Are Mandatory Masks the New Duck-and-Cover?
The housewives who resisted Cold War civil defense measures provide lessons for today.
In February 1960, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller proposed a bill in the New York state legislature that would have required every home in the state to have a fallout shelter. The cost would have been exorbitant, up to two thousand dollars per shelter at a time when the median household income was $5,600 and all borne by the homeowner, minus some tax breaks, but the rationale then was the same as it is now: You can’t put a price on averting mass death.
Duck-and-cover drills are the element of civil defense that survives in the public memory, but in fact civil defense was a wide-ranging multi-billion-dollar program that spanned every decade of the Cold War. Shelters were subsidized and stocked, pamphlets were produced on everything from how to stay fit during long confinement to how to wash your hands to remove radioactive particles. Dog tags were distributed to millions of schoolchildren listing their name, address, and blood type.
But although they weren’t the most important part of civil defense, duck-and-cover drills are a good stand-in for the broader program, because the one thing everyone remembers about them today was equally true of the rest: The purpose was more psychological than practical.
Short of a massive system of ventilated tunnels thousands of feet underground, no system of civil defense could have made any difference in a real thermonuclear war. In the large cities most likely to be targeted, huddling in a basement would offer no protection to anyone. Further out, survivors would at best earn a short reprieve before dying of starvation, fallout, and water contamination. Senator Stephen Young of Ohio put it very simply in 1961: “In the nuclear age, there can be no realistic civil defense program.”
Yet it felt wrong to do nothing. Eminent scientists like Andrei Sakharov, who obviously knew something about nuclear physics, estimated that over 500,000 people worldwide would be killed or made seriously ill by each above-ground nuclear test, never mind a deliberate attack. To counteract such pessimism, equally eminent scientists were found to offer estimates of how many deaths could be averted by preventive measures. A 1961 cover of Life magazine claimed “97 Out of 100 People Can Be Saved” in a nuclear war and was accompanied by a letter of endorsement from President John F. Kennedy: “I urge you read and consider seriously the contents of this issue.”
Those estimates were bunk. The people repeating them knew they were bunk. Even as the Kennedy administration was subsidizing fallout shelters across the country, everyone in the White House from JFK and Ted Sorensen down knew that people would not be saved by them, certainly not 97 out of 100. Newer, more destructive bombs made even advanced shelters obsolete almost as soon as they were built. Nevertheless, people who questioned civil defense were publicly denigrated by Cold Warriors as pacifists and unilateral disarmers.
There were pacifists among the earliest civil defense protesters. Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker was arrested repeatedly in the 1950s for refusing to take shelter during air-raid drills. But skeptics also included hard-nosed conservatives like military reporter Hanson Baldwin of the New York Times, who understood that fallout shelters did nothing to improve anyone’s chances of survival. In 1962, cities from Portland to Wichita began to cancel their civil defense drills. It wasn’t because they did not take nuclear threat seriously. These local public servants, though not as well-credentialed as the boffins at the Rand Corporation, had enough sense to realize that the rationale behind civil defense did not add up.
The most surprising protesters, and the ones most relevant in the days of covid-19, were the housewives.
Every summer from 1954 to 1961, America’s largest cities participated in Operation Alert, a nationwide rehearsal for a nuclear attack. Policemen cleared evacuation routes and volunteers hustled civilians into basements and subway tunnels. Anyone who stayed out of doors could be ticketed or arrested. Times Square was eerily empty in broad daylight, just as it is now.
Mary Sharmat, a 24-year-old New Yorker and the daughter of a Republican naval officer, hated the whole idea. She knew that her home in Manhattan would be pulverized in the first wave of attacks no matter what she did, and she also did not like the idea of a drill designed to instill fear. So on April 15, 1959, she drew out all her savings, gave it to her husband for bail money, and took a seat on a bench in the center island of 86th and Broadway with her six-month-old son.
At 12:00, the siren started blowing. I sat. Men in little white helmets came out of doorways and frantically ordered people to take cover… A man came to me and Jimmy. He demanded that I take shelter. I said, “I cannot take shelter. I do not believe in this.” He said, “You are nuts.” … Another Civil Defense man came over to argue sense to me and he screamed over the sirens and I just kept repeating, “This is wrong, I refuse to take cover.”
Across town, 21-year-old Janice Smith was arrested in City Hall Park for refusing to take shelter. “All these drills do are scare birds, babies, and old ladies,” she told reporters as she was led away. “I will not raise my children to go underground.”
The two women eventually joined up and launched a coordinated annual protest against Operation Alert that, by 1961, drew 1,800 demonstrators to the main protest at City Hall Park. Operation Alert was cancelled after that year.
“The reasons for my decision were not scientific,” Sharmat admitted of her first protest in 1959, and she was right. Opponents of civil defense were in many ways less rational than its supporters. The particular measures being rehearsed might not save any lives, but in some circumstances they conceivably might, and anyway the psychological effects were real and, one could argue, salutary. They replaced fatalism and lethargy with a sense of resolve and preparedness. Moreover, it cost civilians nothing. It’s fifteen minutes in a subway station — what do you have to lose? Why, except sheer stubbornness, would anyone refuse to comply?
These are the arguments we hear today for wearing masks. The medical case for their use against coronavirus is far from conclusive and, in the case of outdoor spread, practically nonexistent. Dr. Anthony Fauci himself told 60 Minutes in March, “There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask.” But proponents say that when the risk is life or death, anything that might have the slightest chance of helping is worth it. Even if masks turn out to be merely symbolic, they symbolize good things: solidarity, preparedness, a can-do spirit.
That’s how many people saw Operation Alert — but not Sharmat and Smith. Where others saw civilian participants as resolute and proactive, they saw fear and conformity. Stated in bald terms, their position could sound morbid: In a nuclear attack, millions will die, and the responsible thing is to accept that rather than pretend we can avert it. But it was how they felt. Refusing to be afraid was for them a matter of dignity. “I will not raise my children to go underground.”
A more exact parallel for masks, in Cold War terms, would be the dog tags given to schoolchildren and recommended by civil defense authorities even for adults. In an actual war, they could be highly useful. Without them, parents might never know if their child was dead or alive. They cost pennies to make, and often the school board paid that. Wearing them cost nothing.
Dog tags offered potentially massive payoff for effectively zero cost — except, of course, symbolically. They would be a totem of death around everyone’s neck, a constant reminder to be afraid. Even a parent who took the nuclear threat seriously might balk at that.
Would you have forced your children to wear dog tags in those years when nuclear war was a real and present danger? Would you have worn them yourself? If the answer is no, then you should be able to understand those who today resist mandatory masks, both for their practical shortcomings and for what they symbolize. At a certain point one must refuse to live in fear, even when dangers are real.