Duck and Cover: Metropolis reviews Fallout Shelter
As David Monteyne’s fascinating volume, Fallout Shelter: Designing for Civil Defense in the Cold War (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), makes clear, the most important thing to remember is that these structures were not meant to advertise blast protection. The Cold War generation of Americans first encountered them in elementary school, where the civil defense programs, as we later found out, seemed to symbolize only conjoined paranoia and feckless optimism, made all the more ridiculous when we learned about the palliative nature of duck and cover drills. They seemed to be saying that if the school building couldn’t protect you from Soviet warheads, a desk surely would.
The Office of Civil Defense (OCD), which spearheaded the fallout shelter program, made early distinctions between the notion of “fallout” and “blast” protection, but soon abandoned the latter aim as virtually impossible. By 1961, blast protection claims disappeared as multi-megaton nuclear bombs grew in number as did the knowledge of their effects. No, OCD never imagined that your school basement would, in fact, emerge unscathed from the mushroom cloud. “The basic premise of fallout shelter,” Monteyne writes, “is that the explosion of the nuclear bomb must occur elsewhere; there is no need to protect people from radiation if they were already vaporized at ground zero.” Presuming, no doubt correctly, that even a distant explosion would prove massively destabilizing, the fallout shelter program sought to establish central gathering spaces, stocked with supplies, which would offer some central refuge for the citizenry.