Steuart Pittman: Official who tried to equip the US with fall-out shelters

Steuart Pittman once described his job as among the most "unappetising, unappealing and unpopular" ever devised for man – having to endlessly warn of the horrors of a nuclear war, yet simultaneously to convince his fellow citizens that if they were prepared to live like troglodytes, the ordeal could be survived.

Even at the height of the Cold War, Americans were anything but keen on civil defence, as Pittman knew in 1961 when he agreed to become President Kennedy's assistant Secretary of Defense, with just one task: to ensure there were underground shelters to house the national population of 180m, equipped to survive the first weeks after a Soviet attack when nuclear fall-out, it was believed, would be at its most dangerous. In fact the plan sent to Congress was even more ambitious, aiming to protect a projected population of 235m – 170m of them with shelters in public buildings like schools and hospitals, the remainder in shelters in private homes – at a cost to federal, state and local government of $6bn, equivalent to $45bn today.

But the scheme was soon assailed from all sides. A fierce ethical debate broke out over whether a shelter owner could use violence to stop an improvident neighbour from entering. A growing peace movement argued that shelters provided no real protection, and merely fuelled the arms race by offering justification for the strategy of deterrence. More vexing still was a general mood of apathy. Better to be killed instantly, it was argued, than experience the miseries of the nuclear aftermath.

For Pittman, such an attitude smacked of thoroughly un-American defeatism. "This nation was built by people who left Europe to face the hazards of a wilderness continent," he declared in 1961. "Do we no longer have the courage to face an unknown challenge?" Objective studies, Pittman reassured Congress, showed that there would be a "significant measure of survival" after a nuclear exchange, and that "recuperation" would take place.

But to no avail. Some cities balked at the programme (on a 1963 visit to Portland, Oregon, a few months after the Cuban missile crisis that had brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, he was greeted by protesters demanding "Pittman Go Home"), while the rest of the country was largely indifferent. In 1964 he resigned, after the defeat of a $190m budget allocation for the shelter programme.

The man to whom JFK entrusted this impossible job was an American version of the landed gentleman – the land in the Yale-educated Pittman's case being a 550-acre estate in Maryland called Dodon Farm that had been in his family for three centuries. With the exception of his three-year stint at the Pentagon, he spent his career as an investment banking lawyer before retiring to Dodon.

Of his civil defence efforts no trace remains, other than the yellow and black fall-out shelter signs, now an icon of an era. Today US civil defence is aimed at countering natural disasters like floods and hurricanes, and run by the civilian FEMA agency. Nor, ultimately, did Pittman practice what he preached. After leaving government he and his wife decided to build a shelter at their house in Washington's Georgetown. "We started it anyway," she told The New York Times after her husband's death. "But after half a day's digging, we gave it up."

Steuart Lansing Pittman, lawyer and US government official: born Albany, New York 6 June 1919; Assistant Secretary of Defense 1961-1964; married firstly Antoinette Pinchot (marriage dissolved; one son, three daughters), secondly Barbara White (one son, two daughters); died Davidsonville, Maryland 10 February 2013.

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