Commemorating Nuclear Weapons Elimination Day, September 26

The Threat of Nuclear War

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the threat of nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States was a very real concern. The wartime alliance between the two countries that had helped to bring down Nazi Germany in 1945 quickly unraveled as the Soviet Union sought to dominate governments in eastern Europe and the United States sought to create conditions in western and southern Europe in which democratic institutions could survive. The situation between the two nations quickly escalated as the Soviets attempted to block access to the divided city of Berlin, precipitating the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and the Soviet Union exploded their first atomic bomb in 1949, ending the American monopoly on nuclear weapons. In 1950, the Soviet-supported communist government of North Korea invaded U.S.-supported South Korea, setting off an indecisive Korean War that lasted until 1953.

General Eisenhower and General Strickler, 28th Division Commander, reviewing troops in Korea
General Dwight Eisenhower (left) and Major General Daniel Strickler, commander of Pennsylvania’s 28th Infantry Division, reviewing newly arriving troops in Korea. November 23, 1951. LancasterHistory, Stricker Collection.

Heightened Tensions

Diplomatic tensions in the early 1960s over the U-2 Incident, May 1960; the Bay of Pigs invasion, April 1961; the Berlin Crisis, July 1961; and the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962 meant that Americans not only expected war, but took active steps to survive such a possibility. To help citizens protect themselves in case of attack, the Office of Civil Defense of the Department of Defense in conjunction with major American businesses distributed pamphlets designed to help average citizens prepare for and survive a nuclear attack. Armstrong Cork Company distributed this Civil Defense “Family Home and Survival Kit” to flooring plant employees on March 29, 1962 at the height of at the height of tensions between the United States and Soviet Union.

When the Warning Sounds

The Family Home and Survival Kit contained a number of pamphlets dealing with nuclear fallout and emergency situations; many of them containing interesting caveats and cautions. Take, for example, “The Family Fallout Shelter” (June 1959, reprinted December 1961) that included the following statement from the National Academy of Sciences: “Adequate shielding is the only effective means of preventing radiation casualties.” Other pamphlets in the series included: “Family Shelter Designs” (January 1962, reprinted March 1962); “Emergency Sanitation at Home” (August 1958, reprinted September 1961); “Fallout Protection – What to Know and Do about Nuclear Attack” (December 1961); and “Ten for Survival: Survive Nuclear Attack” (May 1959, reprinted September 1961).

Front of a pamphlet with a sketch of a man building a fallout shelter.
Pamphlet, “The Family Fallout Shelter.” 1961. LancasterHistory, Gerber Collection.

The letter included in the survival kit and signed by Armstrong Floor Plant Manager J.R. McCray included the following caution: “I certainly don’t want to scare anyone with these pamphlets or cause any undue concern or alarm. But I think we should recognize that here is a certain amount of tenseness in the world political situation and that anything we can do as individuals to add to our information and preparedness is to our own advantage.”

Nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation efforts

Historic image of a plan in flight with a missile next to it
The rocket leaves its launching platform and immediately generates supersonic flight. Here it is seconds before the nuclear warhead exploded. Undated. LancasterHistory, Johnny Hauck Photograph Collection.

Today, we realize that many of the axioms and much of the advice publicized in these pamphlets is either naïve or simply untrue. Statements like “The best protection against fallout radiation is a fallout shelter. Every family should have one” and the recommendation that a two-week supply of food and water will insure long-term survival no longer ring true. Rather than building basement bomb shelters, humankind has instead focused on developing an international arms-control framework that contributes to international security with the goal of reducing or eliminating nuclear weapons. In an effort to promote nonproliferation and disarmament initiatives, the United Nations General Assembly held a high-level meeting on nuclear disarmament on September 26, 2013, designating each September 26 since 2014 as International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons to provide governments and individuals with an opportunity to discuss progress and priorities for reducing or eliminating nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear war.

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