More than 50 years ago, Americans also faced the potential threat of invisible enemies in their daily lives: potential for nuclear, biological or chemical warfare. To prepare and protect the public against such an attack, federal officials commenced planning efforts to establish a nationwide civil defense program.
The program created a bureaucratic mess, which has since been redirected to natural disaster relief efforts. But two principles for civil defense against nuclear attack are playing a major role in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus: self-help and federalism.
Planning America’s Cold War-era civil defense began in the summer of 1945 as Army planners started preparing for World War III. Assuming the next war would involve a surprise enemy attack on the homeland, Army leaders believed a strong civil defense program could complement the U.S. military.
Directed by the Army’s provost marshal general, the study determined that this next war including use of nuclear weapons would subject the civilian population to a year of enemy attacks. This led to a dual set of recommendations: a strong centralized federal civil defense organization within the War Department would combine with self-help by individual Americans. This would ensure that every civilian, trained in civil defense methods, would be prepared to endure and maintain the nation’s resolve to wage war. Subsequent studies agreed with the importance of self-help, but coupled central coordination with empowering states with the responsibility for implementing civil defense.
Such plans for centralized federal control with decentralized execution of civil defense plans at state and local levels eventually stoked controversy. Radio and newspaper gossip columnist Walter Winchell deemed a third civil defense study “the greatest internal threat to our liberty since the British burned the White House in 1814.” Even though the plan relied on state and local communities to shoulder civil defense’s burdens, Winchell saw the centralized planning element of the proposal as a grave threat to states’ rights and individual freedoms.
Winchell’s unsubstantiated fearmongering and limited government and public support killed the plan, as President Harry S. Truman saw neither an immediate threat nor a need to invest himself in a political fight over civil defense.
The successful Soviet test of an atomic weapon and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 prompted a resurgence of public interest in civil defense. When war broke out on the Korea Peninsula on June 25, 1950, Congress took action and passed civil defense legislation. Fearing the potential for a global struggle, Congress modeled the Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950, which became law in January 1951, on an updated version of the 1948 report that Winchell had found so objectionable. This law emphasized self-help and delegated operational responsibility for civil defense to state and local governments. The newly created Federal Civil Defense Administration would then provide overall coordination and guidance.
But this decentralized effort delegated responsibility but not authority to states and local governments, which all but ensured an unbalanced and weak national civil defense program.
Between the 1950s and 1970s, the federal civil defense program failed to develop beyond a rudimentary effort to protect the American people. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Congress balked at funding a giant radioactive-fallout-shelter program. Citizens by and large did not build shelters in their backyards as recommended by federal civil defense officials. Under President John F. Kennedy, a partial fallout-shelter program made some headway but soon petered out when Congress, in response to disinterest by the Johnson administration, tabled legislation to expand the program’s funding.
Without funding to increase fallout-shelter efforts, the federal civil defense program contracted. With nuclear civil defense on the wane, states increasingly redirected civil defense plans and resources to a more immediate need — responding to costly natural disasters. Just before leaving office in January 1953, Truman vested the Federal Civil Defense Administration with responsibility for coordinating and administering disaster relief. This responsibility for natural disaster planning and response would further test and refine civil defense preparations for enemy attack and enable the federal bureau to better advise states.
With Americans apathetic to shelters, state and local civil defense organizations reoriented efforts and federal resources intended to shield citizens from enemy attack to disaster relief efforts. Eventually, beginning in the 1960s, federal disaster relief came to supplant rather than supplement state efforts, fueling public expectations of federal relief.
By executive order in 1979, President Jimmy Carter established the Federal Emergency Management Agency as the lead agency for coordinating federal disaster relief efforts, whether for enemy attack or natural disasters. In 1994, with the Cold War over, and after FEMA fumbled relief efforts for several disasters, Congress repealed the Civil Defense Act of 1950 and reallocated funding for all-hazard preparedness toward natural disasters.
That model lasted until the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which spurred a renewed push to prepare specifically for attacks on the homeland. President George W. Bush’s new Department of Homeland Security once again fused emergency management with efforts to protect against terrorism, cyberattacks and, beginning in 2005, pandemic influenza.
This twisted, tangled history of bureaucratic infighting, uncertainty about which level of government ought to respond to attacks and disasters and the generalized inability to convince the public of the importance of early planning and funding have all shaped our response to the coronavirus crisis. Indeed, these same factors have plagued our efforts to fight the pandemic.
Ironically, because planning efforts failed, the principles of civil defense enumerated decades ago — most especially, the reliance on individuals and states and localities — have sustained Americans so far. Once again, mayors and governors have acted independently of federal recommendations to protect their citizens and residents. Citizens have embraced self-help measures such as social distancing, hand-washing and wearing face masks. These actions will invariably continue until an effective treatment or vaccine is available.
As the 1948 Defense Department civil defense study acknowledged: “Individual citizens and families must be prepared to exercise maximum self-protection before expecting help from others. … Such knowledge and ability to take the proper action in an emergency will dispel fear, prevent panic and confusion, minimize loss, and maintain morale.” Today, we are learning how true those words are.