A Jesuit’s controversial case for building a bomb shelter

A home fallout shelter near Akron, Mich., captured by an unknown photographer in 1960. (National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency/(397-MA-2s-160)/[VENDOR # 125])A home fallout shelter near Akron, Mich., captured by an unknown photographer in 1960. (National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency/(397-MA-2s-160)/[VENDOR # 125])

This essay was published in full in the Sept. 30, 1961, issue of America and was widely criticized by religious leaders like Billy Graham. Thomas Merton responded in the November issue of The Catholic Worker, condemning the mentality of “every man for himself.” Historians like Arthur M. Schlesinger later wrote that Father McHugh’s essay caused President Kennedy to reconsider urging citizens to construct backyard shelters, instead directing people to shelters in public buildings. This article has been republished as part of America’s special 110th anniversary issue.

The American people are burrowing underground in a grassroots movement for survival; the shelter business is booming. Civil defense officials have already noted that many citizens are very furtive about building a modest haven in the cellar or yard. The more secret the nuclear hideaway, the less likely they are to be troubled by panicky neighbors at the shelter door when the bombs start falling.

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Some rugged householders are not banking on mere secrecy to insure their families a fair chance of survival. Time, on Aug. 18, cited a Chicago suburbanite who intended to mount a machine gun at his shelter in order to keep unwelcome strangers out, and it also quoted a Texas businessman who was ready to evict unbidden guests with tear gas if any occupied his shelter before his family did. Inevitably, Time raised the question: What do the guardians of the Christian ethic have to say about the pros and cons of gunning one’s neighbor at the shelter door?...

What is your family shelter? It is more than a piece of property that should be secure against trespass. It is a property of a most vital kind. When the bombs start falling, it is likely to be the one material good in your family’s environment which is equivalent to life itself. The shelter is your ultimate line of defense against fire, blast, radiation and residual fallout. Moreover, because of its strictly limited resources (space, food, medical supplies, etc.), its use must be carefully regulated if it is to guarantee even marginal opportunity for survival over a protracted period. If you go underground with just one occupant above the maximum number for which the shelter was designed, the survival value of the shelter diminishes for all that take refuge in it.

If a man builds a shelter for his family, then it is the family that has the first right to use it.

If a man builds a shelter for his family, then it is the family that has the first right to use it. The right becomes empty if a misguided charity prompts a pitying householder to crowd his haven to the hatch in the hour of peril; for this conduct makes sure that no one will survive. And I consider it the height of nonsense to say that the Christian ethic demands or even permits a man to thrust his family into the rain of fallout when unsheltered neighbors plead for entrance....

I shall even go so far as to offer a partial code of essential shelter morality. This will offend those who dread to think that the points could conceivably have serious bearing on human survival within the next few months. I am more interested, however, in finding what response such a code might have among readers and “guardians of the Christian ethic.”

If others steal your family shelter space before you get there, you may also use whatever means will recover your sanctuary intact.

1. If you are an unattached individual and wish to yield your shelter space to others, God bless you. You can show no greater love for your neighbors.

2. Think twice before you rashly give your family shelter space to friends and neighbors or to the passing stranger. Do your dependents go along with this heroic self-sacrifice? If they do, and you have not yet built a shelter, don’t bother to do so. Go next door and build one for your neighbor. In an emergency, he can take refuge there more quickly if it is on his own property instead of yours.

3. When you have sheltered your family, you may make a prudent judgment as to whether you may admit any others to your sanctuary without undue risk to the essential welfare of those who are most closely bound to you in justice and charity. It would be hard to prove that you have any grave obligation to do so.

4. If you are already secured in your shelter and others try to break in, they may be treated as unjust aggressors and repelled with whatever means will effectively deter their assault. If others steal your family shelter space before you get there, you may also use whatever means will recover your sanctuary intact.

5. The careful husbandman who has no heroic aspirations will take precautions now so that his shelter will be available for those for whose safety it was built. If it is marginally equipped, it would be a normal exercise of prudence to conceal the entrance, if feasible, or make it inaccessible except to the members of the family. Does prudence also dictate that you have some “protective devices” in your survival kit, e.g. a revolver for breaking up traffic jams at your shelter door? That’s for you to decide, in the light of your personal circumstances. But as Civil Defense Coordinator Keith Dwyer said in the Time story: “There’s nothing in the Christian ethic which denies one’s right to protect oneself and one’s family.”

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