The Corner

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Gimme Shelter


Question: I’m thinking of a policy proposal that could easily mean the difference between life and death for tens or hundreds of thousands–conceivably even millions–of Americans who are alive at this very moment. Each year that passes magnifies the urgency of the problem this policy would address. Experts on both sides of the political spectrum appear to agree on both the pressing need for reform, and on the appropriate way to meet the challenge. Yet in our public debates we hear virtually nothing of this issue. What am I thinking of?

Answer: Nuclear fallout shelters. This country needs to develop a system of fallout shelters and emergency drills, much like the old Cold War “duck and cover” drills. In “Our Fallout-Shelter Future,” I discussed a proposal by Stephen Peter Rosen, a conservative-leaning foreign policy expert, to bring back fallout shelters and drills. Now, in an important article in The Washington Quarterly entitled “The Day After: Action Following a Nuclear Blast in a U.S. City,” two key officials of the Clinton administration, Secretary of Defense William Perry, Assistant Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, and a former director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Michael M. May, make the same case. It’s noteworthy that Rosen’s article appeared in the left-leaning journal, Foreign Policy, while the former Clinton administration officials have published in a right-leaning journal. This highlights the bipartisan nature of the recommendations.

Both articles make the point that the key objection to our Cold War shelter and drill programs no longer applies. By the end of the Cold War, attempts to stave off nuclear holocaust with drills and shelters looked ridiculous. With thousands of massive warheads pointed at America’s major cities, a significant nuclear exchange would have meant total national devastation.

Things are different now. Sometime over the next couple of decades, we face the reasonable likelihood of a single small-to-moderate-sized nuclear blast in one, or a few, American cities. These are precisely the circumstances in which fallout shelters, drills, and well-worked-out evacuation and communication plans can make a difference. If there are good arguments against moving in this direction, I haven’t heard them. What’s clear is that, at a minimum, we need to have a national discussion of this issue. At the moment, these two articles seem to me to make a compelling case for action.