A bit worried about a North Korean nuclear strike on Seattle? We’ve been through this drill before — for at least three decades during the Cold War years. Fallout shelters, warning sirens, schoolkids lying down and covering their faces. Been there, done that.
We’ve been through this drill before, Seattle.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump have been exchanging pleasantries about “fire and fury.” But we spent at least three Cold War decades, beginning in the late 1940s, worrying and planning in case the Soviet Union fired off its nuclear missiles.
So, you know, old news.
All those years, we expected Puget Sound to be targeted. We had Boeing, the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Fort Lewis, McChord Air Force Base, the University of Washington, a major port.
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Here is a brutal paragraph from a leaflet published in 1956 by the Seattle & King County Civil Defense Departments. It carried the beguiling title, “EVACUATE. Don’t sit under the mushroom.”
The leaflet also featured a surreal graphic that shows a woman and a man sitting and relaxing against the tree-trunk portion of an atomic blast. She appears to be holding a baby. For some reason he’s wearing a sombrero.
“Seattle is considered a Major Target Area,” it warns. “A 10-Megaton Hydrogen Bomb can be dropped on the center of the business section. This would cause utter destruction for a radius of 4 miles, major destruction for a radius of 7 miles, moderate destruction for 10 miles, and minor destruction out to 7 miles.”
There was lots of advice in the leaflet. Say it’s doomsday and you don’t know what to do: “A hole in the ground with cover is remarkably effective.”
Also, “Get as far as possible … If no transportation, start walking.”
Another memorable Cold War artifact was a 1951 civil-defense manual sponsored by KVI Radio, then a market leader, showing a mushroom cloud detonating over downtown, red flames erupting into the sky.
One of the tips in the manual: “DON’T START RUMORS … a single rumor might touch off a panic that could cost you your life.”
Let’s ask Don Wall, director of the Nuclear Science Center at Washington State University, if he’s made any preparations in case of a nuclear war. He’s in charge of a nuclear reactor right on campus.
“No, I haven’t,” he says.
He’s weighed the probability of a nuclear war.
He says, “In terms of preparing for some awful event, you should put time and effort to minimize the hazards of normal life. Don’t smoke, wear seat belts.”
By the summer of 1982, then-Seattle Mayor Charles Royer likely spoke for his constituents when announcing that the city would not participate in federal planning to evacuate cities in case of a nuclear attack.
He said, “I have concluded that such an event would be so devastating that emergency plans of the type FEMA is devising would be virtually useless.”
But in the preceding decades, we sure spent lots of time worrying and preparing, and the headlines sure could be scary.
Front page of this paper, Feb. 13, 1951: “70 of 100 Russ Bombers Could Get Through to U.S. Targets.”
So prepare, prepare, prepare.
Kids of earlier era
Kids went through nuclear drills at school.
A June 20, 1955, Times photo shows students at Seward Park School lying face down in a hallway, cradling their faces in their arms “in approved civil-defense fashion.”
Professor John Findlay of the University of Washington’s department of history is co-author of a book titled “Atomic Frontier Days: Hanford and the American West.”
He says that when he teaches about the Cold War, he fully realizes it ended 25 years ago, before most of his students were born.
“Their first memory of foreign policy is 9/11,” he says. Findlay has a lot of ground to cover.
His lesson plan discusses, “Cold War symbols pervade the state of Washington. The Space Needle and Pacific Science Center attest to the future-minded, high-tech, aerospace-oriented thinking around Puget Sound.”
He remembers those “duck-and-cover drills” when he was in second grade in the early 1960s.
“I remember the teacher rolling her eyes,” Findlay says about the drills. “It wasn’t going to do anything … Sometimes the actual protection is more illusory.”
Among the protection hyped by various government agencies were fallout shelters.
A 1960 Times photo shows Lee E. Sinclair, his wife and eight of their 10 children in a fallout shelter in the basement of their North End home. In the background are shelves stocked with canned food, and it appears everybody would be cozily sleeping on two bunk beds.
The shelter was constructed by the Seattle-King County Civil Defense Agency, and the Sinclairs agreed to tours.
Sinclair is shown cranking an air blower in the wall “that renews air in the shelter” if cranked for a minute each hour.
Back in 1962, the year of the Cuban missile crisis, fallout shelters were considered desirable enough that a home for sale in Edmonds, with “a sweeping view of the Sound from the living room,” also included such modern amenities as “Hi-Fi” and “Inter-Com” and a fallout shelter.
The price was $29,500 ($239,000 in today’s dollars). Its current Zillow valuation is $646,000.
But who knows how many were really built by families.
In your immediate circle, do you know of any parents or grandparents who turned their basement into one, or dug one in the backyard?
Here and there in news stories appear hints that as much as there were dire predictions, well, the citizenry took it in stride.
On the morning of May 20, 1955, there was a citywide drill to test “attack warning siren sounds.”
Those growing up in Seattle during the Cold War era remember the noontime sirens on Wednesdays.
If you drive by Phinney Avenue North and North 67th Street, right across from the Starbucks, you can see the tower that held one such siren atop it.
On that morning, the news reports were along these lines:
“Passengers in one South End bus, headed downtown when the siren sounded, shared their driver’s uncertainty as to what to do. The driver stopped his vehicle and dug out his instruction booklet.
“ ‘You people are supposed to seek cover,’ he informed his passengers. But at the edge of the road was a marshy bog, so the passengers stayed firmly in their seats.”
But if worry you must, here’s some Scary Reading, 2017.
“Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMT) Attack.”
It’s 208 pages explaining how a high-altitude nuclear explosion will “seriously degrade or shut down a large part of the power grid” where it explodes.
Our modern world runs on electricity. One such burst would affect about 1.5 million square miles.
That’s 40 pages in which you can find the phrase “hundreds of thousands” of deaths when that aftermath is discussed.
Or learn from some in the Cold War generation how they handled this kind of stuff.
That test siren drill in 1955 included people driving to an evacuation area.
Mr. and Mrs. Henderson, who lived on Boren Avenue, actually shoved their son through their ground-floor apartment window and loaded their car with sleeping bags, food and a medical kit.
Then they took off for Renton.
“Henderson said there was ‘practically no southbound traffic.’ He counted four cars apparently taking part in the test.”