Steuart L. Pittman, the chief of President John F. Kennedy’s civil defense program who marshaled a national effort at the height of the Cold War to organize the massive — and now largely forgotten — system of nuclear fallout shelters across the country, died Feb. 10 at his farm in Davidsonville. He was 93.
He had a stroke, said his daughter Romey Pittman.
Mr. Pittman spent nearly his entire career as a lawyer with the Washington firm of Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge. A veteran of government commissions, he rose to national attention in 1961 when Kennedy named him assistant secretary of defense in charge of civil defense.
Civil defense essentially encompassed all nonmilitary measures to protect the nation in the event of disaster. It had long been regarded, at best, as second fiddle to the military. Mr. Pittman became the first official to operate the program from the Defense Department after Kennedy moved it from a smaller office in the White House.
Shortly before Mr. Pittman took office, a Cold War showdown in Berlin intensified, and the Soviets began to erect the wall that would divide the city for decades. In response, Congress approved more than $200 million in supplementary civil defense funds. Most of the money was intended for the survey of nuclear shelter space in factories, offices, churches and other locations across the United States, ordered by Kennedy.
At the peak of U.S. preparedness, Mr. Pittman said, national and local governments were ready to offer shelter to two-thirds of the U.S. population in case of nuclear attack. Shelters were marked with what became iconic yellow and black signs.
Mr. Pittman found that public interest in civil defense in general and the shelter program in particular came and went with emergencies such as the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
The program had begun to attract criticism from members of Congress and local government officials who argued that the shelter system was too expensive, that it gave a false sense of security and that it perhaps fueled an immoral “every man for himself” approach to emergency preparedness.
Mr. Pittman countered that the stakes of nuclear war were “too high to ignore any practical measures” that could save lives. He added that the country could not afford a defeatist attitude.
“If it is appropriate to use moral epithets, such as cowardly and selfish,” he told a congressional committee in 1963, “I personally believe they are more aptly applied to those who loudly proclaim their willingness to lie down and die while our country is under attack.”
Upon Mr. Pittman’s return to private practice the next year, The Washington Post editorial board wrote that he “oversaw the transformation of civil defense from something of a political toy to a self-respecting part of the defense establishment” and that he “approached with reason a subject too often cluttered with emotion.”
Steuart Lansing Pittman was born June 6, 1919, in Albany, N.Y., and raised in New York City. His father, a chemical engineer, came from an old Maryland family.
After graduating from Yale University in 1941, the younger Pittman worked in Asia for a subsidiary of Pan American World Airways that delivered supplies to the Flying Tigers, the U.S. volunteers fighting alongside the Chinese against Japan.
Mr. Pittman joined the Marine Corps after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and served alongside Chinese guerrillas. He received the Silver Star for his actions while commanding a Chinese junk in the East China Sea that came under enemy fire shortly after the Japanese surrender in 1945. The commander of the enemy junk — ultimately defeated — apparently did not know, or could not bring himself to believe, that the war was over.
Mr. Pittman received a law degree from Yale in 1948 and worked in Washington as a government lawyer assigned to the Marshall Plan for postwar economic recovery in Europe. In 1954, he helped found Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge (now Pillsbury, Winthrop, Shaw & Pittman). His specialties included aviation law and international investment finance and trade.
Mr. Pittman retired about 25 years ago, but he maintained an office at the law firm until his death. He resided on Dodon Farm, a 550-acre tract in Davidsonville founded by his family six generations earlier, and presided over the property for decades.
Survivors include his wife of 54 years, Barbara White Pittman of Dodon Farm and Washington; four children from his first marriage, Andrew Pittman of Bethesda, Nancy Pittman Pinchot of New Haven, Conn., Rosamond Pittman Casey of Charlottesville and Tamara Pittman of New York City; three children from his second marriage, Patricia Pittman, Steuart Pittman Jr. and Romey Pittman, all of Dodon Farm; and 15 grandchildren.
In interviews decades after his public service, Mr. Pittman admitted to a certain degree of “anger” at the widespread apathy to civil defense. Terrorism, and the threat of dirty bombs, renewed his concerns.
Of the Cold War shelters, he once told The Post: “It seems like it was a terrible waste to have built this thing up and then let it go when we didn’t know what the future held.”