• U.S.

Dig a Hole: Reagan Administration and Civil Defense

2 minute read

One old approach to preparing for a nuclear war that has been resurrected by the Reagan Administration is the idea of civil defense. The President has budgeted $252 million for the program next year, a 90% increase over fiscal 1982. But unlike the fallout-shelter mania that followed the Berlin crisis of 1961, when the Kennedy Administration spent $257 million (1982 equivalent: $920 million) for civil defense, the Reagan program is focused on “crisis relocation” to evacuate probable target areas, and on contingency plans for resuming normal operations after a nuclear attack.

Many of the ideas developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) seem starkly irrational. The Washington, D.C., evacuation plan, for example, calls for people driving cars with odd-numbered license plates to defy human nature by waiting for those with even-numbered plates to leave the city first. As for the bureaucracy, the Postal Service will issue postage-free “emergency change-of-address cards”; the Department of Housing and Urban Development has a procedure for requisitioning houses “whose owners have disappeared;” and the Department of Agriculture has a food-rationing system to distribute, among other things, six eggs and 4 lbs. of cereal to every surviving American each week.

The principal enthusiast for civil defense is Thomas K. Jones, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for strategic theater nuclear forces. Jones, a former missile planner at Boeing, caused an uproar by telling a Los Angeles Times interviewer how Americans might survive a nuclear attack. Said he: “Dig a hole, cover it with a couple of doors, and then throw three feet of dirt on top. Everyone’s going to make it if there are enough shovels to go around.”

When Jones was summoned by a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee last week to clarify these views, the Pentagon instead sent Assistant Secretary for Defense Richard Perle. Preparing for an attack does not mean the Government is not doing all it can to reduce the chance of such a horror, Perle insisted. The subcommittee decided that it still wants to hear Jones, apparently fearing that he may reflect a real Pentagon attitude about nuclear war.

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