Civil Defense in the Cornhusker State

1950 - 1991

Led nationally by former Nebraska Governor Val Petersen during the 1950s, the role of civil defense in Nebraska ebbed and flowed especially in the 1960s. There was a brief resurgence during the 1980s.


As the Korean War began in June 1950, many Americans saw the conflict as the opening rounds of World War III. President Truman authorized the Federal Civil Defense Act by January 1951. The Soviets had detonated their first atomic bomb in 1949, and copied versions of the B-29 (known as the Tu-4 Bull) threatened the continental United States (if missions were to be one-way suicide missions). Air-defenses of the era were yet primitive, and Americans considered the possibility of an all-out Soviet attack. Interestingly, early civil defense film focused on "cities fighting" in that an evacuation concept was almost considered cowardly. It was up to workers in cities to continue building the machinery of war to fight back against World War III. At this stage, except for the limited accepted thought of nuclear weapons, a World War III was almost thought of as an extension of World War II. Atomic bombs had very much changed the concept of fighting a war, but it was not until the advent of hydrogen (or thermonuclear) bombs was the role of civil defense actively challenged. 


If Soviet bombers could be detected early enough, either propeller-driven or jet, a few hours could provide the American public enough time to simply leave target zones. Many early Operation Alerts focused on this idea, a calm, manageable evacuation via the family station wagon to reception points in the country. Films of the period showed a gentle dispersal of people from urban targets with civil defense officials guiding the way. At least in Nebraska, Operation Alert 1955 had Omaha and Offutt Air Force Base relocating civilians towards Wahoo, Nebraska. At Lincoln Air Force Base, to Seward, Nebraska.

Generally, this program was aimed at urban least urban residents who could provide independent transportation to reception points. Developments with Sputnik in 1957 effectively killed the evacuation concept, at least for a time.  

Underground Shelters

After 1955 and the explosion of the first Soviet thermonuclear bomb, but especially in light of intercontinental ballistic missiles, civil defense officials began to drift away from the evacuation mindset. Near potential ground zeroes, "blast" shelters were considered but more often proved to be uneconomical due to shielding and independent oxygen supplies. Therefore the concept of the "fallout" shelter began to take shape. Sturdy concrete and brick buildings could provide a good deal of protection against fallout radiation, which would decay over the period of two weeks. As long as a supply of food, water and sanitation facilities were available, Americans could ride out the attack if it was not directly aimed at their locale. A great deal of media in supporting rural and suburban fallout defense began to be printed and eventually American civil defense oriented itself towards this capability.

The Berlin Crisis and Fallout Protection

President Kennedy's July 1961 speech focused on strengthening the US military but also boosting it's civil defense efforts. Due to the increasing tension of the time, many Americans began to build backyard fallout shelters while the American shelter survey got underway the same year. Many spots providing some radiation protection were identified, but stocks were not yet available. Fallout shelter signs began appearing on many public buildings none the less.

Perhaps October 1962 could be said to be a high point of public attention to civil defense in light of the Cuban Missile Crisis. After Kennedy's October 22nd speech, many civil defense offices were inundated with calls asking for information if the unimaginable happened. Even by October 1962, many if not most public shelters were not adequately stocked. Grocery stores briskly picked up business in terms of selling canned goods.

Decline of Civil Defense

After the Cuban Missile Crisis, and especially in light of the changing attitudes of the 1960s, interest in fallout shelter programs fell from public view. The Office of Civil Defense and Mobilization continued to stock some shelters, distribute films and pamphlets but by 1969 a film entitled "In Time of Emergency" still focused on the nuclear threat, but began to acknowledge other more natural disasters that could face Americans.

1980s Resurgence 

During the Carter administration, a new found interest in civil defense resulted in the concept of strategic relocation. An idea that carried over into the Reagan years, it effectively brought back the 1950s version of evacuation. In fact, a Lincoln phonebook of the 1980s displayed "evacuation" counties to the southwest that could be sought out during times of extreme tension. Evacuation at this point was not because of "tactical" warning (if an attack was detected in progress) but rather "strategic" warning (in that a crisis was coming to a boiling point). Although counties were identified, areas of reception were not. Nationally, rural areas were either not consulted on these points or were outright hostile towards the idea. During the mid to late 1980s, these ideas fell by the wayside. Well before the end of the Cold War, civil defense was dead. Any warnings broadcast to the public at this point moreover identified tornado or flood warnings as primary threats.

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