The first control center Cold War bunker opened in 1958 in Wheaton

If the Soviet Union had unleashed nuclear weapons on the United States, perhaps the country would have gotten up and running again from a bunker in Wheaton, Illinois:

A Cold War bunker in Wheaton — hailed as America’s first Nuclear Age Civil Defense control center — is scheduled to be razed in the coming months, taking with it some of the last pieces of evidence of the tense geopolitical standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The $500,000 bomb shelter, built inconspicuously underneath a one-story highway office on DuPage County’s government campus, was constructed to house up to 60 civil defense workers to keep operations running for weeks post-atomic blast.

Its ribbon-cutting was held almost exactly a year after the USSR launched Sputnik, the man-made satellite that orbited the earth in October 1957 and heightened fears of a Soviet attack on U.S. soil. It was also a time when schoolchildren practiced “duck and cover” drills to protect themselves from nuclear explosions and women’s home magazines included tips for furnishing bomb shelters…

An entrance can be sealed off in the event of a blast and the bunker features a ceiling of 36-inch-thick reinforced concrete and 18-inch cinder block walls. Moving from room to room, I found decontamination showers, a “war room” of sorts designed for tracking Soviet attacks and a secure landline, which at one point could have connected workers to the White House.

It would be interesting to consider how the leaders of DuPage County – quite conservative politically in the decades after World War II and open to suburban growth – might have responded uniquely to the use of nuclear weapons. If the major centers of the United States were knocked out, could the county officials from suburban Chicago be counted on to get the country on the right track?

The world’s first nuclear reactor – buried in a Chicago suburb

A photographer describes going to the suburbs to find the world’s first nuclear reactor:

“I was working at Fermilab, and that research led me to this space. It’s in a forest preserve near Palos Heights, in an area called Red Gate Woods, and in those woods is Site A, where the first nuclear reactor ever created was buried in 1955. There’s also a site called Plot M, where all the waste from that experiment was buried while it was actually happening. Six stones designate where the waste is buried. The stones in the photo mark that area…

Note: According to information from the U.S. Department of Energy provided by Cook County, “the area surrounding Site A and Plot M continues to undergo annual monitoring and remains safe by all measurements.” The DOE did not respond to inquiries by presstime.

Read more about the site here. It’s interesting that this combines two key markers of post-World War II American life: the Atomic Age and suburban sprawl.

Quick Review: Be Very Afraid

Robert Wuthnow is a sociologist of religion and culture and I was intrigued when I saw one of his recent books at the public library: Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Response to Terror, Pandemics, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation, and Other Threats. A few thoughts about the book:

1. The book examines four threats: the nuclear threat, terrorism after 9/11, global pandemics, and global warming. Each threat has a chapter where Wuthnow provides an overview of the history and then a second chapter that provides more of an analysis. Each of these subjects is interesting and the historical chapters are decent overviews of the social construction of and response to each of the problems. The historical chapters tend to focus on popular culture (movies in particular) and government responses.

2. The primary theoretical aim is to demonstrate that people are not paralyzed or immobilized by such threats (as some have suggested) but rather are spurred into action. For governments and larger organizations, this means the development and expansion of agencies and procedures to deal with threats. Average citizens go about ways of making sense of the situation and preparing themselves. Wuthnow suggests action and searching for solutions is the typical human response to such situations and analyzing these patterns of response is revealing.

3. While the cases are interesting as is the theory, I feel this work could have done more to analyze each case and provide an overarching perspective on threats at the end. I also would have liked to see more of a summary of the interview data that Wuthnow and his team collected (mentioned in the first footnote to the Introduction) – how did this personal-level data fit with the broader social history of each threat?

Overall, an interesting work that left me wanting a little more explanation. These cases suggest that when a new threat arises, both bureaucracies and individuals will respond with action. But what kind of action – is it dependent on the particular threat, the particular culture, or some other factors?