Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Great Fallout Shelter Debate

All the Camelot nostalgia for the Kennedy years that is inevitable this week is wonderful in many ways, but it contains some cautionary tales as well. The early 60s - Camelot - coincided with some of the coldest years of the Cold War. Kennedy himself had campaigned against Nixon in 1960 as  the more bellicose of the two candidates, and his stirring Inaugural Address was almost entirely about confronting the Communist threat.
Since the 1950s, we had had semi-annual air-raid drills when we all had to hide under our desks if at school or take shelter if we were outdoors. What constituted "shelter" in a nuclear exchange was a curious question, of course. Given the probable consequences of a nuclear attack in terms of poisonous radiation, "fallout shelters" were quite the rage - if only among those able to afford and equip them. Our new governor, Nelson Rockefeller (elected in 1958) was big on national defense and was also a big proponent of fallout shelters. Needless to say, there was no plausible fallout shelter in our apartment building or in our parochial school or anywhere else I would have been likely to find myself. Yet, shelters themselves became a popular topic of conversation in the early 60s.
In our insular Catholic "ghetto," such conversations also posed perplexing moral questions. Some priest apparently wrote an article, suggesting that it might be morally legitimate to prevent someone else (i.e., your neighbor) from coming into your shelter. No one among my family or friends had read the article, but the debate became widely known nonetheless. I vividly recall some family gathering - an apartment full of aunts, uncles, and cousins - at which it came up. (Foreign affairs often did in those days.) I remember my father dismissing the priest's argument. He profoundly objected to the idea that one should deny shelter to anyone in need. I often think of his simple, straightforward reaction. It seems to me it represented a great example of the good moral sensibility of common ordinary people trumping the complex theorizing of their supposedly sophisticated betters.
To be fair, there were also sophisticated folks who seemed to share my father's moral perspective. Earlier this year, I read Thomas Merton's now completely published journals. On August 22, 1961, he expressed his disdain for fallout shelters as “the final exaltation of the American way of life: individualism, comfort, security, and to hell with everybody else.” A month later, on September 29, he referenced “a Jesuit theologian, writing in America," who had "declared that it is perfectly legitimate to shoot your neighbor if he tries to break into your private shelter.” Merton expressed his evident disdain for such a view yet a month later, on October 23, when he wrote: “And the Jesuit who condoned – even apparently encouraged – the business of sitting in your fallout shelter with a machine gun to keep others out! This is the best Catholic theology has to offer in this country, so it appears.”
Of course, in 1961 I had never heard of Merton. Nor, I am safely certain, had my father - and probably none of the other relatives at that gathering at which the issue had arisen. Nor have I ever read the offending article, which admittedly may have been more balanced and nuanced than Merton gave it credit for being. All that having been said, more than half a century later, I am still impressed by my father's good common sense about what kind of behavior was moral and what wasn't - so superior it seemed to me then and still seems to me now to the theoretical wisdom of the supposedly so sophisticated.

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