The signs are fewer now, even by the 1990s the stark yellow squares that stood solemnly beside entrances to many government buildings were often no more. A strange thing to younger generations, used to perhaps the blue “Hurricane Evacuation” signs near the coasts and “Emergency Snow Route” signs in the north. The origins of the often cited “shelter mania” emerged from President Kennedy’s speech in September 1961 calling on increased spending on defense along with civil defense in the wake of Soviet aggression and the construction of the Berlin Wall earlier that year.
At the risk of sounding cliche, it was perhaps “the sign of the times” as numerous locations were picked nationwide that could provide some amount of radiation protection to those sheltering inside from fallout. This was dangerously radioactive dust, ash and debris sucked into the atmosphere after a nuclear blast that the world painfully became aware of after the 1954 “Castle Bravo” nuclear test where many pacific islanders were exposed to the radioactive ash that blew downwind of the explosion. A fallout shelter was not however a “blast” shelter, it would not protect you (at least well) from a nearby burst of a nuclear weapon.
The notion of nuclear attack was evident in everyday lives as neighbors constructed bomb shelters in their backyards. Television shows discussed or at times even ridiculed the idea as evident in a few episodes of “The Twilight Zone”. Schoolchildren practiced huddling against interior school walls with their hands around the back of their necks to protect against flying debris. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, many Americans came face to face with the stark reality of the nuclear age.
Barely 10 years after “shelter mania” the world had changed dramatically. Fallout shelters once quickly stocked with water, food and sanitation supplies were nearly forgotten about in the public mind. Some towns even attempted to sell off the spoiling supplies inside, in one instance in Lincoln, Nebraska the survival rations were auctioned off to a hog farmer for his animals to eat.
In another 10 years there would be something of another war scare. Googling “Able-Archer 83”, “Euromissile Crisis” and “WarGames” (America’s Hollywood introduction to a Minuteman Launch Control Center) would offer more information, and some fallout shelters reemerged in the public eye. The enthusiasm for building them possessed in 1961 did not return however.
Perestroika, the INF Treaty, START, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of Communism in Eastern Europe marked many points where it could be said “When the Cold War ended”. Within the Strategic Air Command the pulling Minuteman II missiles off full alert and nuclear-armed bombers off 15-minute ground alert worldwide surely marked a watershed moment. On December 25, 1991, the Soviet flag lowered from the Kremlin for the last time. Perhaps it was here that the Cold War officially ended.
In 2017 sites like Oscar-Zero stand as museums, no longer staffed by Air Force personnel with “the little brass keys”. Those obvious artifacts of the Cold War, like the Greenbrier Congressional evacuation location in West Virginia or Site SF-88, a Nike-missile air-defense site north of San Francisco undergo preservation and interpretation. On the other hand there are still a few designated fallout shelters nationwide that quietly assume different missions. Once so designated to save lives after an attack, they live on as often cold, bare concrete environments of dank basements. And yet other products of the Cold War, computer-networking technology, space communications, GPS, lasers have become everyday facets of life.
It can be interesting to stand back and consider how much the Cold War influenced American culture and technology, and how much of it lingers as testaments to earlier times when the world for the first time became vulnerable to a human-created cataclysm.
Maybe in one way its fitting for that 56 year old fallout shelter sign to finally wear out it’s fasteners and fall away to dissolve into rust (although not if eBay has something to say about it). On tours, guides often state how that the success of the Minuteman program was that it was never used. At the end of the Cold War, a fallout shelter and a Minuteman missile never put to purposes, to wait out their lifetimes with nothing happening and surely that was a victory of the Cold War – the fact that a catastrophic war never occurred.