A Brief History of American Fallout Shelters

Wes O'Donnell
6 min readMay 2, 2022

Growing up in the 1980s, I watched my dad and grandpa attempt to build a bomb shelter in our Dallas, Texas backyard.

Having just watched “The Day After”, a low budget (but effective) fictional depiction of a nuclear apocalypse in the American heartland, they endeavored to protect the family from the Soviet nuclear threat.

They made it about three feet down before calling it quits — there’s a reason homes in Texas don’t have basements — digging in that Texas clay is like trying to dig through concrete!

But despite their failure, the experience left its mark on my mind. What could have possibly scared these two Marlboro men so badly that they would want to hide underground?

The 1950s and the Red Scare

In the first decade following World War II, Americans had to come to terms with the nuclear genie they unleashed from the bottle.

Oppenheimer may have said it best. Watch him recall witnessing the first atomic blast:

As images of the flattened cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki began circulating widely, and the radiation threat (fallout) came to be better appreciated, many Americans wondered if they might someday share a similar fate.

Then, in August of 1949, the Soviet Union detonated their first atomic bomb.

There goes the neighborhood…

When the U.S. government realized that America’s atomic bomb plans had been stolen by Russian spies, the “Red Scare”, a nationwide anti-Communist hysteria provoked by a mounting fear that Russia would change the American way of life, began in earnest.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, “the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA), founded in 1951, set out to convince Americans that if the bomb did drop, they could survive the fallout.”

The result was a nationwide boom in the construction of underground, privately-funded fallout shelters located on citizens’ property. If you had money to build one, you and your family were safe. If you were poor, not to worry — we’ll loan you the money at an exorbitant interest rate.

Wes O'Donnell

Army & Air Force Veteran | Global Security Wonk for War is Boring, GEN, OneZero, Soldier of Fortune | Law Student | TEDx Speaker | Founder of Warrior Lodge