Okay, I am not trying to be pessimistic or morbid. I just want to point out the type of thought that entered into our consciousness with the beginning of the nuclear age.
Before the nuclear age, we had weapons of destruction-weapons that could threaten the survival of a person or a group of people. But now we had weapons of mass destruction that threatened the survival of the entire human race. This threat became an ever-present fact of life following World War II, and was even reflected in popular culture-everything from television to magazines to comic strips bearing such titles as "Will the atom blow the world apart?"
The New England Journal of Medicine in 1962 described the effects of a nuclear explosion over a major city like Boston. Within 1/1000th of a second, a fireball would envelop and reach out for two miles in every direction, temperatures would rise to 20 million degrees Fahrenheit, and everything--buildings, trees, cars and people--would be vaporized. This level of destruction would obviously lessen as the distance increased…but even at 40 miles away, anyone looking in the direction of the blast would be blinded by burns on their retinas.
Within minutes 1 billion people would die, but the fatalities would not end there. Radioactive fallout-the vaporized earth lingering around after a nuclear explosion-could spread over thousands of square miles, covering a much greater area than that endangered by the initial fire and blast. Radiation sickness could then cause the death rate to skyrocket.
When I found out I was going to check out an old fallout shelter, I was picturing a small basement-like structure perhaps stocked with some canned goods. Little did I know that I would be visiting an elaborate, fine-tuned operation 3 stories high and over 100,000 square feet in size. For this was no ordinary shelter, but instead a huge concrete and steel bunker designed to house the United States Congress in the event of a national crisis.
The Congressional bunker, also known by the code name "Project Greek Island" was built between 1958 and 1961. It is located in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia underneath a very beautiful resort called the Greenbrier. When I arrived, I met a wonderful woman named Linda Walls who took me up an elevator to the bunker. (Yes, even though the shelter is 70 feet underground, it is built into a hill… so we really did go up to get to it). And from there, my amazement at the complexity of the operation began.
The utility of the bunker was dependent on its secrecy. If potential enemies knew it existed, it too could become a target. And indeed, the bunker was kept a secret from an entire generation of people. It was not until 1992, over 30 years after its construction, that the Washington Post finally uncovered the story in an article. Now, my question is, how do you hide the construction of a humungous concrete and steel bunker? Wouldn't somebody have noticed? phoneroom.jpg: This phone room could be used to communicate with other fallout sites and local small towns
As Linda explains, the trick was to keep everything "hidden in plain sight." While building the shelter, a new wing of the hotel was also being constructed. So although people obviously noticed construction, they were just told it was all for the hotel. And indeed, parts of the new Greenbrier wing-the Exhibit Hall and a couple of meeting rooms-could have been sealed off by a disguised blast door to become part of the bunker.
Those who were involved with the project underwent extensive security checks by the F.B.I. Only a handful of people received top-secret clearance, while others received more limited authorization. About 60 members of the Greenbrier staff were cleared to work in the bunker, along with a group of employees contracted by the government. These workers were part of a cover-up company called Forsyth Associates and disguised themselves as T.V. repairmen while on the job.
For three decades, the bunker was kept in a state of constant readiness, all set to go on a few hours notice. Practice sessions and lock-up drills were conducted, but only for short periods of time so as not to arouse suspicion.
The underground facility was more than just a place to live and eat; it was a place to conduct business. Two 85-foot radio towers and four miles of cable, all encased in concrete, helped provide the structure with a sophisticated communications system. Meeting rooms were available, including one with T.V. cameras and a mural of the Capitol building to be used as a backdrop for official addresses to the nation. In fact, there were several pictures of different scenes of nature on the walls throughout the bunker. Linda explains, "The murals and the soothing colors were an effort to make people more relaxed."
Fortunately, the shelter was never put to use. The closest it came was in October 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis-only a few days after the project was completed! Click here for more on the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The day after the Washington Post exposed the secret bunker, the facility began to be phased out, a process completed in 1995. In fact most fallout shelters have by now faded into the past, what with the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War in 1991.
But Wade agrees with me that education is key and so he continues to work hard to promote awareness and increase public understanding of arms control policies.
It may be a tough battle, but it's definitely one worth fighting.
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Irene - And while we're at it, let's burn down some movie theaters!