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Laura McEnaney on: America's Evacuating Cities
Laura McEnaney Q: During the early Eisenhower Administration, the Federal Civil Defense Administration changes its policy from encouraging people to build shelters to telling people to evacuate cities in the event of a nuclear attack.

LM: [President] Eisenhower of course comes into office and the hydrogen bomb is developed and tested. And tested very publicly by the way, many people saw these tests on television. These were broadcast quite frequently. The news media cooperated with government in airing the visuals of the atomic age across the airwaves.

The idea was during the early years of the Eisenhower administration that shelter was not going to work, given the advances in technology and given the advent of the hydrogen bomb, that it was silly and sheer folly to expect that shelters could protect people from such powerful weapons. The other part of this, of course, was the revelations that radioactive fallout was a factor now. During the Truman administration, the civil defense establishment supported shelters against blast, but not fallout. During the Eisenhower administration, they had the two-pronged problem of fallout and blast. So instead of duck and cover, the slogan was run like the wind.

Val Peterson, the head of the FCDA said, the best advice for Americans in terms of dealing with an atomic attack is to not be there. And what he meant by that was move out of the cities into the suburbs and rural areas. And the idea was to give people the practice to move instinctively and orderly, in an orderly fashion, out to the suburbs. And in the suburbs and rural areas, they would find reception areas, other Americans who would cooperate with them, house them, feed them, clothe them until such time that it was safe to return to the city. And the idea of evacuation was part of the Eisenhower administration's plan up until really the mid to late 1950s. But it was pursued with vigor from about 1953 to about 1955 and '56.

Q: How feasible was evacuation?

LM: It wasn't feasible...If you just choose Chicago as a target city, you have to move millions of people out of this urban space into suburban and rural spaces. You have to think about traffic patterns, you have to think about warning times, and one of the reasons people were very skeptical of evacuation was that they argued there is not enough warning time. How much warning time are we going to get if the Soviets launch a strike? Fifteen minutes, one hour, two hours?

The FCDA premised its entire evacuation plan on the idea that citizens could have two or three hours of warning time, and that of course would give them enough time to pack their things, close up their house, move out to rural and suburban spaces. The government role was to provide warning, to sound the siren, but not to provide the transportation out there. Everybody had to use a family car. They premised their evacuation plan on the fact that people owned cars. And of course this was the 1950s, and many people did own cars, and there was an impressive highway system, but the idea that one could evacuate a huge metropolitan, what they call target areas, city, in the matter of several hours was preposterous and undoable.

But nevertheless, they continued with that plan. And the other thing was, it was premised on the idea that rural and suburban would cooperate with urban. That people could live harmoniously out in these evacuation areas for several days, maybe even weeks at a time. And there was not way that this could be tested. How could you test this? But nevertheless they pursued this as a strategy because of the fact that the hydrogen bomb just seemed too insurmountable to fight with just a basement shelter.

Q: Families were not supposed to need much warning time in order to evacuate a city were they?

LM: Yes, yes. In fact, you weren't supposed to need a lot of warning time. You were supposed to have already have your trunk packed with the things that you needed. You were supposed to have an emergency evacuation kit in your trunk or on standby in your basement. And you were supposed to be able to move quickly without panicking outside the city.

Mothers were not supposed to meet up with their children. They were supposed to drive immediately to the evacuation site. Schools would take the children to the appointed evacuation site. Fathers were supposed to move from workplaces to the evacuation site and families, it was believed, could reunite at the evacuation site. So it was not supposed to be spontaneous and hysterical. It was supposed to be a very orderly movement from urban to suburban, and it was supposed to be orderly because people had practiced this and prepared for it, and drilled themselves already. And this of course was not the case. People were not practicing this in large numbers.

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