As headlines mount from North Korea, a history class tours the College’s Cold War bunker, and explores the myths around nuclear survival.
There are times, in higher education, when you wish for a lot less relevance. So it was on April 25, when Assistant Professor of History Ellen Boucher brought students in her “Cultures of Survival in the Twentieth Century” seminar to tour “the Bunker.”
That’s what everyone calls the old Strategic Air Command center, built in 1957, now hidden under a grassy slope on Amherst’s Bare Mountain. It’s a classic holdover from the Cold War. The center was supposed to shelter key generals and their staffs should nearby Westover Air Force Base take a nuclear strike.
Just months ago, the Bunker, with its flaking paint and bad florescent lighting, was a sort of retro atomic relic. But today 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 a few miles from both Camp David and Site R (the so-called “Underground Pentagon”), government officials were hyper-focused on the climbing threat.
Headlines and hometowns aside, the class was also spooked by the syllabus. It was no day at the beach to read 1957’s On the Beach, the still-resonant post-apocalyptic novel by Nevil Shute. They’d also turned a critical eye on Kenneth D. Rose’s 2001 history 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 exponentially more vulnerable.
The class thoroughly gets it, therefore, when tour guide Aaron Hayden explains how the bunker was built in a “time of expanding paranoia.” They also get that bunkers were, to a degree, bunk. In their course readings, they’d found that fallout shelters were used as a kind of panacea. As Miller put it, “The government put out the idea that people can survive a nuclear attack, though it’s not realistically possible.”
Hayden is the College’s capital project manager (“a facilities guy,” he says). Today, he tells the group that the bunker is not technically an underground shelter: it’s essentially a 42,000-square-foot, two-story building that, upon completion, was topped off with concrete, soil and rock.
In the 1970s, when U.S. intelligence revealed that the Soviets could pinpoint its location, the government decommissioned the facility. The College bought it from the Federal Reserve in 1989. At the time, Frost Library was running out of shelving space, and the Bunker—secure, climate-controlled, with reinforced floors—was perfect for housing overflow volumes.
“The library is ‘the plowshares’ we made from the ‘sword’ of the Bunker,” says Hayden.
Visiting the Bunker now is like going to an art gallery and seeing only frames; the military long ago removed anything from the interior that could compromise national security. One student asks Hayden why it didn’t become a museum. “Because there’s nothing here,” he answers. “Just me telling stories.”
But they’re awfully good stories. And the atmospherics still linger. So Hayden proceeds to point out what went where, and Boucher and her students work their imaginations. One giant wall, for instance? Hayden says that’s where an enormous world map was projected. That smaller wall? It held the 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.
How about that other corner? The enormous IBM mainframe sat there, encrypting and decrypting messages. Up there above? A pneumatic tube system transported classified papers. That area? It held 175 cots and enough rations for 35 days: a laughable amount of time, as these students know, to expect radiation to disperse.
As Hayden conjures images, the group maneuvers around all manner of stored stuff: tall stacks of books, cartons of geodes from the Beneski Museum of Natural History, an old church pew from Stearns Chapel.
Hayden also shares some choice anecdotes: In 1957 and 1962, local contractors were closely guarded as they poured concrete. If hunters happened into the adjacent woods, they were escorted out. Outer threats paled compared to inner ones, though. 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. Superior officers, allegedly, were to be beaten senseless.
Hayden stresses that bunker life wasn’t always high stress. During long stretches of low alert, junior staffers got bored and brought in an old VW bug to rebuild. Sometimes, the brass ordered takeout from a diner in Chicopee —which was dropped off by helicopter.
At one tour stop, Boucher asks Hayden if anyone had taken oral histories from those who served at the bunker. Apparently not, says 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 heads to England with her students and with Dunstan McNutt, Frost Library’s research and instruction librarian, to comb through the National Archives and Red Cross 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 cites several occasions at other bunkers when nuclear strikes were nearly ordered, only to be rescinded when “Soviet threats” turned out to be training exercises.
Those terrifying what-if anecdotes helped Boucher give context for the Bunker’s place in history: “There’s this juxtaposition of an immense physical structure, and this attempt to provide security in the face of the unimaginable threat of nuclear warfare, coming up against the precarious nature of human errors. The Bunker gives the illusion of safety—but preparation can only go so far within a culture of human beings who make mistakes.”
As the tour ends, everyone gives Hayden a round of applause, and the class heads off to Atkins Farm for cider donuts, by way of calming their nerves and switching to the cheerier subject of their travel plans to London.
“When I was growing up, the idea of nuclear war felt pretty distant,” says Ratte. “My grandparents had neighbors who gave them fallout suits, but they laughed it off. Now, though, after taking Professor Boucher’s course, I have a lot more interest in issues of nuclear non-proliferation. And with the news lately, it’s in the front of my mind.” How did she feel after touring the bunker? Ratte thought for a moment and uttered one word: “Unsettled.”