Designing for Destruction: The Rise of the Bomb Shelter


How architects, designers, and the government taught Baby Boomers to stop worrying and love protective structures

It may have been a bad dream, but I vividly recall, as a kid in the late '50s, that I heard the newscaster Jack Lescoulie on The Today Show with Dave Garroway predict on air that by 1960 the United States and Russia would be fighting World War III. Even if he didn't really say it, it is indicative of the way young Baby Boomers fantasized and feared the future. There were so many bomb-scares and bomb-scareploitation that it is a miracle the youth of the nation did not become one big basket case (or maybe we did).

It is difficult to look back at the duck-and-cover days with any nostalgia, but possible to see it as more than it was made out to be. Susan Roy's recent book Bomboozled: How the U.S. Government Misled Itself and Its People Into Believing They Could Survive a Nuclear Attack (Pointed Leaf Press), actually does bring back lots of memories and a certain anger that we were so bamboozled by so many who had something to gain from our primal fears. The book addresses, among other things, how industry collaborated with government to scare the bejessus out of us, and then convince us everything would be just fine—if we protected ourselves with expensive products. I asked Roy to tell me more about this curious period in history.

bomboozledcover1.jpg How old are you? I ask because those of my age (60) were totally obsessed with the bomb in our lives and dreams. Did you have this obsession as a child?

I'm 59. I was totally obsessed with the bomb and believed an attack was inevitable. Actually, it was more than totally obsessed for me. In retrospect, I can see now that it completely framed my view of the world. The threat was omnipresent. Like the air.

You are right. Every two weeks we had drills. I used to wonder why bother doing schoolwork if we're all going to vaporize.

I remember being in a "duck and cover" drill, and the teacher admonishing me for not doing it correctly. I was crouched down, bent over, and had my hands clasped behind my neck. The teacher told me I was doing it wrong, that I had to have my hands clasped behind my head. Otherwise, I wouldn't be protected!

Our generation grew up literally under a mushroom cloud.

Some have argued that the protest movements of the 1960s were partially fueled by the fact that Baby Boomers grew up with the government lying to them—telling them that by "ducking and covering" they could escape atomic annihilation. This taught them to "distrust authority."

We were indoctrinated in many ways. So how does your book Bomboozled, which focuses in on our fixation with fall-out shelters, fit into design history?

Interesting question. It's a type of vernacular architecture that has never been examined as such. It's also a form of propaganda—"propaganda by architecture." It also was created in a surprising variety of forms and materials. There were cubes, domes, lozenges, cylinders, and pods. They were made of steel, poured concrete, concrete block, wood, and fiberglass.

What in your research about this period was the most surprising for you?

I was surprised that people believed the government when it told them that they could survive a nuclear attack by building a family fallout shelter ... that a concrete block cube erected in a basement, or a steel tube buried in the backyard, would save their lives. If the U.S. were attacked, they would simply move into their fully equipped shelter for two weeks, wait for the radioactive fallout to subside, and then emerge and resume normal life. From a 2011 perspective, it seems beyond nutty. Let's pretend that the bomb is dropped and shelters would have worked (which they wouldn't have). And then, two weeks later, people came out of their shelters. It would be a post-apocalyptic world. Think The Road. Death, destruction, no power, no government, no nothing.

But even at the time, there were some apocalyptic films, like The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959) with Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens, and Mel Ferrer as the last remaining people on earth after a nuclear war. And then there was On the Beach (1959), which suggests no one can survive radiation. So, how were people bomboozled?

In order to understand why people would believe the government's message, I had to immerse myself in those early years of the Atomic Age. That was from 1945, when the bomb was created and dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, through 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world came as close to nuclear war as it had ever been before or since. Americans had great faith in science, technology, and progress. They had faith in their government. They were living in a time of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity. They were living in the most powerful nation on earth, the nation that won World War II.

Plus, the atom was not just seen as the power behind the most lethal weapon ever developed by man. It was also positive. There was belief in the possibilities and potential of our new atomic power, that this was an enormous scientific breakthrough that could change every aspect of our lives. Disney did an animated film called Our Friend the Atom that was shown to schoolchildren across America. "Atomic" was cool. It was the future. It permeated pop culture.

Do you believe there was a consumerist subterfuge in this bomb-fear-mongering?

Not initially. But from the beginning of the Berlin Crisis in 1961 through the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, there was an explosion (as it were) in the fallout shelter market. Marketers rushed in to exploit the fear. Swimming pool builders got into the shelter-construction business. Companies re-purposed their existing products (portable toilets for camping, for example) as shelter equipment.

Actually, now that I think about it, industry was involved. The National Concrete Masonry Association produced a nationally televised program called Walt Builds a Family Fallout Shelter. And, of course, Walt built it of concrete blocks. Similarly, the National Lumber Manufacturers Association produced a booklet of shelter designs called "Family Fallout Shelters of Wood." Yes, that would protect you from nuclear firestorms!

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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