming was the small amount of personal space that people had. The tunnels were created out of concrete on the outside and lead on the inside and deeper underground to prevent an excessive amount of radiation from entering.
Tunnels could be as short as 500 feet to as long as 5,000 feet! Many tunnels were created in the early 1950s, with more sprouting a few years later and into the 1960s. Tunnels also had the most supplies and resources because of the number of people housed there.
While the average 1950s home was not the best place to create a shelter, many people decided to do so thanks to the Department of Defense's architectural plans of how to design one. Home shelters were thought to be a short degree of protection because they did not have the proper supplies to keep families safe while inside unless they gathered them themselves.
However, it was highly probable that families could gather the materials needed to build one. Most of these shelters were cubed, so cinder blocks, concrete, sand, and aluminum were primary for creating a home shelter.
As you can imagine, it would be quite challenging staying in a cramped tunnel or small shelter without any food. Most of the food in the shelters was non-perishable which meant that the food could last a long time and nourish people quickly like crackers, biscuits, and even wafers. There were even carbohydrate supplements made in the form of hard candy.
Each "shelteree" was granted 10,000 calories per two-week shelter stay - or 700 calories per day - which is efficient enough for the human body to maintain its current weight.
The Red Cross was one of the major suppliers of food distribution during the prime of fallout shelter necessity. The Red Cross came out with a handbook titled Basic Course In Emergency Mass Feeding, and it describes how survival crackers and carbohydrate candy supplements could be kept in large tin containers to retain freshness, along with smaller, yet stacked boxes of Bulgar wafers.
Shelter management initiated rations for each person to ensure everyone was fed. Each person would receive approximately four crackers or biscuits which was based on six servings per day at approximately 125 calories each.
Of the food that was given to the shelterees, the carbohydrate supplements were the most interesting. They were designed with poly-saturated carbs - including wheat and sugar - to help sustain hunger. They were about half an inch in length, in cube or oval form, and were about the size of a piece of bubble gum.
The supplements came in various colors due to dyes that were added to them. However, in the early 1960s, they were disbanded due to the researchers finding out that the dyes caused cancer. Some of them still exist and are still edible.
Cereal was another form of food that was given to individuals as a form of carbohydrates and sugars. The rations were approximately one handful four times per day. Cereal was a hot commodity because it would typically have more flavor than crackers or biscuits.
Although a crowd favorite, the cereal rations could not be left in one spot for too long. After a few years and some laboratory tests, it was found that the cereal had become rancid. It would cause irritation of the intestinal tract and stomach, which lead to vomiting and diarrhea and were no longer commissioned for consumption. Sugar Bombs was a popular brand amongst the shelterees.
Survival crackers were the most abundant form of fallout shelter food because of the easiness of development and the sustenance that they provided each individual. They were made of Bulgar wheat and were dubbed the "All-Purpose Survival Cracker" because of the additional nutrients many shelters were thankful for.
For comparison, the survival cracker was about the size of half of today's graham cracker, and each person would receive four to six of them per day depending on the number of people in the shelter. These crackers were distributed to each known shelter in the U.S. over a span of six years.
Survival Food Containers
The containers that housed the food were an imperative part of the fallout shelter survival program. They were made out of tin or aluminum material and could hold 20-80 pounds of food, either crackers, biscuits, or cereal. The food and containers were provided by the Office of Civil Defense, a sector of the U.S. Department of Defense.
Each container came with a label of the contents of the container, the amount, the location of distributions, and the date on which it was set for delivery. Some of the containers were also the size of sardine cans, and could only hold crackers or carb supplements.
The biscuits, crackers, and carbohydrate supplements were used to keep bodies fed and people satisfied, but it wasn't as horrid and dry as it sounds. Other foods were available towards the mid-1960s and people were extremely excited about the additional satisfying treats.
Among these sustainable treats was peanut butter that people would spread on the crackers. There was even packaged soup that could soak in lukewarm water and be ingested. Let's not forget about canned meats including some frozen sardines and Spam! Drinks like orange Tang were added to the menu as well.
Water drums were one of the most important items in the fallout shelter when it came to body temperature control. Including the large fan used to keep the shelter's cool, the air would still be hot or, at times, the fan would break. The water was used to ensure no one passed out from a solvable issue like dehydration.
Water was kept in a steel or fiberboard drum, and the 17 1/2 gallons of it provided approximately one quart (four cups) of water per individual per day. Inside the drums were plastic lining to keep the water from being contaminated over time.
Shelter Medical Kits
Each shelter, whether public or home, had to have a medical kit in case of radiation intake or onset injury that could occur. For starters, the kits contained items for recoveries like gauze, sponges, bandages, operational scissors, needles, and wire for potential stitching.
There were also heavy medicines. Potassium iodide was provided to public fallout shelters, while home shelters had to obtain theirs individually. There were also phenobarbital tablets given to control abnormal electrical activity in the body. There were also two types of kits: kit A and kit C.
Medical Kit A
Community fallout shelters used medical kit A for groups of 50-65 persons and were meant more for everyday cuts, bruises, and medical checkups than serious injury or illness. Kit A contained purified cotton balls to clean away possible infections, and also housed the gauze pads that were mentioned earlier. Vaseline was also part of the medical deal.
Kit A was useful for approximately two weeks before the supplies faded away. The medical items were distributed and recommended by the Civil Defense Family Guide - Emergency Health Care manual which was approved by the American Medical Association.
Medical Kit C
Medical kit C was essentially a bigger - and more qualitative - version of medical kit A. It could provide medical services for a group of 300-325 people and was also provided by the Office of Civil Defense. Here, you could find items like Aspirin tablets, eye & nose drops, Isopropyl alcohol, and even penicillin.
Surgical soap was a staple item to ensure proper disinfection from possible radiation that may have lied on top of a shelteree's skin, while water purification tablets made sure that the water kept people hydrated and healthy.
In each fallout shelter, the U.S. Department of Defense did its best to supply radiation instruments so that the foremen of each location can monitor the amount of radiation both inside and outside of the shelter. Detection devices like the CD V-700 and the CD V-72 were able to obtain samples of the radiation and determine its poison level.
Other devices like the CD V-781 and CD v-457 (featured) were stronger and could detect features like which type of radiation was in the air. They were also powerful enough to check radiation levels for alpha, beta, and gamma waves in concrete, wood, steel, and even sand.
Atomic Energy Commission
Can you guess who supplied the radiation detection devices? That's right, it was the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The organization was formed in 1946 by the U.S. Congress to foster and control the peacetime development of atomic science and technology following the devastation of World War II.
The AEC provided the States with low-grade instruments for them to train with. Towards the mid-1960s, there were up to 150,000 instruments throughout the country. However, because of cost, each state had to acquire its own. Later, because of the diffusion of worry, the AEC was disbanded in 1975.
Fallout Shelter Sign
On the inside, it was easy to determine if you were in a fallout shelter due to all the material being obvious, but how do you think people found the shelter itself? Simple, they put up a sign. Each community fallout shelter had a yellow and black sign designed with a black circle and three triangles in them with the literal words "fallout shelter" plastered on it.
The sign was made in 1961 and was designed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. The director or administrative logistics support function, Robert W. Blakeley was the driving force behind such a simple and organized solution.
Fallout Protection Booklet
The public was aware of fallout shelters and why they were being discussed, but Kennedy thought that it was best that the citizens have access to the details of what to possibly expect. Therefore, in 1962, the Department of Defense - Office of Civil Defense created the publication Fallout Protection: What to Know and Do About Nuclear Attack.
The book was filled with earlier information from pamphlets that talked about the family and public shelter designs. It also called for a de-emphasis on private shelters to focus more on national community fallout shelters.
Even when fallout shelters were being discussed in the early 1960s, artists, writers, and even public figures were using the national crisis as a trampoline to launch their own creative platforms. For example, authors Robert A. Heinlein, Dean Ing, and Walter M. Miller wrote novels that featured the fallout shelters.
Even a 1961 Twilight Zone episode conveniently titled "The Shelter" (featured) showcased utilizing the shelter and the worst-case scenario of being in it during an actual nuclear attack. Fear was also a result of the show Only Fools and Horses when they aired an episode in 1981 called "The Russians are coming."
Movies and series
Remember the film Blast from the Past? It was released in 1999 and was featured as a romantic comedy. It told the story of a nuclear physicist and his family moving into a well-equipped fallout shelter in 1962, and not emerging until 1997! The film showcased their reaction to the modern-day society they now lived in.
There was also the creation and development of the Fallout computer game series that depicted the remains of human civilization after the destructive nuclear war. Currently, on their 76th edition, the game has accumulated millions since 1997.
Malcolm in the Middle is a hilarious T.V. show that features a family and their somewhat hectic lifestyle. In one episode, it revealed the subplot based on characters Reese and Dewey discovering an unknown bomb shelter in their backyard and trapping their father in it, who becomes in love with the 1960s decor.
More recently, the 2019 American film, The Tomorrow Man, focused on a reclusive man whose main drive is tending to his in-home fallout shelter and any conspiracy that could make it reasonable for him to keep it.
To commemorate the short existence of the famous shelters, Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky created the Metro 2033 book series. It features the life of survivors in the subway system below Moscow and Saint-Petersburg following a nuclear exchange with the United States of America. It has also been turned into a video game, featured here.
American author, Hugh Howey, also featured the fallout shelters in his book, the Silo series. They featured extensive fallout-style shelters that protected the inhabitants from any initially unknown disasters in a post-apocalyptic world that starts in 2011. Both series are still available if you're interested in the fantasy world of fallout shelters.
Still in Existence?
Although the community fallout shelter was disbanded in 1975 due to significantly reduced worry from citizens and the government, they are still in existence, but simply not in use. Each year, people stumble upon a half-stocked, decrypted, underground room that feels more like being in a time capsule. Today, there are modern fallout shelters that are more lavish and spacious than in the '60s.
The number of fallout shelters that still exist is unknown; however, through controversy and doubt, they served their purpose of protecting U.S. citizens from (possible) imminent danger.