The Russians and Americans may not have been fighting with guns, tanks, or bombs, but something far more sinister was lurking just around the corner.
During a “hot war,” an armed fight between nations, it’s mostly the soldiers on the frontlines and civilians living in range of the action who are at risk. But during a “cold war,” (which now is mainly used to refer to the war between the Americans and Russians), the conflict does not involve direct fighting but occurs through hurting the other country’s economy or government, threats, spying, or wars by neighboring countries representing the main countries that are against each other. In the case of the American-Russian Cold War, practically half the world was in danger. At one point, America took the threat of nuclear attack so seriously, the government began building “nuclear fallout shelters” — a room built underground to protect people from the effects of a nuclear bomb.
Today, these “doomsday bunkers,” meaning underground structures to be used in the case of a catastrophe, sound like a piece of fiction. But back then, they stood ready for use at any moment.
Duck and cover
John F. Kennedy (JFK) became the President of the United States in May 1961 — right in the middle of the Cold War. While the US had been developing nuclear weapons since 1939, Russia only caught up in the 1950s. That’s when it began looking more and more likely that the Cold War might turn into a real war at any moment. If it did, it would be a war like no other in history. It would probably be the deadliest war, too.
In October 1961, just five months after becoming president, President Kennedy launched the “national fallout shelter program.” This program, which cost a whopping $207 million, was intended to educate and prepare Americans so they would know what to do if Russia ever sent a nuke their way.
The first thing the government did was check out all the public buildings in the country, to identify the buildings that would be suitable for use as a shelter. These buildings, which included schools, libraries, banks, and malls, were stocked with supplies.
Then, the government worked on educating Americans on what to do in case of a nuclear attack. You know those fire drills you have in school? In the 1960s, schools had “duck and cover” drills. The government made a film about Bert the Turtle who knew just what to do when he saw a big white flash (which is what an atomic bomb makes when it explodes). Bert ducked and then covered himself with his shell. Children watched this film in school, and then practiced ducking under their desks and covering their heads and necks with their arms. Kids were taught what to do if they heard a bomb siren or saw a big white flash when they were in the playground, street, on the school bus, or anywhere in public.
Nowadays, we know how devastating nuclear weapons can be. We know that “duck and cover” won’t cut it as a defense. But back then, Americans knew very little about the effects of an atomic explosion. Duck and cover were all they could do.
Fallout shelters for billionaires
You might think that doomsday bunkers became obsolete after the Cold War ended. Actually, there are hundreds of thousands of nuclear fallout bunkers all over the world. Most of the world’s governments have fallout shelters to protect high-ranking officials in case of a nuclear bomb. But what about us regular folk?
Some entrepreneurs wondered about the answer to that unsettling question, and decided to come up with a solution. Today, there are dozens of fallout shelters around the world that are meant for private citizens. But there’s a catch. To gain access to these shelters, you need to own an apartment in one, and these apartments cost many millions of dollars. Basically, these privately-owned doomsday bunkers are for billionaires only. The rest of us are on our own.
The US has a few such shelters. One is in a top-secret location somewhere in Kansas. During the Cold War, this shelter was actually a nuclear missile silo — an underground structure used to store and launch nuclear missiles — that was built to withstand a ten-kilogram nuclear warhead being fired from inside. Turns out, the silo isn’t just good for storing and firing nukes, it’s also great at protecting people from nukes. The Survival Condo is the brainchild of Larry Hall, who turned the silo into a luxury bunker for the super-rich. The 54,000 square-foot complex has everything to keep 75 people alive for five years. Think of it like a teivah, but 200 feet underground. It’s spread across 15 floors, and has recreation facilities like a pet park, climbing wall, saltwater pool, gym, and movie theatre. There’s also a classroom and library. Then there’s an entire floor just for storage. There’s also space to grow hydroponic fruits and vegetables.
The apartments look the same as any other luxury apartment, except for the windows. Because they’re underground, the windows are LED displays that show the scenery above ground. The windows can change according to the real weather above. It makes living in the earth more bearable.
The community shelter plan
After the public buildings that could be used as shelters had been identified, maps were printed. Each community received a map showing where all the public shelters were. Street signs were put up, pointing pedestrians in the direction of the closest public fallout shelter.
Local municipalities printed pamphlets that included these maps. The pamphlets also gave very detailed instructions so that everyone should know the “community shelter plan,” as it was called.
The Dallas County Community Shelter Plan pamphlet began like this:
Suppose it is 9:30 p.m. You and your family are at home.
Suddenly, you hear the emergency warning signs.
A bulletin flashes on the radio and television: “Radar has detected missiles approaching the United States. Take shelter immediately.” Would you know what to do?
A nuclear attack may never come. But it may come.
Certainly, you want to be prepared… just in case.
The pamphlet then went on to say that even if the community wouldn’t take a direct hit, it may still be close enough to the blast to suffer from “fallout.” “Fallout is the name for the deadly radioactive dust particles which could spread hundreds of miles down-wind from the point of an explosion,” the pamphlet continued.
The pamphlet warned people that water and food could become contaminated by fallout particles. To minimize risks, people were told to wash and peel fruits and vegetables before eating them.
They were also warned not to use the telephone during a nuclear attack simply to obtain information. It was more important to keep the phone lines open for emergencies.
But most importantly, the pamphlet warned people to know where their closest shelter was at all times. After you ducked and covered, you were supposed to head to the shelter to wait out the worst of the radioactive fallout, which could take days, weeks, or months — no one really knew for sure.
Family fallout shelters
But what if you lived in an area that didn’t have public shelters? Rural America is a huge place. If you lived on a large farm or ranch, your closest neighbor could be miles away. People living in the sticks wouldn’t have time to travel all the way to a public shelter. Instead, they were encouraged to build their own.
The pamphlet included instructions for how to build your own shelter at home. Here is a list of materials that you could use to create a nuclear fallout shelter. The weaker the material, the thicker it had to be.
4 inches of solid concrete — the best material to use for a shelter
6 inches of brick or sand
7 inches of earth
8 inches of concrete blocks
10 inches of water
14 inches of books
18 inches of wood
You could build your shelter in the corner of your basement. Better yet, you could dig out a bunker in your garden. Companies started making all sorts of shelter conveniences, like hand-cranked ventilators to air out your shelter, air filters to keep those radioactive particles away, electric generators to upgrade your shelter from basic to comfortable, sleeping cots, sanitation kits, canned water, and even Geiger counters, a machine that measured how much radiation you were being exposed to. Some companies began making prefabricated shelters. These were on display at malls, so you could step inside and get a feel for what it would be like to live in one. Then, all you had to do was rip out half your garden and install the shelter underground.
The Doomsday Bunker
On July 25, 1961 President Kennedy addressed the nation. “In the event of an attack, the lives of those families which are not hit in a nuclear blast and fire can still be saved — if they can be warned to take shelter and if that shelter is available,” he said. “We owe that kind of insurance to our families — and to our country.”
With the president pushing everyone to build their own bunkers, he had to do the same. Officials decided to build a few nuclear fallout bunkers solely for the president’s use.
The obvious choice for one of these bunkers was somewhere near the Kennedy family’s vacation home in Hyannis Port, Cape Cod, Massachusetts. This lavish estate was known as the Kennedy Compound, and the extended Kennedy family would gather there for vacations and holidays. JFK’s wife, Jackie Kennedy, spent a lot of time at the family compound with her two young children, and the president would join them whenever he could.
Government officials decided to build a bunker on Nantucket, a nearby island. This was a great location for a top-secret bunker, because it was home to the Tom Nevers Naval Facility. The bunker was constructed on the naval base, far from the eyes of curious residents.
Originally, the bunker was supposed to be built underground, but you can’t dig too deep on Nantucket without soon running into water. Instead, the naval builders used several Quonset huts. Quonset huts were prefab shelters that were crafted during World War II to house people employed by the military on bases.
The Doomsday Bunker, or Kennedy Bunker, as it became known, took just two weeks to build. At 1,900 square-feet, it was fairly roomy as far as bunkers go. It was installed partially underground and covered with three feet of earth. The entrance to the bunker was so nondescript, you could walk straight past it without noticing it. A long hallway led to a three-way junction: the right side opened to a mechanical room; the left led to a central gathering space. There was also a decontamination chamber with special showers that would wash away any radioactive particles.
In the event of a nuclear attack, the president would be whisked away by submarine or helicopter to the bunker. Of course, his family would come too. And because a president always needs advisors to help him make important decisions, 20 cabinet members would also get to take shelter in the bunker.
Worth the hype?
In the end, not one nuclear bunker was needed. The dreaded nuclear war hasn’t happened yet, and b’ezras Hashem never will. The closest America and Russia ever got to exchanging nuclear bombs was the Cuban Missile Crisis, which lasted for 13 days in October 1962. The doomsayers were relieved (or annoyed) that their predictions of an apocalypse never came true. In fact, JFK never even set foot into his Nantucket bunker. All those people who had spent time, money, and effort on building and maintaining their fallout shelters pretty much did it for nothing.
In a survey taken during the height of the bunker-building frenzy, 93 percent of Americans said they had no plans to build a shelter. Those who did go down that road probably did it for peace of mind — and that’s exactly what they got.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 954)
Oops! We could not locate your form.