CIVIL DEFENSE: THE JOHNSON ADMINISTRATION: United States. 1963-1968. When Vice President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as President he inherited a significantly strengthened civil defense program, but one that still faced an on-going battle for Congressional approval both of essential program doctrine and strategy and program funding. Initially Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s statements in January and February of 1964 before Congressional Armed Services Committees and Defense Appropriations Subcommittees appeared to advocate a significant increase in the role of civil defense from the Kennedy stance of civil defense as an insurance policy to one of an integral part of the United States’ defense posture. Secretary McNamara suggested that the contribution of a well designed fallout shelter program could contribute more to saving lives in a nuclear war that either strategic offensive or strategic defensive forces.
However, this early advocacy did not translate into effective political action when it would have had the greatest impact. In December 1963, continuing into early 1964, Senator Henry Jackson’s Senate Armed Services Subcommittee conducted hearings on the proposed civil defense legislation passed previously by the House as HR 8200. Although a variety of peace and religious groups appeared opposing the legislation, the tenor of the Subcommittee seemed supportive of eventual passage. However, Senator Jackson, believing that the Administration might not be in full support of the bill, deferred action until he received clear indications that the President desired its passage – by the time of the markup session of the Subcommittee in March no such indication was received. To put the best face possible on the lack of Presidential support and to preserve agency morale Director Pittman drafted a statement, signed by Senator Jackson, that linked deferral of the bill to the need to further study the linkage between the shelter program and ballistic missile defense.
Ballistic missile defense and fallout shelters were legitimately linked in national defensive strategy; Secretary McNamara so stated in testimony as early as February 6, 1963, and he reiterated this position in budget language in Fiscal Years (FY) 1964 and 1965. Although anti-ballistic missile defenses using Nike Zeus missiles could theoretically stop intercontinental ballistic missile attacks on cities, the opponent intent on countervalue strikes could detonate ground bursts in undefended areas upwind of urban centers and simply wait for massive radiation doses to do the job. Therefore, Secretary McNamara stressed that active defenses should not be constructed unless a shelter system was also constructed. Although this appears to make complete sense as a defensive strategy, it may have also reflected an astute political stratagem. Secretary McNamara appears to have been concerned about the operational reliability of the anti-ballistic missile system, problems in its development program, escalating program costs, and the role of ballistic missile defense in national strategy. In particular he expressed concerns that the development and deployment of a successful ballistic missile defense would stimulate an arms race involving United States and Soviet defensive and offensive systems. Given these concerns, finding a way to delay the fielding of the Nike Zeus, in spite of strong support for the program from a variety of interest groups, may have been a priority. The best way to slow down and eventually kill the anti-ballistic missile defense program may have been to continue to publicly advocate civil defense as a prerequisite for missile deployment, knowing full well that legislation funding the civil defense program would never be passed.
March 1964 was not a good month for the civil defense program. On March 2nd, the Jackson Subcommittee deferred further action on sheltering. Several days later Director Pittman resigned to return to private practice, to be replaced by William P. Durkee, a career government official. On March 31st the Office of Civil Defense was reassigned from the Department of Defense to the Department of the Army. Although there were public protestations that this did not reflect a downgrading of the importance of civil defense, any experienced watcher of the operations of bureaucracies immediately drew the obvious conclusion that it was a significant cut in prestige and in the ability to effectively articulate programs. The suspicious observer would have undoubtedly noted that the combination of these events, and the resulting organizational turbulence, immediately prior to Appropriations Committee appearances in April through June could only have been calculated to ensure the demise of any effective program.
Without a clear mandate, and with clear signals of lack of Administration support, the civil defense budget request for $358 million was swiftly cut to $105.2 million. This started a downward funding spiral, until in the last year of the Administration the civil defense budget request bottomed at $77.3 million, with Congress approving $60.5 million. In this environment, the civil defense staff was forced to start to examine other programmatic options to retain some civil defense capability. Planning was refocused on civil defense programs that could be developed with minimal cost and then held in readiness for implementation during a developing crisis. Of course, such programs had significant limitations. There was no guarantee that a crisis would develop in a measured and orderly way, allowing time for the implementation of programs that existed only as planning documents and instructions. And, in a nuclear crisis, the same arguments that applied to evacuation would apply to sudden implementation of civil defense – it would be seen as a destabilizing action that signaled the start of war preparations, inviting a preemptive strike by the Soviet Union (there is a long history of such mobilizations creating an irreversible slide to war of which World War I may be the best, but not only, example).
Civil defense in the Johnson administration was clearly the victim of forces unrelated to its potential value in the event of a nuclear war, or even an accidental or irrational exchange. As the Administration’s term progressed, the increasing demands of the Vietnam War consumed the attention of the Administration, and the costs of the War, along with Congressional desires for governmental economy, relegated population protection to a low priority. The growth of resistance to the War created a forum in which any attempt to defend America was attacked by peace, religious, and student groups as being fundamentally evil and a intentional stepping stone to nuclear holocaust; the Administration may simply have seen civil defense as too difficult to advocate in this environment. Finally, the change in nuclear war fighting strategy to Mutually Assured Destruction, holding the United States population hostage to Soviet nuclear attack as a reassurance that the United States would never attack the Soviet Union, created a strategic environment in which civil defense was seen as destabilizing to a dangerous degree.
Blanchard, B. Wayne, American Civil Defense 1945-1984: The Evolution of Programs and Policies, Washington, DC, U. S. Government Printing Office, 1986. Dowling, John, “FEMA: Programs, problems, and accomplishments,” in John Dowling and Evans M. Harrell, editors, Civil Defense: A Choice of Disasters, New York, NY, American Institute of Physics, 1987, pp. 33-45. Vale, Lawrence J., The Limits of Civil Defence in the USA, Switzerland, Britain and the Soviet Union, New York, NY, St. Martin’s Press, 1987.