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Obituaries

Steuart Pittman; ordered to create fallout shelters across US

Mr. Pittman tried to build a fallout shelter on his estate but gave up.

Oscar Porter/US ARMY/file 1962

Mr. Pittman tried to build a fallout shelter on his estate but gave up.

NEW YORK — Steuart Pittman, a Washington lawyer who was appointed by President Kennedy in 1961 to create enough fallout shelters to protect every American in the event of a nuclear attack and who resigned in frustration three years later amid heated debates over the feasibility, cost, and even the ethics of such a program, died Feb. 10 at his family farm in Davidsonville, Md. He was 93.

The apparent cause was a stroke, said his wife, Barbara.

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Mr. Pittman was appointed the nation’s first civil defense chief for nuclear war preparedness at the height of the 1961 Berlin crisis, when words like fallout, megaton, and radioactivity became alarmingly familiar to every American schoolchild.

Kennedy’s predecessor, President Eisenhower, had made fallout shelters the responsibility of an agency that managed emergency and natural disaster planning.

But Mr. Pittman, appointed assistant secretary of defense for civil defense soon after Soviet and American tanks faced off in Berlin and the wall dividing East and West Berlin started going up, had only one mission. It was to give 180 million Americans access to shelters stocked with enough food, water, and medical supplies to get them through the first week or two after a nuclear attack.

From the start, it was a controversial undertaking. Mr. Pittman would later call it one of the most ‘‘unappetizing, unappealing, and unpopular’’ jobs ever created.

Many members of Congress immediately balked at the estimated $3 billion cost to the federal government.

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Catholic and Episcopal theologians clashed publicly over the ethics of using violence to stop a neighbor trying to force his way into someone’s shelter. Peace activists warned that building too many fallout shelters would hurt the cause of disarmament.

Mr. Pittman, an international investment banking lawyer, had been chief counsel for the Marshall Plan after World War II but had no domestic government or political experience. Still, within a year he had dispatched federal workers to every part of the country to inventory subway systems and buildings that might be converted for shelter use.

Yet, hard as it was to combat opposition to the program, Mr. Pittman said, it was harder still to contend with the apathy and resignation he encountered.

‘‘I hate to hear people say that they would prefer to die in a nuclear attack rather than face the horrors of survival,’’ he told UPI in 1961. ‘‘This nation was built by people who left Europe to face the ­unknown hazards of a wilderness continent. Do we no longer have the courage to face an unknown challenge?’’

Steuart Lansing Pittman was born in Albany, N.Y.

He received his law degree from Yale in 1948.

Mr. Pittman had always advocated the building of community shelters, rather than individual ones. But after returning to private life, he and his wife decided to build a fallout shelter on his family estate, Dodon Farm, in Davidsonville, Md.

‘‘We started it, anyway,’’ Barbara Pittman said in an interview Friday. ‘‘But after half a day’s digging, we gave it up.’’

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