CIVIL DEFENSE: THE KENNEDY ADMINISTRATION: United States. 1961-1963. The first days of the Kennedy Administration did little to enhance the image of civil defense. The first senior official appointed to lead civil defense efforts, Frank B. Ellis, made ill-conceived statements that created doubt as to the seriousness of the program; his proposed visit to the Pope to enlist Vatican support for the construction of fallout shelters in church buildings was but one example. However, President Kennedy took early action to revitalize civil defense as an effective national program. In a May 25, 1961 message to Congress he recognized the importance of deterrence as the basis of national strategy and conceded that civil defense would never be an adequate substitute; at the same time he called for a realistic approach that would provide insurance that the population could be protected in case of an irrational attack, miscalculation, or accident. The Administration proposed a supplemental funding request of $207.6 million, and Congress passed the request, the first time ever a civil defense budget had been fully funded. At the same time a new Office of Civil Defense was established, transferring program management to the Department of Defense, under the leadership of Stewart Pittman.

On July 25, 1961 Kennedy spoke on television of civil defense issues, the first time a President had addressed the nation on the need for population protection. This address clearly advocated shelters, and had the unexpected result of sparking what could be described as first a fallout shelter scare, followed by a national fallout shelter craze. The individual family shelter suddenly became an item that families could and should have, courtesy of shelter entrepreneurs, in their basements or back yards, becoming an element of faith that continues even today for hard core civil defense advocates. Although this enthusiasm, combined with the real threat posed by the Berlin Crisis, clearly influenced Congressional willingness to pass the supplemental budget, there is some evidence that President Kennedy was disturbed by the response, and that this marked a turning point in his support for civil defense programs.

For Fiscal Year (FY) 1963 the Administration forwarded a request for $695 million to continue ongoing efforts to survey shelter space, appropriately mark public shelters, and to provide for their stocking with supplies. The FY 1963 budget also provided for two new programmatic initiatives, shelter incentive funding to encourage non-profit health, education, and welfare facilities to develop shelters for 50 or more people, and a program to develop shelters in Federal buildings to encourage by example community, business, and even individual shelter construction. The Administration was unsure of its legal authority to undertake these additional programs, and requested authorizing legislation from Congress. In a return to business as usual, Congressional hearings and action were delayed and the Appropriations Committees cut the FY 1963 budget, deleting funding for the programs not yet approved and reducing overall funding to approximately half of the FY 1962 supplement.

This development reflected a combination of public apathy and traditional legislative concerns about civil defense doctrine. The Berlin Crisis had been resolved on favorable terms, the shelter craze had diminished, and public levels of interest had receded to pre-1961 levels. As a result, pressure from constituents for Congressional action was minimal. At the same time the long standing doctrine that civil defense was a state and local matter convinced some legislators that further Federal expenditures were unwise. Representative Albert Thomas, Chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee, emerged as a dangerous opponent of civil defense. Thomas argued that evacuation was impractical as large cities could not be evacuated in under two weeks, sheltering was worthless because World War II experienced proved that you were safer during an attack in the open than in a shelter, and that stockpiles were wasteful because the United States had medical stockpiles everywhere in the form of corner drugstores. The speciousness of these arguments notwithstanding, the strength of the political opposition, combined with his concerns about the public reaction in the shelter craze, may have influenced President Kennedy's decision to take a lower profile on civil defense issues. This profile was noted, both by civil defense administrators and by legislators, as a lack of commitment, and undoubtedly contributed to both the delay of legislation and budget cuts.

It is open to question whether the adoption of a lower public profile on civil defense reflected President Kennedy's personal views. For example, in a conversation with Paul Fay, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Kennedy is reported to have told Fay that choosing to build a swimming pool in preference to a fallout shelter was an error.

This picture changed radically in October 1962 with the development of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the perception of the very real prospect of global nuclear war. The Administration reacted to greatly increased public interest in survival measures by accelerating the existing shelter programs. Relaxed qualifications for shelters resulted in a national inventory of 110 million spaces, of which 70 million had been approved by building owners for use and were immediately available, and 14 million had been stocked with shelter supplies.

In Congress, Representative Carl Vinson, Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, withdrew his longstanding opposition to hearings on the shelter incentive programs, and these began in May 1963. The majority of the members of the subcommittee, chaired by Representative F. Edward Hebert, holding the hearings were not initially program advocates. However, a long witness list of peace advocates and religious groups opposing civil defense actually worked to the legislation's advantage. Their unfocused arguments with little supporting data did not contrast well with the data provided by shelter advocates and Stewart Pittman's testimony highlighting the basic issue - whether the best course of action was to have a plan to respond to crisis or to ignore reality until it was too late to take effective action. As a result the Subcommittee and Chairman Hebert supported the shelter legislation, and the House of Representatives passed the bill, HR 8200, in September 1963.

This was by no means the end of the fight. The House Appropriations Subcommittee responded in October 1963 by cutting the Office of Civil Defense's FY 1964 appropriation from $346.9 million to $87.8 million. In addition, the Subcommittee attached provisions to the appropriations bill to forbid use of its funds for shelter surveys, stocking of shelters, or the construction of shelters in Federal buildings. The failure of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee to hold hearings on the issue ensured that funding would not be included in the FY 1964 appropriation. President Kennedy's assassination in November 1963 deprived the United States of the one President who had advocated strongly any coherent approach to population protection, and left this issue to President Johnson for resolution.

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, United States of America, American Institute of Physics, 1987, pages 33-45. Mitchell, Donald W., Civil Defense: Planning for Survival and Recovery, Washington, District of Columbia, United States of America, Industrial College of the Armed Forces, 1966. Drabek, Thomas E., "The Evolution of Emergency Management," in Emergency Management: Principles and Practice for Local Government, Thomas E. Drabek and Gerard J. Hoetmer, editors, Washington, District of Columbia, United States of America, International City Management Association, 1991, pages 3-29. Vanderbilt, Tom, "Fallout Shelters," Metropolis, location, April 2001.

Entry 0110 - updated 3 August 2003