O’Connor’s debut history monograph explores Spokane, Washington’s Cold War–era bomb-shelter craze.
Throughout the 1950s, the perceived threat of a Soviet nuclear attack instilled fear across America. Many homeowners responded by making their own bomb shelters, but what started out as a marginal practice became a mainstream craze during the Berlin Crisis of 1961, when President John F. Kennedy endorsed such construction. No city embraced the trend as wholeheartedly as Spokane; later, a local newspaper would describe it as “the first city in the state to have more shelter spaces than population.” Despite its small size, its residents feared that their area would be a prime missile target due to its high concentration of missile sites and U.S. Air Force bases and its relative proximity to the Soviet Union’s eastern border. O’Connor rigorously researches the Spokanites’ paranoia and their desire for physical protection, following this thread from the area’s fortifications during battles with Nez Percé tribesmen in the late 1800s through its makeshift bomb shelters during World War II air-raid drills. The book’s main focus, though, is the aforementioned “fallout shelter mania” of 1961, when hundreds of homeowners and contractors installed concrete bunkers in their backyards. O’Connor uncovers some innovative examples, such as a homeowner-built shelter with a bicycle-powered generator and a passive ventilation system. Other ideas were absurd, such as a government-endorsed plan to build basement shelters out of bookshelves and kiddie pools. This book is a monograph in the truest sense, as the author is almost myopically focused on his subject; he traces the shelters as they shifted to public accessibility in the 1960s and faced neglect and eventual abandonment in the ’70s and ’80s but spares little space for tangential history or analysis. However, he effectively evokes the feeling of the Cold War with three dozen archival images, many from his own collection of bomb shelter–related ephemera. For anyone with an avid interest in this niche subject, these images alone are worth the price of the book.
A brief but thorough examination of a quirky aspect of Cold War America.