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Laura McEnaney on: The Federal Civil Defense Administration
Laura McEnaney Q: What prompted President Truman to establish the FCDA, the Federal Civil Defense Administration?

LM: Well, the United States had a civil defense program during World War II, and when the war ended, the civil defense effort obviously ended. Between 1945 and 1949, civil defense was given minimal attention. The military continued to investigate home front defense methods, but it was definitely a back burner issue. Really, in 1949, when the Soviet Union exploded an atomic bomb, that's when there was public outcry, political outcry to do something. It wasn't clear what, but there was definitely public pressure for Truman to do something, to act, because the explosion of the atomic bomb really meant that the United States lost its monopoly, and in a larger sense lost its diplomatic maneuvering power. And that was a very important turning point for foreign policy, but also in the sense of American vulnerability, citizens began to think that they, too, could be attacked by the weapon that they deployed only years earlier. And there was a lot of fear about that. It definitely changed the terms of the emerging Cold War. So Truman started to reinvigorate efforts to think about how a civil defense program could be organized for the home front in a nuclear age, not in an age of conventional weapons, in a nuclear age. And that effort, from 1949, led to the civil defense, the creation of the Federal Civil Defense Administration in January of 1951. And it continued from there.

Q: What shape did this civil defense program take?

LM: Well, it was difficult, and there was not consensus about the first steps....The first idea was to shelter people, to provide structural protection from the atomic bomb. And that was debated quite a bit during the Truman administration, although it never received the funding it needed. Still, the FCDA pursued the idea of shelters and tentatively the idea of evacuation, moving populations out of urban centers that were vulnerable to atomic attack. But that was practiced more for industry because the FCDA, and in fact the whole defense establishment thought that if they could disperse industry they would reduce vulnerability. Because after all, it was the industrial production that had saved them during World War II, and that premise was operational during the early 1950s. So the original premise was shelter for American people, dispersion for American industry. But they ran into technical, logistical and political problems at every turn, and there was no coherent program when Truman left office. Sheltering was still the basis of the policy, but there was no coherent policy, nor was there funding to implement that kind of program on the scale that would have been necessary to protect some one hundred and fifty million people.

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