It’s time for a revival of American civil defense

It’s time for a revival
of American civil defense

By Jim Benson

January, 2002

The events of September 11, 2001 have demonstrated beyond a doubt that Americans are vulnerable to their enemies. The consequences of continued denial of the dangers facing us could be catastrophic.

Except for a period of about 25 years during and following World War II, Americans have never had a significant Civil Defense program.

With the advent of the so-called “Cold War” following WWII, with the political and military standoff between US and Soviet Union growing in intensity, the US Civil Defense program also grew in size and scope to include preparations for shielding much of the population from nuclear attack. But even in the heyday of US Civil Defense measures, it was widely acknowledged that a sizeable portion of the population was still likely to die in a major nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union.

An updated work on nuclear shelter standards published by the then newly created Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 1979. Though in recent years it has all but abandoned nuclear Civil Defense measures, FEMA was originally the oversight agency for the Department of Civil Defense.

As the development of nuclear weapons progressed, with destructive power of nuclear bombs and missiles becoming ever greater, most of the American public and government came to accept the idea that it was essentially useless to try to survive a nuclear attack.

Anyone who might survive a nuclear holocaust, it was argued, would not want to live long in any event, due to the expected total, or near total, annihilation of civilization and the extreme conditions that would surely exist following such a catastrophic event.

Grim as it was, there was widespread acceptance among the US population that the then prominent defense doctrine of “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD), in which both sides in the Cold War had the capability to virtually annihilate each other in a nuclear exchange, was the best deterrent against such a conflict.

Efforts to protect the US civilian population from large-scale nuclear attack during this period began to decline, until by the late1990s, federal, state and local government efforts toward this end had all but ceased to exist, with most of the government disaster management activities becoming oriented toward protecting the US civilian population from more localized natural and human-caused disruptions.

Then suddenly last year came the Islamic terrorist airline hijackings and attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Despite the ominous attacks by Islamic extremists on US property overseas in recent years, including the US embassy bombings in Africa and the suicide bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, Americans had heretofore regarded a large-scale terrorist attack on their soil as practically impossible. The events of Sept. 11 have changed our thinking on this subject.

As our government leaders scramble to mobilize our resources in this first great war of the 21st century, a war against Moslem extremists dedicated to our destruction, so too has the idea of a revival of US Civil Defense been gaining in momentum.

That Americans at home are vulnerable to serious and large-scale attacks with conventional as well as nuclear, biological or chemical weapons is now obvious. The idea that

A scene from the 1986 FEMA booklet, “Civil Defense Shelters — A State-Of-The-Art Assessment.”

we must do a great deal more in our own defense is equally obvious. The only questions remaining in this regard are the nature and extent of such preparations.

While it isn’t officially called “Civil Defense,” the Bush administration has acknowledged the need for a comprehensive national program to provide greater protection for the general population with the creation after Sept. 11 of the Office of Homeland Security. Numerous related government agencies, committees and offices will function under the Homeland Security body, and there are ongoing developments toward strengthening and improving US domestic security.

The concept of providing a comprehensive plan and program for “Homeland Security,” which sounds a lot like a Civil Defense, had been gaining credibility in US government circles well before the events of Sept. 11. The terrorist attacks on that date gave new impetus to further development of effective Homeland Security measures.

But much remains to be done in this vital area of national security, and at this writing, it appears that we as a people still lack a true, comprehensive plan and program for providing significant protective measures for the bulk of the population.

Last Nov. 8, the Bush administration announced the following initiatives “to give citizens new opportunities to support Homeland Security efforts and to help every American better prepare to respond to terrorist attacks.”

The President announced that the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) will support Homeland Security in 2002 in three major areas: public safety; public health; and disaster mitigation and preparedness. CNCS proposes to mobilize more than 20,000 Senior Corps and AmeriCorps participants in Fiscal Year 2002 to support these efforts.

The President also created the “Presidential Task Force on Citizen Preparedness in the War Against Terrorism.” The task force was to “make recommendations to help prepare Americans in their homes, neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, places of worship and public places from the potential consequences of terrorist attacks.”

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From a US Civil Defense document, this drawing shows likely radiation fallout patterns.

The task force was also to “recommend ways for Americans to support local officials, including in police departments, fire departments and community health centers, who are often the first to respond to a terrorist attack.” The task Force is co-chaired by the president’s Homeland Security and Domestic Policy advisers and will consist of the relevant federal agency heads.

Plans were underway to provide for the services of more than 5,000 Senior Corps and AmeriCorps participants in disaster preparedness and mitigation. “AmeriCorps and Senior Corps volunteers have a long track record of working with FEMA and other relief agencies in helping communities to respond to disasters,” an administration press release stated.

This is well and good as far as it goes. But it’s hardly equivalent to a real, comprehensive national Civil Defense program. Clearly, much more is needed and remains to be done if the US population is going to be provided with significant protection from foreign or domestic attacks.

Protecting Government Officials Vs. the Rest of the Population

During much of the last half century, US Civil Defense preparations focused primarily on providing protection for government officials. While there have been elaborate and extremely costly measures taken over the years in this regard, a recent Washington Post article discussed the fact that these efforts were largely to protect and ensure the continuity of the government during and after a large-scale nuclear attack during the Cold War period.

Since the death of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, such protective measures have declined or been eliminated altogether, and today there is actually no significant plan to provide for the continuation of the federal government in the event of a catastrophic nuclear, biological or chemical attack by terrorists on our nation which resulted in the deaths of large numbers of members of Congress, the Supreme Court and other top government bodies, according to the Post article.

Click to enlarge
Another graphic from a US Civil Defense document showing likely nuclear attack targets in the US during the Cold War.

Naturally, the leftist Washington Post is more concerned with what happens to government than the bulk of the civilian population. But the article does bring to mind the fact that not enough is presently being done even for defense of our government, should another major attack on us be carried out and successful.

This type of article is typical of the thinking of so many in the big media organizations about Civil Defense matters: Horror or horrors, the government could be knocked out in a major attack on the US!

But what about the rest of us?

“A consensus has formed, as evidenced in speeches, capstone strategic documents, and security forums…that threats to the US homeland are real and growing more ominous,” wrote US Navy Commander Michael Dobbs in the July 2001 issue of the Homeland Defense Journal.

“The recent chartering of a Joint Warfighting Capabilities Assessment for Homeland Security should help remove any remaining doubts as to the validity of Homeland Security as an important national security topic,” wrote Dobbs, a policy planner with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an article titled, “A Renaissance for US Civil Defense?”

“America has taken great strides toward developing a fairly comprehensive consequence management architecture based on training programs, emergency response capabilities, and the stockpiling of drugs,” Dobbs continued. “Although these initiatives have resulted in improvements in consequence management capabilities, the Homeland Security debate has largely ignored other important elements of Civil Defense that directly protect citizens from being injured by chemical and biological agents or by radiation and blast effects.”

Shortcomings associated with the “decentralized federal nature” of America’s Civil Defense program, built on the World War II model, were emphasized as early as 1946, Dobbs recounted. “America’s current Civil Defense programs draw similar criticism. The ‘space race’ and the emergence of intercontinental ballistic missiles undercut the assumption that several hours of warning would be available before a nuclear exchange. Programs to build fallout shelters characterized Civil Defense efforts in the 1960s. These family and public shelters were designed to help people survive the initial nuclear blast and remain protected for several days as the radiological energy from nuclear fallout decayed to nonlethal levels. The shelters were mostly located in urban settings and were stocked with food, water, medical equipment, and radiation-monitoring devices.

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High Risk fallout areas of the US produced by Civil Defense authorities in 1990.

“Civil Defense during the 1970s retained a focus on shelters. However, as the yield and number of nuclear weapons grew, there was…a ‘dawning realization that fallout shelters would fail to protect in the blast environment near target locations.’ Predictions of massive nuclear exchanges and ‘nuclear winter,’ along with dramatic portrayals of the post-apocalyptic world, also convinced many that long-term survival following an atomic war was neither possible nor particularly desirable. This realization engendered resignation, and shelter stocks were allowed to dwindle or, in many cases, were destroyed.

“The advent of satellite reconnaissance during the 1980s provided hope that as many as three days of warning would again be available before an attack as the Soviet Union moved its strategic forces into launch posture. This assumption made evacuation an option, as it had been during the 1950s, to protect America’s civilian population from the horrors of nuclear war. The discovery that an effective shelter program would cost $60 billion — 30 times the price tag for implementing a ‘crisis relocation’ strategy in large cities — made evacuation the only fiscally feasible option…Plans of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for crisis relocation envisioned evacuation of 150 million Americans from 400 ‘high risk’ areas,” Dobbs wrote.

Regarding the current state of US Civil Defense measures, Dobbs continued, “Much to-do has been made about the shock and indignation of many Americans when they learn that their nation has no defense against ballistic and cruise missiles. However, a more glaring, and infinitely less technically complex, deficiency is that all but a few Americans lack even the most basic personal protective equipment and live, work, and study in environments that afford little shelter against chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) incidents”

“Since the end of the Cold War, America’s programs (except those designed to protect key government leaders) to provide shelter, food, and water in the case of a nuclear exchange have essentially disappeared. Although an Office of Civil Defense existed within FEMA to coordinate these programs, the office was quietly closed during the mid-1990s. Questions regarding public and private shelters as well as personal protective equipment (gas masks, chemical suits, etc.) must now be referred to state emergency preparedness offices.”

This “shortfall” of Civil Defense measures, wrote Dobbs, “is particularly disturbing and should be addressed if we are to develop a comprehensive and effective national program to reduce the vulnerability of the United States to the employment and effects of CBRN weapons. The deficiency is unfortunate and potentially tragic because even extremely effective consequence-management efforts taken after a CBRN incident has already occurred can do little more than mitigate the suffering of those afflicted and, in the case of a biological agent, perhaps limit the contagion of other victims. Additionally, local consequence-management capabilities will, it is widely assumed, be overwhelmed in the event of a catastrophic CBRN incident. Although help can be expected from the states and the federal government, this response time will be measured in hours or perhaps in days. As in any disaster, self-help will largely be the rule for many citizens during the initial hours of a large-scale CBRN incident.

“Even rudimentary devices such as gas masks or chemical suits provide considerable protection against WMD effects,” Dobbs continued, “since many chemical and biological weapons employ airborne agents that must be taken into the respiratory tract or come in contact with the skin to cause harm. Although costs vary, these items can normally be purchased for a few hundred dollars. Israel has recognized the importance of providing equipment and information to help its citizens protect themselves in the event of a CBRN attack. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Home Front Command, established in the wake of the Persian Gulf War, is responsible for the defense of Israel’s civilian population. Largely a reserve organization, the Home Front Command is divided into six districts. The organization coordinates the distribution of gas masks to Israelis, helps ensure that all new homes are equipped with a personal protective space to provide shelter from a CBRN attack, and has an important operational role to play in the event of a CBRN attack.”

America’s current effort in Civil Defense, wrote Dobbs, “also provides extremely little education to the public regarding preparedness and response for a CBRN incident. Despite the billions spent on CBRN preparedness programs,” he added, “not one penny is being spent on taxpayers’ involvement or enlightenment.”

Click to enlarge
Civil Defense graphic showing effects of a nuclear bomb detonation.

Without such education, he said, “the public will be poorly prepared to recognize a possible CBRN attack, resist the urge to panic, take appropriate immediate actions, and to cooperate effectively with first responders. Although FEMA offers a variety of courses and materials to first responders and government leaders, the lack of an official source of information on CBRN incidents has left the average citizen much less prepared, both intellectually and emotionally, than the lowest private in the US Army.”

Several researchers have studied the psychology of Civil Defense during the Cold War, continued Dobbs in the article, and public apathy toward preparing for the unthinkable has been attributed to the following factors:

• Preparations are closely associated with “survivalists” and other “discredited personalities living on the fringe of society.”

• Preparations were futile in the face of a large-scale nuclear exchange.

• People choose to think only rarely about the effects of a WMD attack because the thoughts are so unpleasant.

• Limited experience with attacks and large-scale loss of life on American soil do not provide a graphical historic incentive for action.

• People believed that civil preparations for a WMD conflict could actually increase the likelihood of war by making US political leaders more aggressive and/or making adversaries believe that conflict is inevitable.

• National leaders demonstrated lack of interest and support. One scholar has proposed that “high-executive (particularly presidential) interest (or lack of it) has been the primary determinant” of the success, or failure, of Civil Defense policies and programs.

It’s High Time for a Comprehensive US Civil Defense Program

During eight years of the Clinton administration, wrote Joseph Farah in a recent article titled, “Bring Back Civil Defense” in, “FEMA’s meager efforts to maintain equipment needed for saving lives in a future nuclear war were cut from the budget. The equipment was destroyed, lost, sold or abandoned.

“For years, a political movement determined to disarm America had persuaded the public there was no use in trying to save lives during a nuclear war. We were all going to die. We might as well be vaporized. There was no point in trying to prepare, no point in defending ourselves, no point in living if we were attacked.

“This movement ultimately won out and became official national policy during the Clinton years,” Farah said.

“But the movement is based totally on lies. People do survive nuclear blasts. Most people survived the initial blasts on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many emerged from the rubble unscathed — only to die a miserable and unnecessary death from fallout. There were dire predictions the two islands would never be inhabited again — or at least for 75 years. Nagasaki and Hiroshima today are bustling metropolises — much bigger, more prosperous and more healthy places to live than they were before the blasts.

“There is no question that properly constructed and stocked shelters can and do save lives during nuclear attacks,” Farah continued. “The proof? Russia has built them. China has built them. The Swiss have built them. All of them, by the way, built based on technology developed by the US government and paid for by US taxpayers — who remain defenseless.

“There’s more proof,” Farah continued. “Not all Americans are left defenseless. Your federal government has used your tax dollars to build shelters for itself and its key people — tens of thousands of them. They will survive the inevitable attack on the US. You, the taxpaying public, will not.

This booklet with information on how to protect against the effects of ElectroMagnetic Pulse from a nuclear detonation was produced by FEMA in 1993, before the agency began to abandon such activities.

“That’s the plan. National suicide. It may be the biggest scandal involving government I have ever witnessed in my life.”

There’s been a great deal of debate in the last 20 years about strategic missile defense, said Farah. “Yet, as important as that component of defense is to our future, it is no substitute for Civil Defense — as the terrorist attacks illustrate so well. The first nuclear attack on the US may well be a hand-delivered bomb — not one delivered on an intercontinental ballistic missile.”

What You Can Do

Given that our government officials have a long way to go in developing a comprehensive Civil Defense program for the US population, despite their laudable efforts toward that end thus far in the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedies, those of us concerned with being better protected will have to do a lot more on our own to provide for ourselves and our loved ones.

The ability to provide this protection begins with knowledge. And the source of the best and most comprehensive knowledge about Civil Defense matters available that I know of today has been assembled by a man named Richard Fleetwood.

He is writing a series of articles on US Civil Defense for my Internet magazine, His first article, “Nuclear Preparedness: The New American Paradigm,” is in the current issue of

Richard Fleetwood is the founder of the SurvivalRing webring, and the SurvivalRing, Civil Defense Now, and The Blast Shelter websites. He is married with three teenaged children and lives in central Wyoming. His background includes 10 years of federal employment, 5 years in the defense electronics industry producing FLIR, laser, and TOW systems, and many years in the computer field. He holds FEMA certificates in Radiological Emergency Management and Emergency Program Management.

Using skills developed in researching things computer, real estate, and technology job related, he spent thousands of hours online, in used bookstores, at flea markets “and any place you could find safety-related material,” and he started studying the entire genre of Civil Defense.

Despite “the billions of dollars spent from the ’50s through the ’80s on nuclear preparedness, Civil Defense, training materials, and more,” Fleetwood said, “there was precious little information on more than the very basic things on the Web.”

This US Civil Defense work from the Cold War period was intended to help farmers deal with radioactive fallout from a nuclear attack. It’s a good example of the extent of the efforts the US government made to protect the citizenry in those days.

Having collected over 200 unique and rare original Office of Civil Defense documents, manuals, training books, pamphlets, and other related materials over the past couple of years using Ebay, used book stores and searches, donations and loans from individuals around the country, he is slowing getting these rare sources of information scanned in and online on his websites. He has also compiled over 1.5 gigabytes of digitized documents from FEMA, the Red Cross, various Civil Defense organizations, military field manuals, and emergency management organizations nationwide, and is preparing a collection of this set of information for the world.

He has also made contacts with multiple international Civil Defense organizations and received hundreds of pages of English language documents from Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, the UK and Canada, and was at this writing awaiting packages from Singapore and Norway with more of the same.

His goal is to create the single largest online and offline source of worldwide Civil Defense documentation, training, and historical archiving for any and all future uses of those needing this information.

To Richard Fleetwood, Civil Defense is the same as “citizen preparedness.”

“It is up to each and every one of us in this nation to be prepared when a disaster strikes either directly or nearby, so that we do not burden others, and are able and available to assist those who do suffer the worst,” Fleetwood said. “There are many other areas of Civil Defense that connect completely with the theme of citizen preparedness, such as the skills of threat assessment, national security knowledge, neighborhood watch programs, crime prevention, and so forth.”

He uses his spare time and research skills to maintain his SurvivalRing website, one of the leading preparedness information websites in the world. Since his current big project is to collect as many original Civil Defense documents as possible from both domestic and international agencies, as well as individual collectors who wish to help with this project, to create the world’s largest online archive of this life-saving material, which he calls, “Civil Defense Now,” please contact him at if you have original Civil Defense documents of any kind or age to share.

As I have always believed in my years of work in the survival-minded community, we as individuals can do a great deal to enhance and promote our own personal security, as well as the security and welfare of the bulk of the US population.

Supporting and encouraging more action by our government officials toward the development and implementation of a true, effective national Civil Defense program is one important task we can perform for the common good.

Learning as much as possible about the threats facing us and reasonable measures we as individuals can take to protect ourselves and our loved ones to make up for the shortfall of government assistance is another, possibly vital, effort we should also make.

For more than 16 years, Jim Benson was editor of the monthly magazine American Survival Guide. He is now editor and publisher of the Internet publication Modern Survival Magazine. His interest in Civil Defense matters dates to the beginnings of his involvement with the survival-minded sub-culture in this country.

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