Americans Are Unprepared for a Nuclear Attack
Let’s say it’s 2 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, and you receive an emergency alert on your cellphone indicating that there has been a nuclear explosion in the next town or that an intercontinental ballistic missile is headed your way.
Would you know what to do?
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Most likely not.
“I would say that the United States is probably less prepared for any kind of nuclear detonation than it has been at any time since the Cold War,” says Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science and technology at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. “And that is a dangerous place to be.’’
Wellerstein, along with Kristyn Karl, a political psychology professor at Stevens, is pushing for the United States to bring back civil defense, the-all-but-forgotten federal Cold War-era program for preparing and responding to a nuclear event. Exactly what a revamped, 21st-century version of civil defense might look and sound like is the objective of a new project they are directing, called Reinventing Civil Defense. Started in 2016 and funded by the Carnegie Foundation, RCD boasts a diverse, high-powered advisory group that includes everyone from former Secretary of Defense William Perry to nuclear health physicists to screenwriters. The mission: Tell you what to do in the event of a nuclear crisis.
Although they might be aware of Kim Jong Un’s threats to incinerate American cities or the latest line of Russia’s hypersonic nuclear weapons most Americans—particularly younger ones who did not live through the most dangerous days of the Cold War—have no practical or conceptual idea of how to respond to the warning of an actual nuclear emergency. Witness the scenes of mass panic that took place in Hawaii last January after what, fortunately, turned out to be a false alert of an imminent North Korean attack.
Karl and Wellerstein, along with many other experts, lay much of the blame for this alarming nuclear unpreparedness among the general public on the federal government and its failure to communicate how to prepare for such an eventuality. “The government has given Americans no good sense of what, specifically, to do when the next nuclear crisis occurs,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings.
To be sure, this is not an easy task. The original version of civil defense (also known as Duck and Cover, after its famed guidance to schoolchildren to protect themselves from a nuclear attack by ducking under their school desks when they saw the tell-tale flash outside) is often remembered as silly and misleading—particularly the impression it gave about how easy it would be to survive a full-scale nuclear war. But Wellerstein and Karl feel that a lot about the original, oft-mocked program was constructive and worth resurrecting—particularly the fact that, at the very least, it did get Americans to think about the unthinkable.
International events seem to be pushing the initiative along. Last fall, after North Korea successfully tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile and threatened to use it against the U.S., “the project took on much higher stakes,’’ says Wellerstein, who, at 36, is best known for NUKEMAP, his Google Maps mash-up that allows one to calculate the effect of a nuclear detonation based on factors such as targeted city and nuclear yield.
And Wellerstein doesn’t feel this development is necessarily an unwelcome one. For years, “the assumption was that anyone who cared about civil defense had to be either a Cold War holdover or ‘a doomsday prepper,’” he says. “Neither Kristyn or I are either of those things,” he says. “Basically we just want people to think about nuclear risk—even if they don’t want to think about it.’’
There at least three different types of credible nuclear threats that exist today—two more than during the Dr. Strangelove days.
Scenario 1 is the fear that set the original civil defense program in motion—an apocalyptic exchange between the United States and Russia or China involving hundreds of thermonuclear weapons. The U.S. population would theoretically have a 20- to 30-minute warning before the multi-megaton bombs began bursting in air, spreading radioactive fallout in overlapping lethal circles and the lights started going out—for good.
Scenario 2 is the nuclear terrorist scenario, i.e., the detonation of a smaller, 10-kiloton device in a major American city. Those fortunate enough not to be among the tens of thousands killed during the initial blast would have a short time to protect themselves from the subsequent, less serious fallout.
Scenario 3 is the recently emergent North Korea scenario, involving the airburst of a 100- or 150-kiloton device over an American city, perhaps Los Angeles, with, hopefully, a 30-minute warning. The result, according to NUKEMAP,would range from an estimated 195,000 to 241,000 deaths and 510,000 to 629,000 injuries from both the blast and radioactive fallout, depending on the bomb’s yield.
Scenarios 2 and 3 are the most likely—and also the ones that the RCD researchers are focused on (for the moment, at least). They are also survivable, if you and emergency management officials know how to respond.
But RCD’s first challenge is how to untangle the star-crossed history of the first version of civil defense, says Wellerstein.
It all began with Bert the Turtle—the smiling, helmet-adorned mascot of the first, much-derided civil defense program, which was run by the Federal Civil Defense Administration (the ancestor of the Federal Emergency Management Administration). Bert is the star of a famous 1951 instructional cartoon, called Duck and Cover.
“Bert the Turtle walks down the road,” goes the chorus in the famed serial, as our smiling hero confidently sashays down the road in the cartoon. “And Bert the Turtle was very alert, when dangers threatened him he never got hurt. He knew just what to do.”
The reason Bert and his fellow Americans knew what to do was that they were familiar with the instructions in the upbeat government pamphlet Survival Under Atomic Attack. “You can live through an atom bomb raid and you don’t need a Geiger counter or special training to do it!” the leaflet fatuously advised. “You should hide underground if there is time. Otherwise, you should jump into the nearest gutter or ditch. And don’t forget to shut the window!”
Since then, the issue and practice of civil defense waxed and waned with the rise and fall of international tensions over the following decades, along with the evolving outlook and experiences of the chief occupants of the White House, as historian Rodric Braithwaite writes in his new history of the nuclear threat, Armageddon and Paranoia.
President John F. Kennedy, who took office in January 1961, at the start of the second, tensest decade of the Cold War, was a big booster of civil defense. As part of the program, the president announced the federal government would initiate a $700 million nationwide fallout shelter plan, while also encouraging Americans to build their own fallout shelters. Kennedy’s brother Robert was an even greater civil defense enthusiast. He pressed for a scheme that would require all American citizens to practice evacuation and shelter drills once a week.
As Braithwaite writes, “a kind of hysteria” about the subject of civil defense and nuclear safety ensued. At the height of the craziness, in a column for the Catholic magazine America, the Rev. L.C. McHugh actually argued that it was permissible “to shoot your neighbors if they tried to break into your fallout shelter.”
The high anxiety of those thermonuclear times seeped into popular culture. In “The Shelter,” an episode of the popular TV program The Twilight Zone, a celebratory party for a doctor who has heeded JFK’s advice and built a bomb shelter takes a terrifying turn after a radio broadcast announces unidentified objects heading for the United States. Of course, in those uneasy days, everyone assumes the objects are ICBMs.
Within minutes the amicable group has besieged the shelter to which the doctor has fled with his family, while the latter chastises his hysterical friends for not building their own shelters ‘‘because it meant recognizing the kind of world we live in.” Just as the frenzied group is about to burst in comes another announcement on the radio: The unidentified objects are in fact harmless satellites.
Eventually, Kennedy’s interest in civil defense waned as he became convinced of the impracticality of a nationwide shelter program, as well as the unwinnability of nuclear war. (As Harvard economist and key Kennedy adviser John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in a personal letter to the president, “Those Americans who did manage to survive a nuclear exchange would emerge into a desolate world “with no food, no transportation and full of stinking corpses.”) So did the skeptical Congress, which whittled JFK’s request for $700 million down to a mere $80 million.
Jimmy Carter tried to inject new life into the civil defense program by creating the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 1979. FEMA consolidated the work of several agencies into one, mixing nuclear preparedness with preparedness for floods, tornadoes and earthquakes. But the nuclear issue took a back seat.
Ronald Reagan, who came into office convinced that the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal had overtaken that of the United States, conflated civil defense with the national defense. “[The Reagan hawks] believed that civil defense was part of being prepared to fight a nuclear war with the Evil Empire and that being thus prepared was necessary for deterrence,” Wellerstein says. “So it fit very firmly into their political ideology.” Toward that end, in 1982, the Reagan administration proposed a comprehensive civil defense program costing $4.2 billion.
However, Reagan, like Kennedy, lost interest in the program once he became convinced that nuclear war was unwinnable and unsurvivable. Instead, he decided to direct the nation’s monies towards building up other elements of the national defense—like his proposed missile shield known as Star Wars. Congress lost interest as well.
Thus, in July 1986, in a report to Congress, FEMA could state that “U.S. civil defense capabilities are low and declining.” “National survival would be in jeopardy” in the event of a nuclear attack, it declared, while asking for a mere $130 million to keep the network of emergency operation centers established 20 years before at a minimal functioning level—an amount that was further pared down.
By then, says Wellerstein, the concept of civil defense had become so fraught in the public’s imagination as to obscure what was useful about it, including and particularly keeping the idea of nuclear risk in the forefront of the public imagination.
“The Cold War perceptions are unfortunately the ones that guide a lot of our discussions about civil defense and nuclear preparedness today,” he maintains, “even though the strategic situation of today is very much different than it was then.”
Ironically, as Braithwaite writes, “the cheery recommendations in Duck and Cover and ‘Survival under Atomic Attack’ would have been of little use against a strategic bombardment by thermonuclear weapons”—Scenario 1. But they would work, more or less, in the more likely and survivable scenarios 2 and 3.
It seems that Bert the Turtle had the right message at the wrong time.
You might be surprised to hear that Uncle Sam has a cogent message about what the public should do in case of a nuclear attack.
The advice is basically a revised version of Duck and Cover: Get Inside, Stay Inside, Stay Tuned.
Broken down, that means once you receive a warning or alert of a nuclear detonation you should get inside the nearest building or other standing (preferably concrete) structure, stay there for at least 12 to 24 hours—the period when the outdoor fallout radiation level is most dangerous and wait for further news from emergency management officials about which areas downwind from the blast are safest to evacuate to next.