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James Carroll

What India’s bomb shelters really mean

‘People should construct basements where the whole family can stay for a fortnight.” So read an advisory issued recently by Indian civil defense officials, who recommend that residents of Kashmir prepare for nuclear war by building bomb shelters, stocked with food, water, “and ample candles and battery lights.” Recent border tensions between India and Pakistan — the death toll included a decapitated Indian soldier — have once more heightened the prospect of war over the disputed territory. The nuclear advisory continued, “Expect some initial disorientation as the blast wave may blow down and carry away many prominent and familiar features.” But a consoling note was struck: “If the blast wave does not arrive within five seconds of the flash, you were far enough from the ground zero.”

Some in Indian-administered Kashmir criticized the advisory for ginning up fear and provoking Pakistan. It was unclear whether the warning represented low-level local anxiety or official concerns of the Indian government. But that ambiguity underscores the danger, since Pakistan, too, was no doubt left wondering what bomb shelters beyond the border portend. Pakistan is a first-strike nuclear power, whose overt policy allows for a pre-emptive attack on an enemy. Signals that India is seriously moving to protect its citizens ahead of a nuclear exchange can, in arms-control jargon, only add hair to Islamabad’s hair trigger.

We have seen this movie before. In 1961, President Kennedy warned of nuclear war, sparked by the Berlin crisis, between the United States and the Soviet Union. “Accordingly,” Kennedy announced, “I am now taking the following steps.” He tripled the draft call, increased the bomber force, and spoke of urgent new taxes. “We have another sober responsibility,” he added — and then called for a massive bomb shelter program. “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.” The next day, Kennedy requested from Congress more than $200 million in urgent shelter funding. A few weeks later, a “Life” magazine cover blared, “97 out of 100 people can be saved. Detailed plans for building shelters.” The magazine showed families living snugly in “a big pipe in the back yard under 3 feet of earth.”

Whether Kennedy knew it or not, the shelter program was an absurd fantasy. Americans blithely anticipated a post-nuclear world that, after a few weeks’ interruption, would go on as before. Survivors would emerge from carpeted holes to . . . what? No one was invited to imagine the actual effects of an all-out nuclear exchange — a scorched world overrun with insane fugitives, anarchy, poisoned air, mass radiation sickness, the destruction of everything of value. The shelter program protected not against nuclear bombs but against the reality of what those bombs would certainly do.


In fact, shelters were never meant to preserve life. They were part of the larger game of nuclear chicken, a way of taunting an adversary with one’s own readiness to travel the road all the way to perdition. You can hit us, but we can take it. In the next period of Cold War nuclear swashbuckling, in the early Reagan years, a Defense Department official blithely declared that by digging bomb shelters, Americans would do fine in the event of a Soviet attack. “If there are enough shovels to go around,” he told the journalist Robert Sheer, “everybody’s going to make it.”


Bomb shelters are a provocative form of denial. That is what makes any talk of them dangerous — nowhere more so than in Kashmir. India and Pakistan keep up their slow-motion dance of death, but they are not alone in this choreography. Between them, the two nations possess at most a few hundred nuclear weapons out of something like 20,000 still ticking away in the planet’s arsenals. Just as the idea that humans, hiding in well-stocked caves “for a fortnight,” can meaningfully outlast a nuclear war is a fantasy, so is the notion that the species itself can survive the continued possession of these weapons. Ground zero for this illusion is neither Islamabad nor New Delhi, but Washington.


Today, Americans have grown blase about this threat, which went unmentioned in President Obama’s recent inaugural address. Before a crowd in Prague four years ago, though, he saw the problem clearly, committing to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Until the United States recovers that sense of urgency, don’t expect the time bomb in India and Pakistan to be defused.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.