Debunking the Bunker

As headlines mounted from North Korea, a history class toured the College's bunker, and explored myths around nuclear survival.

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.”

Visiting the Bunker now is like going to an art gallery and seeing only frames; the military long ago removed anything that could compromise national security. So tour guide Aaron Hayden (the College’s capital project manager) pointed out what went where. That wall over there? It held colored warning lights: red meant the U.S. was under attack. That corner? Charcoal filters stood here to sift out radioactive particles, if a nuclear blast occurred outside. That area? It held 175 cots and rations for 35 days: a laughable amount of time to expect radiation to disperse.

Hayden also shared choice 
anecdotes: Sometimes the brass ordered takeout—that was dropped off by helicopter from a diner. The military was so concerned about internal spies that if a lowly soldier wandered to an unauthorized room, he was to be shot on sight, while superior officers, allegedly, were to be beaten senseless.

Boucher asked if anyone had taken oral histories of people who’d served at the Bunker. 
Apparently not, said Hayden. This is a stark contrast to the archival bounties available to Boucher as she researches her next book. This summer, thanks to a Mellon grant, she traveled to England with her students and Frost librarian Dunstan McNutt to comb through archives for material on the history of first aid as a method of survival.

As for the chances of survival in Cold War America, human error was perhaps the most dangerous factor. Hayden cited occasions at other bunkers when nuclear strikes were nearly ordered, only to be rescinded when “Soviet threats” turned out to be training exercises. “The Bunker gives the illusion of safety,” said Boucher. “But preparation can only go so far within a culture of human beings who make mistakes.”

Later on, the class headed to Atkins for cider donuts and conversation. “When I was growing up, the idea of nuclear war felt pretty distant,” said Ratte. “My grandparents had neighbors who gave them fallout suits, but they laughed it off.”

How did she feel after the tour? Ratte thought for a moment and uttered one word: “Unsettled.”