There are times, in higher education, when you wish for a lot less relevance. So it was when Assistant Professor of History Ellen Boucher brought students in her “Cultures of Survival in the 20th Century” seminar to tour the Bunker.
That’s what everyone calls the Strategic Air Command center, built in 1957 on Amherst’s Bare Mountain. It was supposed to shelter key generals and their staffs should Westover Air Force Base take a nuclear strike. Now it’s owned by the College, which uses it for storage.
With its flaking paint and bad florescent lighting, the Bunker is a retro atomic relic. But on April 25, as Boucher’s class arrived, it felt newly ominous. Indeed, the morning’s New York Times ran this front-page headline: “As North Korea Builds Bombs, Time Dwindles.”
In Honolulu, the hometown of seminar student Emily Ratte ’18, lawmakers were pushing to reopen old fallout shelters. And near Thurmont, Md., where Isabel Miller ’19E grew up near both Camp David and Site R (the so-called “Underground Pentagon”), government officials were hyper-focused on the climbing threat.
The class was spooked by the syllabus too. It was no day at the beach to read the 1957 post-apocalyptic novel On the Beach, nor One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture, which they faulted for neglecting issues of race. Earlier in the course, they’d traced how modern warfare has made civilians more vulnerable—and learned, in Miller’s words, that “the government put out the idea that people can survive a nuclear attack, but it’s not realistically possible.”