In 1961, a Washington lawyer named Steuart Pittman was tapped by President John F. Kennedy’s administration for a singularly unpleasant job: getting Americans to prepare for a nuclear Armageddon.
As assistant secretary of defense, Pittman was in charge of the nation’s civil defense program. He headed a crash effort, ordered by JFK, to build fallout shelters across the nation to protect the nation’s population against Soviet missiles and bombers. It was a scary time, given escalating tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union; indeed, the two nations came perilously close to war in October 1962, when there was a tense standoff over Soviet plans to put missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from U.S. shores.
Pittman rightly took his job very seriously. He played a public role that was jarring in its seeming paradox. On one hand, he had to be the shrill, dire voice warning Americans that we needed to be prepared to go underground, unless we wanted to die. But at the same time, he had to reassure Americans that it would be possible to survive those fearsome mushroom clouds, knocking down cynics and skeptics who argued that there wasn’t any way to escape.
Here are five facts about Pittman, who died on Feb. 10 at age 93 in Davidsonville, Md., and his preparations for a future that, fortunately, never came to pass:
- Unlike the scenario in the movie Dr. Strangelove, the government didn’t plan to shield just the best and brightest. In 1962, Pittman testified to Congress that JFK’s plan called for building enough shelter space to house 233.5 million people underground by 1967 — more than the actual size of the U.S. population, which at the time was under 200 million.
- The plan called the nation to spend up to $3 billion in tax money — $22.7 billion in today’s dollars — to help build shelters in schools, hospitals and other public and private buildings that would be capable of protecting 173.5 million people. Another 60,000,000 people would seek refuge in home bomb shelters. An additional $3 billion would have come from state and local governments and the private sector.
- Pittman assured Congress in 1963 that the United States could withstand a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. “All objective and detailed studies of the impact of nuclear war conclude that there will be a significant measure of survival,” he said, “and that recuperation would take place.” As he argued in a United Press International dispatch in 1961: “I hate to hear people say that they would prefer to die in a nuclear attack than face the horrors of survival. This nation was built by people who left Europe to face the unknown hazards of a wilderness continent. Do we no longer have the courage to face an unknown challenge?”
- Not everybody bought Pittman’s argument about survival. The city council in Portland, Ore., for example, actually decided in 1963 not to participate in the national civil defense program. When Pittman went to Portland to try to persuade them to change their minds, he was greeted by picketers with signs saying “Pittman Go Home” and “CD No.”
- After leaving the government in 1964, Pittman and his wife decided to build a fallout shelter at their home in the Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Georgetown. But as she explained in her husband’s New York Times obituary: “After half a day’s digging, we gave it up.”
Here’s a 2009 interview with Pittman, in which the official whose job was to contemplate the worst-case scenario described his surprising optimism about the future of humanity: