CIVIL DEFENSE: THE EISENHOWER ADMINISTRATION: United States. 1953-1960.  During the first year of President Eisenhower’s administration, the administration’s Civil Defense doctrine reflected the lessons of the Truman administration.  The conceptual view of Civil Defense as a state and local responsibility was the order of the day; the Federal role was restricted to guidance and technical support and the support of stock pile programs for medical and engineering supplies.  Previous initiatives to develop a national shelter program were dropped.

 

As was the case in the Truman administration, a key event disturbed the status quo early in Eisenhower’s administration – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics exploded its first hydrogen weapon in 1953, followed by release of data from the 1952 tests of a United States hydrogen device.   Given that sheltering was not a politically viable response, Federal Civil Defense Administration Director Val Peterson reacted to perceptions that cities were highly vulnerable to this increase in destructive potential with the only other feasible alternative, an evacuation strategy.  However, this strategy was not without its own set of emerging problems - the March 1954 Bravo hydrogen weapon test demonstrated the potential for wide area deposition of lethal levels of radioactive fallout.  In spite of arguments that evacuated populations would be vulnerable to this relatively unpredictable threat, the Eisenhower administration remained focused on evacuation through 1953 and 1954.  The only concessions to the fallout threat appear to have been the incorporation of searching for shelter as part of evacuation – one particularly unrealistic option advanced called for the construction of trench systems alongside highways so that evacuees could shelter in the trenches covered by tarpaper to prevent direct contact with radioactive particulate matter.

 

This difficult problem, and the lack of appropriate programmatic actions to address it, attracted the attention of two Congressional Committees.  The Senate Armed Services Subcommittee, under the leadership of Senator Estes Kefauver,  and the House Military Operations Subcommittee, led by Representative Chet Holifield, both initiated investigations into Civil Defense policy, heightening interest in population protection.  Representative Holifield was particularly critical of evacuation planning and strongly supported the development of an effective shelter system.  At the same time the Congressional Appropriations Committees continued to follow the state and local responsibility doctrine, cutting budget requests to an average of $65 million per year.  The Federal Civil Defense Administration was thus caught in the unenviable position of simultaneously defending itself from charges of doing too little from one set of Congressional overseers and from charges of trying to do too much from another set of committees.

 

During the Administration’s second term, Representative Holifield introduced a bill (HR 2125) to establish Civil Defense as a cabinet level department.  HR 2125 also called for a shift in primary responsibility for civil defense from the states, localities, and individuals to the Federal government.  Both Holifield’s bill and the Federal Civil Defense Administration advocated for the development of a national shelter system; the Federal Civil Defense Administration proposal called for an estimated expenditure of $32 billion.  President Eisenhower responded to HR 2125 with an amendment that took a more conservative approach, envisioning joint responsibility among the three levels of government, an approach that eventually was enacted by Congress. 

 

As a strategy to deal with the proposed shelter program, the President appointed a Security Resources Panel – subsequently known as the Gaither Committee - to the Science Advisory Committee.  This Panel’s charter expanded as the work progressed, eventually leading to sweeping recommendations for improvements in strategic and tactical warfighting systems, with the caveat that such improvements would be rendered ineffective unless combined with measures to protect both the population and cities.  To provide the level of passive defense needed to save half the casualties that could be expected in a nuclear war, the Committee recommended a $25 billion dollar fallout shelter program to extended over a multi-year period.  This report was not warmly received by the President or his most trusted advisors; it was not in keeping with his economic priority of balancing the budget, or his foreign policy initiatives directed toward easing Cold War tensions.   In addition, military defense advocates viewed passive defense as an obsolete defensive mentality not in keeping with the doctrine of massive retaliation.

 

The failure of the Gaither report to produce changes in civil defense did not reduce interest in Federal leadership of civil defense programs.  The Soviet launch of the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile in 1957, followed by the first earth orbiting satellite, increased pressure for action.  The Eisenhower Administration reacted with a time-tested stratagem – to demonstrate progress the Federal Civil Defense Administration and the Office of Defense Mobilization were merged to form the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization under the leadership of Governor Leo Hoegh of Iowa.  The primary result of the reorganization appears to have been the publication of a National Plan directing states and localities to develop a shelter system using Federal guidance.  Reacting to the clear lack of interest in civil defense in the Administration, Congress routinely cut each civil defense budget proposal during this period.

 

Sources: Blanchard, B. Wayne, American Civil Defense 1945-1984: The Evolution of Programs and Policies, Washington, District of Columbia, United States of America, U. S. Government Printing Office, 1986.  Dowling, John, “FEMA: Programs, problems, and accomplishments,” in Civil Defense: A Choice of Disasters, John Dowling and Evans M. Harrell, editors, New York, New York, American Institute of Physics, 1987, pages 33-45.

 

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