Modern Civil Defense

by 3AD Scout
SurvivalBlog Contributor June 13, 2023

What might a revived civil defense program look like in the United States? What may trigger the Federal government to implement civil defense actions and what impacts might those actions or inactions have on you, your family or your preparedness group’s plans for survival?

Where Civil Defense Ended

To understand what the federal government might do in the future for civil defense we need to start by looking at the past. In the 1950s through the 1970s American Civil Defense (CD) centered around “protecting” the population through fallout shelters. A massive undertaking surveyed building across the United States to deem them worthy of protecting occupants from the radiation caused by a nuclear war. After these shelters were identified and marked with signage, the federal government, in partnership with state and local governments started stocking the shelters with water, “food”, medical supplies and radiation detection equipment. Local Civil Defense organizations were established, and people were recruited and trained to manage theses shelters and how to use radiation detection equipment. Nearly all the standardized “food” supplies stocked in these shelters were just crackers made from bulgar wheat that did not last very long. The other “food” was a carbohydrate supplement, also known as hard candy. The US was now supposedly ready for an attack, or were we?

Civil Defense – Take Two

In 1979 the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was formed and took over civil defense duties. Soon after, the concept of Crisis Relocation was adopted by the United States government. Crisis relocation was the federal government’s admission that fallout shelters did nothing to protect the occupants from the blast, and heat effects from a nuclear explosion. Crisis relocation was calculated to save millions of lives from the effects of nuclear explosions, all by simply moving millions of people from America’s largest cities into less populated areas in about three days’ time.

Crisis Relocation had many detractors who pointed out the improbability that Crisis relocation would work. It was predicted that an evacuation of New York City would take about a week versus the requisite three days. In 1985 the concept and planning, “had been largely eliminated”, this according to an article in the New York Times. Before a new civil defense plan could be created, the Soviet Union collapse. The perceived need for civil defense collapsed with the Soviet Union. Since the mid-1990’s there have been no actions taken for civil defense for nuclear war for the civilian population.

The concept of a national fallout shelter system has been relegated to the history books and crisis relocation plans were only in their infancy when those efforts stopped as part of the “peace dividend”. The water, “food”, medical supplies and the radiation detection equipment in the fallout shelters has long ago expired, went out of clibration, and/or rotted. But more importantly, the people who were trained in the various functions of civil defense, are in their 70s and 80s and for the most part, have not kept up with their training. There are also no management or communications structures in place for dealing with civil defense forces, so current emergency management agencies could not even locate or determine who those former CD-trained volunteers are, or how to contact them. Ninety percent of the mediocre civil defense capability that the US had has disappeared. The 10% that remains goes to the continuity of government (COG), natural disaster relief, and national defense responsibilities that FEMA is still responsible for. But nothing for you or me.

Could we pick up where we left off? More importantly, should we even attempt re-establishing Crisis Relocation Planning? The concept of putting tens of thousands of people into smaller communities, compromised of a few thousand residents, and into shelters that will provide protection from radiation is highly unlikely. Why? Simply put the smaller “host” communities do not have the infrastructure to absorb those from large targeted cities. A small community of 10,000 residents will have schools and churches but most will not have the buildings to provide fallout shelters for both their own residents and thousands coming from the cities. One possibility is hastily dug trench shelters that can provide rudimentary shelter.

Many surveys and polls were done during the days of active civil defense. The surveys showed that Americans in the rural host areas would help the Americans coming out of the cities including some stating that they would shelter evacuating city dwellers in their homes. As America has become fractured along the various lines of the culture wars, I suspect that many rural residents would not be welcoming of those from cities. Considering that many preppers live or have bugout locations in less populated areas, crisis relocation could quickly overpopulate your rural area and present a major security and safety concern by creating a situation with too many people and not enough resources like food and water.

Many of the objections to the concept of Crisis Relocation came from those smaller communities that were deemed “host” communities. Considering the quote from the New York Times article in 1985, about crisis relocation planning being “largely eliminated” we can assume that some aspect of crisis relocation planning survived. I suspect that some form of planning was done to be able to activate a hasty evacuation (crisis relocation) if an international crisis rose to a level that necessitated it. Along with the fallout shelters were the thousands of trained volunteers who knew how to manage the fallout shelters and more importantly how to run the radiation detection equipment inside each shelter. Some of the radiation detection equipment can be found today, but mostly on eBay. (And most of it is out of calibration.) The question is how many people have educated themselves about not only how to operate the radiation detection equipment but about radiation in general? Unfortunately, we can’t pick up where we left off.

Do we even need to re-activate civil defense activities? First, the end of the Cold War should not have ended civil defense planning. Why? Because nuclear weapons did not disappear. The likelihood that those weapons would be used may have been diminished but that could change due to the ever-changing geopolitical landscape — as we are seeing and hearing in the present day. It is naïve to think that the number of nations with nuclear weapons would remain constant. Now we see nations, that are hostile to the United States, like North Korea and soon Iran that can or soon will be able to threaten the US with nuclear weapons.

Discontinuing civil defense efforts was also wrong since our civil defense efforts were also part of our strategic deterrence efforts. That is, our ability to survive a nuclear attack and launch a counterattack would dissuade an enemy from launching an attack in the first place. During the Cold War, all we had to be concerned about was the nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union. Today, we have to be concerned with the nuclear weapons capability of not only Russia but China, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, and possibly some radical terrorist groups.

Even if the United States wanted to start civil defense efforts back up it may take Congress some time to pass enabling legislation since the Civil Defense Act of 1950 has also been mostly repealed. There are a lot of nuclear threats being made today and there are warning about war with nuclear-armed China as well. We may not need a civil defense system like we had in the past but we do need a program to, at the very least, educate the nation about some basic preparedness measures.

Let’s Assume

Let’s assume that that Washington determines the need for renewing civil defense, when would it happen and what might it entail? Based on FEMA’s most recent “guidance” found in “NUCLEAR DETONATION RESPONSE GUIDANCE- PLANNING FOR THE FIRST 72 HOURS” released on March 2023, upon a nuclear attack warning being issued, state and local officials should “issue immediate shelter-in-place notifications”. That is great except for this little thing called “reality”.

In FEMA’s own 2022 National Household Survey, that polls people about their level of disaster preparedness, only 33% have assembled supplies for a disaster. Based on other past disaster preparedness surveys by others, the poll should read 33% feel that they are prepared. Having a plan to basically just tell people to seek shelter when the missile are already in the air won’t win any best practices awards. Before we go on, the old civil defense system was not perfect by any means but at least there was a genuine effort by government to get people to understand the need to be prepared. The current plan does not take into account a number of limiting factors. One, FEMA’s planners assume that people have any inkling of how to “shelter” from radiation, let alone the blast effects. In the analog days we had AM radios with radio stations that were prepared to keep broadcasting emergency information in a post-nuclear attack world. Not sure how many millennials could even find an AM station.

Smartphones might be able to deliver the attack warning messages but there is great doubt that the phones or the infrastructure that is needed to keep them working will survive due to the effects of both EMP and blast effects. The problem with the old civil defense programs was that the government, for the most part, took on the onus of sheltering and providing for the basic needs for those in the fallout shelter. As with so many other government programs, we see government officials saying that they will provide the people with shelter, food and water but the reality was what would be provided was austere at best. We can assume that any attempt at reviving civil defense will be another attempt at government promising to deliver the basic means of life support but falling short. That is assuming that the federal government would even revive civil defense.

There are several reasons for the federal government to ignore the need for civil defense. The federal government needs the funds to go towards weapons and supplies for our own readiness or for either for NATO or for our Pacific allies. A move to institute a new civil defense program may prompt a preemptive attack or speed up attack planning by our adversaries. A new CD program could trigger new anti-war protest and make the politicians deal with protests and political candidates who would run on anti-war/nuke platforms. Reviving CD would also be an admission that the Government should’ve never done away with civil defense in the first place. How would a renewed civil defense program go over with our enemies? Would it escalate tensions? The biggest reason for the federal government not reinstituting Civil defense is because it would be an indication of just how bad the geopolitical situation is. We would not want the public calling their representatives now would we?

Sitting Ducks bear the burden

The government is great at studying things. The problem is that fancy studies seldom take into account all the variables that could change the outcome of their study. The government was great at tackling an issue by throwing money for a study that would then get put on a shelf with other studies. Today, the modus operandi is for government to just not acknowledge there is a problem. How they are handling the southern border crisis is exactly how they will handle the need for a new civil defense program. Deny what is needed and paint a rosy picture. I am very skeptical that any meaningful resurrection of any type of civil defense will happen. Again, looking at the history of civil defense we can conclude that it took a major crisis (the Berlin Blockade of 1961) to motivate the federal government to make any significant improvements to civil defense. The civil defense budget skyrocketed in 1962 as the nation surveyed buildings for their suitability as fallout shelters and stocked these shelters with water, basic sanitation supplies, medical supplies, very austere food and radiation survey equipment.

But soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the budget for civil defense efforts plummeted. If the US population could not convince Congress to maintain funding for civil defense efforts after the Berlin Blockade Crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis do we really think we could convince the current congress to expend any funding on a revived civil defense system? The United States has for a very long time banked on the concept of deterrence. That is, if we maintain a strong and ready military, we will deter any attacks. The problem is deterrence does not always work and when it does not work we lose a lot of our national treasure. For example in the 1930s no one in the US government thought that Japan would attack the US because the US economy would crush the Japanese. But deterrence did not work did it.

As a Generation-Xer I don’t recall any threats of nuclear weapons use like we are hearing lately. Granted the Soviet Union and the NATO made clear what their particular “red lines” were but these were not threats. So do not hold your breath thinking that the folks in Washington will do anything to protect the public for something they naïvely believe will not happen. The reality is, as long as nuclear weapons are in existence, there will be a chance that they will be used, that is just plain reality. Geopolitics determine if the likelihood is low or high for nuclear war. Russia fighting a war in Eastern Europe and China looking like they will start a war in Pacific makes the risks higher than it has been for several years after the end of the Cold War.

What does this mean to you?

You will need to take responsibility for the protection of you and your family because the politicians certainly will not. And if they do, their actions will be less than adequate and more about creating a public perception of civil preparedness than actual preparedness. There are many types of preppers, some prepare for normal disaster that might last 72 hours, some might prepare for a few weeks and others a year or more. Now is the time to look at your particular preparations and decide what you need to do to not only prepare for the immediate effects of several nuclear weapons detonations across the US and the world but also what you need to survive in a post-nuclear exchange world.

Many of the models predicted half the population of the US could die in a nuclear war. That sounds bad, but the other half of the population are expected to survive. What we do now, before buttons are pushed, will greatly decide which group you may fall into. If you live or work near a military installation, or near one of the top 120 largest cities in the US, your chances are greatly reduced that you will be in the survivor category. The likely hood of surviving the effects of a nuclear blast in a basement, fallout shelter or “bomb shelter” hit by a 10 megaton warhead is very slime. Living and working outside of the probable targets is pretty much the only way to increase your odds of survival from the actual blast.

After the blast, the next obstacle to survival will be radiation from “fallout”. Depending upon where you live, the number and types of nuclear blasts (ground burst or air burst) this could be a relatively short and easy task or it could be two weeks or more and challenging. Again your actions now are really what determines your likelihood of survival. After surviving the blast and fallout radiation the next survival hurdle will be adapting to a world that will have significantly less manufacturing capability. When you look at the largest 120 cities in the US, those cities account for around 58% to 68% of the manufacturing capability in the US (based on old Cold War civil defense documents). If you thought not being able to find toilet paper during Covid was bad, just wait until you cannot find anything due to supply chains being destroyed, not just disrupted. Even if parts were available the transporation systems to get individual parts to a factory where they could be assembled and then shipped to where they can be sold will also be destroyed and what survives will be heavily degraded in ability.

Out of the Ashes

Not to discount the death and destruction that even a limited nuclear exchange will cause, but the reality is if you can survive the first two weeks after a nuclear war your chances of survival go way up from there. Life will go on for survivors, that is just human nature. Have you ever seen an ant hill get run over by a lawn mower? It causes major death and destruction but the ants immediately go to work trying to fix and continue with putting food away for the winter.

What you should not do is believe the old Cold War propaganda that nobody would survive a nuclear war. As someone who has studied Cold War Civil Defense, I can tell you that millions of dollars and rubles have been spent on not only studying post-nuclear war survival including economic recovery but also on plans, bunkers, and supplies for the politicians. Do not believe the propaganda and give up. That defeatist attitude is exactly what our enemies want from us.

Again, yes many people will die, but we know those will occur in the largest cities and near military bases. Not living in those areas gives you a very good chance of not dying from the blast effects. The next 14 days, depending upon where you live, will require shelter from the fallout radiation. After that two-week period humans, just like ants, will start to repair and re-organize their society. Being prepared to survive on your own means that you will not be coerced into becoming a “reconstruction” worker for which you will be paid in food. No work will mean no food.

So your survival comes down to not living near a target and having the ability to protect yourself and your family from radiation for about 14 days. After the 14 days it will be surviving without any type of supply chain for a considerable time, so make sure you are hitting the basics: food, water, and medical.

"The time for war has not yet come, but it will come and that soon, and when it does come, my advice is to draw the sword and throw away the scabbard." Gen. T.J. Jackson, March 1861