February 12, 2016

1953. American Civil Defense and the Threat of Thermonuclear War

An Interview with Val Peterson, Director of the Federal Civil Defense Administration

In 1953, CBS journalists Bill Downs and Edward P. Morgan sat down with Val Peterson, director of the Federal Civil Defense Administration. They discuss the growing possibility of nuclear war, the country's readiness, and the American civil defense program. Late in the interview Morgan learns live on air that the Soviet Union just announced its successful detonation of a hydrogen bomb.
August 19, 1953
FRANK KNIGHT: Good evening, this is Frank Knight. May I introduce our co-editors for this edition of the Longines Chronoscope: Edward P. Morgan and Bill Downs, both from the CBS television news staff. Our distinguished guest for this evening is the honorable Val Peterson, administrator of the Federal Civil Defense agency.

EDWARD P. MORGAN: Governor Peterson, on Chronoscope as a matter of fact a few months ago, you yourself made a very alarming statement. You said, as I remember it, that Russia was capable now of mounting an atomic attack which could cripple all of the important industrial centers of the United States in one blow. Since then, Mr. Malenkov says that the Russians have the H-bomb. Now, it would be helpful, I think, if you could sort of tell us what has transpired in your shop since then. Is the situation better or worse?

VAL PETERSON: Well, I think we're making progress in civil defense across the United States all of the time. So far as the announcement made by Mr. Malenkov, I personally have assumed—as have the people in my agency—that anything that we can do the Russians eventually would be able to do. You would not dare to make any other assumption in a matter that involves the safety of the United States.

I used to coach football years ago as a young fellow, and I found that whenever you underestimated the fellow or the opponent you were playing you were in trouble. And of course that's one of the first rules in military activity, too.

So I would say that nothing has changed. There's no positive evidence that the Russians have an H-bomb. You would not have positive evidence until they explode an H-bomb. On the other hand, there's every reason to believe that their scientists would be able to create some type of a thermonuclear device as time goes on.

BILL DOWNS: Well, Governor Peterson, isn't it true that, if they do have an H-bomb, which is they say twenty times more powerful than an A-bomb, that our problem is much more acute? In other words it would take twenty less airplanes, for example, to do the job you say that they are capable of doing.

PETERSON: Well, if it were only twenty times—any bomb of that type that they had were only twenty times more destructive than an H-bomb—our problem wouldn't be quite so bad as it probably is. The fact of the matter is that if and when the Russians have devices of that type, and have enough of them to mount an attack against the United States, certainly it makes our problem much more difficult.

As a matter of degree, however, that type of a bomb will destroy a greater area; damage a greater area; kill more people if they happen to be in the area. But the A-bomb is bad enough.

MORGAN: Governor, is it correct to assume that one of your biggest problems is a sort of a psychological one? I mean this: it's the problem of awakening people to the danger without crying wolf. Assuming that is true, how do you do it?

PETERSON: Well, I think the only way in the world to arouse the American people is to give the American people the facts just as closely as it's possible to do so. Now, no one would propose that you give military secrets away; certainly I wouldn't do that. But the people must know all that there is to be that they can know about enemy capabilities, about enemy weapons and the effects of those weapons. And knowing that truth I think you can believe that the people will take the action that's necessary to protect themselves.

DOWNS: Well, Governor, you said that between eight and twenty million people would be killed in event of an all out attack—atomic or nuclear attack on our country. Don't you believe that this concept is hard for the people to grasp? And isn't that one of your—

MORGAN: Overawes them, sort of thing.

DOWNS: Yeah, overawes them. I mean myself, for example. I have no feeling. What could I do about it? Maybe I'm one of those.

PETERSON: There are many things that they individual can do, and of course there are many things that we can do as a nation to protect—to minimize the effects of an atomic attack upon the United States.

Now, the fact of the matter is we are dealing with a new problem because the atomic weapon is only eight years old and the idea of intercontinental bombers that can fly from country to country dropping bombs has completely revolutionized military strategy, and the figures that are involved are stupendous.

However, the fact that the problem is tough does not mean that we do not have to meet it. And as far as I am able to figure in my own mind, as I understand Americans we'll be equal to the occasion when it arises.

MORGAN: Governor, I want to go back if I may to something you said just a moment ago, which was that you thought that the American people could arise to the situation given the information. President Eisenhower said not so very long ago, rather urgently, that he thought that "the people by all means should have more information about the atomic situation."

And I want to interrupt myself just a little to dig into my notes if you'll permit me, and read something that I jotted down from the New York Herald Tribune which says—this was printed a few weeks ago—"It is actually impossible to plan proper shelters against atomic attack in this country because the relevant information has not been released to the Civil Defense Administration by the Atomic Energy Commission or the military."

Now, the question is after that rather cumbersome buildup, has anything perceptibly been loosened up?

PETERSON: Well now, as a matter of fact, with due respects for that great newspaper for which I have a personal liking, the fact of the matter is that my agency is well-briefed by the Atomic Energy Commission all of the time and by the Department of Defense. We do have the information.

However, we haven't done as much research as we should do. As a matter of fact we've done very little research with respect to the effects of bombing upon civilian type of structures. The research that we have done has been largely in connection with the effects of atomic explosions upon military installations and military instruments; upon battleships and upon airplanes. And we need to do a great deal more research, as that editorial or article suggests.

DOWNS: Well, who's fallen on their face then, Governor? Because this is not a strictly military weapon. This is a weapon that strikes at the civilian population. That is the chief value. Why aren't you getting this information?

PETERSON: That's simply a shift in military strategy. The attacks now are made upon civilians and upon instruments of productivity rather than upon armies. We are getting that information. We have not done as much research as we should've done, primarily because we have not had the funds. Some of the information that the military has is valuable to us, and we're in the process of transcribing it. But bear in mind that becomes a very detailed and intricate engineering and technical procedure, and we haven't done as much of it as we should do.

However, I want to say this about shelters. It's entirely possible to build shelters that would protect people against any kind of an explosion, atomic or any other type of an explosion. If we wanted to take America into the ground, we could protect ourselves against these attacks. However, we would do it at a cost of billions of dollars—a fantastic amount of money—and so far there has been no (?) upon the part of the American people or upon its representatives in the American Congress to take Americans under the ground.

DOWNS: Well, don't you feel Governor that since we happen to be the major targets of this new weapon, H- and A-bomb, that we should have more information about it, and the reason some of the apathy is that we don't realize what's going on?

PETERSON: Well, I think—generally I believe that whatever is the public's business is best handled by the public and by the public directly based upon sound information. And my agency has attempted to give the public all of the information they possible could. And I know that the prevailing sentiment in Washington is to give the people all of the information that is possible—short always of course of giving the enemy the information, which nobody would want to do.

MORGAN: Governor, that brings up another point: the actual organization of Civil Defense on the part of volunteer workers. I have had the impression—in talking to some friends of mine who have done some volunteer work in Civil Defense here in New York City and other cities—that an awful lot of people, if you'll pardon the expression, go into it out of boredom. They're tired of bridge or Scrabble or whatever, and they go into it just to see what can be done. Now, what about this public apathy?

PETERSON: Well, I think that there is a failure on the part of the public to realize the danger in which America lives. And I think there are several reasons for that and if you permit me I will try to outline them very rapidly.

First, most of us do not like to do today what we should do in order to prepare for tomorrow. We procrastinate, we're a little bit lazy; that's true in our private lives.

Secondly, anyone of intelligence and information is hoping and praying that we won't have a third world war, because in this age of the atomic weapon a third world war would be a catastrophe for all mankind. And some people in that connection—and I offer this as another reason—are wishing that there will not be a third world war and they're wishing so hard that they have wished it into a reality.

And then in addition to that there are two other things that are quite important. Some people say, "Well, the destructiveness of modern atomic bombs and of these thermonuclear devices that may come into play will be so great that there isn't anything you can do about it."

And then finally—and this is quite significant—about sixty percent of the American people revealed in a study which we made through the University of Michigan a year ago that they believed that the military could stop the atomic bombs from falling upon the United States.

Well, I'm sorry to have to tell you that the military will tell you that as of today they cannot stop a successful Russian attack.

MORGAN: That can be corroborated rather dramatically. And we didn't plan it this way Governor, but the floor manager has just handed me a bulletin saying—quoting Pravda as saying that the Russians have just exploded a hydrogen bomb.

Now, as a final question—and this, we might say, a loaded one—very quickly, with that information could you tell us in about three words what we should do with that in mind?

PETERSON: I should say that we should step up our Civil Defense Program and we should of course step up our military defense program.

MORGAN: Thank you very much indeed, Governor Val Peterson.

KNIGHT: The opinions that you've heard our speakers express tonight have been entirely their own. The editorial board for this edition of the Longines Chronoscope was Edward P. Morgan and Bill Downs, both of the CBS television news staff. Our distinguished guest was the honorable Val Peterson, administrator of the Federal Civil Defense agency.