Excerpt: 'Bomboozled' by Susan Roy


Family Fallout Shelter exhibit installation, National Museum of American History

From The Design Observer:

In George Orwell’s 1984, citizens of the totalitarian state of Oceania were required to accomplish the impossible task of holding two contradictory ideas in their minds and accepting both of them:

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

Orwell called this “Doublethink.”

Similarly, Americans during the early years of the Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. — the 1950s and early 1960s — were expected to be able to reconcile these two diametrically opposed thoughts:

A nuclear war can destroy all life on earth.
You will survive if you build a family fallout shelter.       

The family fallout shelter’s ostensible purpose — to ensure survival during and after a nuclear attack — was impossible to achieve. That wasn’t why it was created. It was part of the propaganda campaign to convince the American people that they could survive a nuclear war.

Tens of thousands of Americans — maybe even hundreds of thousands — actually did build shelters, and millions considered doing so. Why? How could so many people believe that hiding in an underground concrete cube would save their lives during a nuclear attack? And then, if they somehow did survive, why did they believe they could function in a post-apocalyptic world with fires raging, cities destroyed, and a landscape littered with the dead and injured?

People built shelters because it was a desperate grab for empowerment in the face of the unthinkable. Doing something felt better than doing nothing.

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