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The Disunited States of fear and uncertainty

Sixty years ago, the specter of nuclear annihilation unified Americans against a common threat. In the face of lagging vaccination rates and surging COVID-19 infections, why can’t we rally again?

An idealized family fallout shelter, c. 1957.Defense Civil Preparedness Agency

Sixty years ago this month, Americans — united in fear, respectful of public authorities, eager to do their part in addressing a national challenge — snatched up a government pamphlet that urged them to protect themselves against a grave public health threat.

In its 32 pages of sober advice were plans for building various structures to protect the readers’ families from the fallout from a Soviet nuclear attack. There were blueprints for below-ground masonry shelters, outside semi-mounted plywood box shelters, and basement corrugated asbestos-cement lean-to shelters. These structures could accommodate two adults and two small children for two (presumably) terror-filled weeks.


All this — plus an assurance that these shelters would expose residents to only one-hundredth the radioactive fallout that people outside shelters would encounter — came amid a period of crisis and tension that National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy called “a time of sustained and draining anxiety.”

We know the feeling.

Six decades after there was a run on the Defense Department’s “Family Fallout Shelter” pamphlet — a guide that would go into additional printings as the crises of the Cold War deepened — we are in another period of sustained and draining anxiety, with COVID hospitalizations once again soaring, vaccination rates lagging, fear metastasizing, and resentments multiplying.

“The purpose of this book,” the Pentagon informed pamphlet readers, “is to show how to escape death from fallout.’’ In truth, few Americans set out to gather six-inch-thick slabs of concrete, cover them with 20 inches of gravel, and install them as roofs for their backyard double-brick-wall shelters. But just about everybody took seriously the counsel that they could be protected behind eight inches of concrete, 12 inches of earth, 16 inches of books, or 20 inches of wood.

The threat that seized the country in August 1961 never materialized. But now, in August 2021, we are in the throes of a threat that in many estimations satisfies the classic definition of a material threat to public health.


“Back then we thought the air would be contaminated at any moment, and today many of us feel that way, except that the threat is the virus,” says Christine Whelan, who teaches at the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin and whose Madison home has a reinforced bomb shelter.

“One of the main differences is that we are not united in viewing the threat,” Whelan says, “and we have people who deny there even is a threat. But a lot of us feel the COVID threat is as serious as the fallout threat was 60 years ago.

“But this time,” she continues, “the sense of denial is a real threat itself.”

The crisis summer of 1961

There was no denying the threat in the summer of 1961, the midpoint of a dangerous year in the American passage.

Earlier that year, President John F. Kennedy was embarrassed by the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, and the country’s space program was embarrassed when the Soviet Union beat the United States into space by sending cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit. Kennedy was pounded at his Vienna summit meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who directed the erection of the Berlin Wall two months later. And then, 60 Augusts ago, the Soviets announced they would resume atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Over the next three months, they would conduct 31 nuclear tests.


President John F. Kennedy, left, shakes hands with USSR leader Nikita Khrushchev during the East-West talks in Vienna on June 3, 1961. -/EPU/AFP via Getty Images

“The country was experiencing enormous difficulties leading to and through that summer,” says Fredrik Logevall, a Harvard historian who last year published the first volume of his JFK biography. “Kennedy suffered setback after setback, Cold War anxieties were mounting, there was enormous tension in the country. It was one bad thing after another.”

And amid all these crises, Kennedy delivered a sobering radio and television address.

“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 on July 25, 1961. “We owe that kind of insurance to our families — and to our country. In contrast to our friends in Europe, the need for this kind of protection is new to our shores. But the time to start is now. In the coming months, I hope to let every citizen know what steps he can take without delay to protect his family in case of attack. I know that you will want to do no less.”

Copies of the Pentagon booklet — with its advice to stock the shelter with food, utensils, and medical supplies and its counsel to use a kitchen garbage pail (with a “tight-fitting cover”) as a toilet — contained chilling words: “We do not want a war. We do not know whether there will be a war. But we know that forces hostile to us possess weapons that could destroy us if we were unready.”


Americans and vaccinations, then and now

In our time, the enemy is a virus that could destroy us if we are unready, yet the reaction is far different — even though the threat that prompted the shelter pamphlet was only theoretical and the threat of the virus is real. Indeed, the United States has already seen about 36 million cases of COVID-19, which has claimed more than 617,000 lives — a figure approaching the death count of the Civil War, or 200 times the number of those who perished in the terrorist attacks 20 years ago next month.

In May 1955, following the development of the polio vaccine, President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke an idiom of unity that matched the national mood and that came at a time when respect for medical experts arguably was at its height, in part because the mass production of antibiotics had won such widespread public acclaim. Penicillin alone had saved the lives of nearly one in seven British soldiers wounded in battle in World War II.

“We all hope that the dread disease of poliomyelitis can be eradicated from our society,” said the 34th president. “With the combined efforts of all, the Salk vaccine will be made available for our children in a manner in keeping with our highest traditions of cooperative national action.”

April 1955: First- and second-graders at St. Vibiana's school are inoculated against polio with the Salk vaccine in Los Angeles. Polio was eradicated in the United States in 1979. Associated Press

Internal differences often become muted in an Eisenhower-style spirit of “cooperative national action” when the country has a common enemy. But that isn’t happening now.


“We do have a common enemy this time,” says Christopher Beem, the managing director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State University. “But Eisenhower spoke just after a world war that produced enormous unity, a war in which he was an important part. The culture was used to rallying together, supporting each other. But there is no avoiding the fact that that is not the society we have right now.”

The country, to be sure, rallied together after the terrorist attacks of 2001, but the unity soon dissipated amid disputes about American military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since those attacks, which occurred less than a year after a bitter overtime election, American civic life has been characterized by political polarization — so much so that, Beem argues, “right now there is no possibility of anything transcending this sense of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and making for the possibility of a larger ‘us.’”

But there was a larger “us” in 1961 when Kennedy, Eisenhower’s successor, warned the nation during the Berlin crisis of the threat of a Soviet nuclear attack. That year seven out of 10 Americans said the United States and its allies should fight their way into Berlin if necessary, according to a Gallup Poll, which also showed that fear of war was the biggest issue for Americans. A separate poll by Samuel Lubell, a prominent public-opinion analyst, found that four out of five Americans said the United States should not abandon Berlin “even if it means war.”

The United States possessed a large advantage in nuclear weapons, but the Soviets possessed 3,000 nuclear warheads and 28 nuclear submarines, a tally itself sufficient for fear.

Yet that was a period of general trust of government and of public institutions, and a time when there was great respect for expertise and science. This is not.

The general trust of government was eroded by Vietnam, Watergate, and the failed efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The respect for expertise and science was eroded by, among other elements, the environmental disasters at Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and at Three Mile Island in central Pennsylvania; and by the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle and the disintegration of the Columbia space shuttle.

“The oldest form of political legitimacy is to secure the safety of the people,” says Jason Opal, a historian at McGill University, in Montreal, who is writing a history of epidemic diseases in the United States with his father, Steven Opal, a clinical professor of medicine at Brown. “When government is making a dramatic intervention — building a fallout shelter, sticking a needle in you — government had better be sure that what it advocates is right, because otherwise it encounters disbelief and rebellion. Credentialed knowledge does not have the credibility in the United States that it has in Canada.”

Sixty years ago, Kennedy’s determination “to let every citizen know what steps he can take without delay to protect his family in case of attack” and his belief that “I know that you will want to do no less” reached an audience of Americans far different from the audience that President Joe Biden is trying to persuade to get vaccinated against the virus. It turns out that the real life-and-death threat wasn’t, after all, from a giant intercontinental ballistic missile with a lethal 20 megaton nuclear warhead — it is from a tiny spray of virus lingering in the air in a bar. And the fallout from that, from which there is little shelter, has only begun to be calculated.

David Shribman, previously the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.