Fallout shelters dotted the landscape in the 1960s.
Some were established by Civil Defense and some were built in homes or backyards.
Those alive at the time are sure to remember the yellow and black signs that designated a building as a place to shelter from the dangerous radioactive particles blown into the air by a nuclear explosion.
Many of the buildings were schools and other public structures.
They were everywhere and served as silent but ever-present reminders of the danger in which people lived.
As a first grader, this reporter remembers staring out the window of my classroom trying to imagine the blinding flash of light generated by a nuclear explosion and the resulting mushroom cloud.
It would be followed by a wave of pressure that would leave an unimaginable wake of destruction, chaos and death in its path.
Those were the days school children were trained to “duck and cover.” The good of that was questionable, but something had to be done.
It was the time of the Cold War when nuclear annihilation was just a button push away and the United States and the Soviet Union faced off — each trying to protect their domains.
The Cold War began after World War II ended in 1945 when the two governments, one espousing freedom and the other tyranny, contested for world domination. The division of Germany into eastern and western halves along with the Truman Doctrine in 1947 that discussed Soviet containment followed. Then, the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb on Aug. 29, 1949.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed 73 years ago this week, on April 4, 1949, to guard against Soviet aggression in Europe, and it became even more important once the Soviets got the nuclear bomb.
Despite wars in Korea and Vietnam, as well as dozens of other proxy wars fought around the globe over the struggle between communism and capitalism, the Cold War, fortunately for the world, never turned hot and finally ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
But those that lived in those years lived under the constant threat of nuclear devastation and the fear that confrontation between the powers or even a simple mistake by someone could mean the end of the world as it was known.
Wherever a U.S. president went, he was followed by someone carrying the “football,” a satchel with all the nuclear launch codes.
Nuclear war came especially close in the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 when the Soviet Union began to install nuclear missiles in Cuba just 90 miles from the United States.
The hyper-tense confrontation lasted 13 days, but the Soviet Union backed down when the U.S. agreed to remove its missiles from Turkey, which at the time bordered part of the Soviet Union, and promised not to invade Cuba.
Has it come to that again?
Will there be another Cold War or, God forbid, the unleashing of nuclear arms?
The questions are asked because on Feb. 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin rattled the nuclear saber shortly after he invaded Ukraine — which was once, like Russia, part of the Soviet Union, but has since become an independent democracy.
“Then, on Sunday, (Feb. 27) Putin shattered the complacency of any Westerners who believed they were a safe distance from the battlefield,” the article said. “He ordered Russian nuclear forces to shift to a higher state of alert he called ‘special combat readiness.’”
“He had already warned, on the day of the invasion, that anyone who stood in Russia’s way would face ‘consequences … such as you have never seen in your entire history’.”
The article added the following.
“Now he was ordering his military to ratchet up the force posture on Russia’s arsenal of 6,000 nuclear warheads — a small but significant step toward initiating a global thermonuclear war.”
About a month later, on March 22, a Kremlin spokesman seemed to reinforce the comments, according to a report on CNN.
“If it is an existential threat for our country, then (nuclear weapons) can be (used),” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told CNN in an interview.
History professor William Hanna, who teaches at Bridgewater State University, said predictions are hard to make.
The extremely volatile conditions that exist in war make it even harder.
It’s too soon to tell if the Ukraine war will create another Cold War.
“I think that even since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 there hasn’t been much ‘warmth’ in the relationship between Russia and the U.S., and that is particularly true, of course, since Putin came to power in 1999,” he said in emailed comments. “While many in the West had hoped that Russia might move toward a more liberal, open society, that certainly wasn’t — and isn’t — in Putin’s plans.”
Whether the onset of another Cold War is in the offing and the increased threat of nuclear war that would come with it, is hard to say.
“I don’t know about another ‘cold war,’ but Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has certainly placed any hope of rapprochement even further away than it had been before,” Hanna said. “And the Ukraine crisis isn’t close to being over.”
And will Putin decide to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine if he can’t succeed with his conventional forces?
“I don’t think anyone can read the future there,” Hanna said. “Putin has rattled the nuclear sabers but no one — perhaps even Putin himself — knows what’s going to happen if he can’t in some way save face after what’s been a humiliating experience for Russia.”
Hanna was referring to the Ukrainians stiff resistance to the Russian invasion, led by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, which has driven the Russian troops out of northern Ukraine and kept the capital of Kyiv safe from takeover.
Hanna suggested Putin may be using the threat of nuclear weapons to gain leverage in talks which could take place in the future.
“Does he use tactical nuclear weapons, even though he knows that his military isn’t going to gain complete control of Ukraine?” Hanna asked. “Or is he using this as a bargaining chip for the negotiations that will follow a cease fire?”
That’s something perhaps only Putin knows and it’s hoped he has enough sense to stay away from the nuclear button.
“I don’t know,” Hanna said. “For more than 75 years most of us have believed than any rational human being — no matter how dangerous their rhetoric — would recognize the folly of going nuclear. Will Putin be the exception? Hopefully not.”
But things can spiral out of controlIt’s happened before, not with nuclear weapons, but events on the world stage have spiraled out of control leaving the globe with millions dead.
Extreme destruction can be triggered by a single act, something that theoretically can be contained, negotiated or resolved in some way, but somehow gets out of control.
An example is the assassination for Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austria-Hungary throne, and his wife Sofie in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 by a Bosnian Serb nationalist.
This resulted in the Austro-Hungarian Empire declaring war on Serbia and those allied with the two countries plunged the world into a war that left millions died.
It was a domino effect of violence.
A single senseless bullet killed millions.
Thirty years before World War I, known at the time as “The Great War,” German statesman Otto Von Bismarck predicted that when Europe next became engulfed in a firestorm of destruction it would be set off by “some damn fool thing in the Balkans.”
Serbia today is backing Russia in the Ukraine war.
It’s hoped that some “damn fool thing” does not touch off a nuclear exchange.
But what if …?
Today, fallout shelters do not exist as such.
The buildings that housed them are still there, but they are not designated as “Fallout Shelters.”
Sirens that were used to alert people about emergencies are largely gone, except in some small towns in which the fire service is mostly volunteer and the wail is needed to call firefighters to a blaze or other emergency.
If nuclear weapons were used in Ukraine, the damage would be devastating as it would anywhere.
There would be nothing left at the site of the explosion.
Depending on the size of the weapon and the target, millions could be killed in an instant and incinerated, or as one website put it, “vaporized.”
Millions more could die of radiation sickness and burns later if they were outside the immediate blast zone.
A professor named Alex Wellerstein who has a Ph.D. in the history of science from Harvard University and teaches at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., has created a website on which the damage of nuclear weapons can be mapped.
For example, if a 50-megaton nuclear missile hit the ground in Boston, the fireball would extend outward for a radius of about 3.7 miles and everything within that distance would be “effectively vaporized.”
The map outlines what can be expected in different zones of destruction from a wave of intense pressure released by the explosion.
The destruction lessens as it moves away from ground zero.
Attleboro and seven of the 10 communities covered by The Sun Chronicle would be in the two outer rings of destruction.
Rehoboth, Seekonk, South Attleboro and parts of Hebronville and Dodgeville would be outside affected areas, according to the map.
But those in Attleboro, in the zone known as the “thermal radiation radius,” could suffer third-degree burns which are the most severe burns a person can have.
Norton, Plainville and North Attleboro would also be in that zone.
That radius extends as far north as Haverhill and as far south as Taunton.
Mansfield, Wrentham, Norfolk and Foxboro would be in the “light blast damage radius.”
Within that zone the blast would likely break all windows and of course, there would be burns as well.
If a 50-megaton nuclear missile hit Providence, the damage zones would be different.
In that scenario Seekonk and South Attleboro would be in the “heavy blast damage radius.”
Within that zone, “heavily built concrete buildings are severely damaged or demolished” and “fatalities approach 100%.”
The northern half of Attleboro and Rehoboth would be in the “moderate blast damage radius,” in which most residential buildings collapse.
And seven of the 10 communities covered by The Sun Chronicle — Foxboro, Mansfield, North Attleboro, Norfolk, Norton, Plainville and Wrentham — would be in the “light blast damage radius,” in which the pressure wave would cause most widows to break.
Local emergency management agencies are not well equipped to handle an event like that.
The three leaders of those agencies in Attleboro, North Attleboro and Foxboro, the fire chiefs in those communities, say they are prepared for “normal” emergencies.
Those would include blizzards, fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, hazardous material spills or leaks, but nuclear bombs — no.
Chief Scott Lachance in Attleboro said in the list of hazards fire departments are prepared to deal with is long, but a nuclear catastrophe is not among them.
“There is nothing about nuclear threats,” he said. “What can you do?”
He said the department used to have radiation monitors, but not anymore. And there are no radiation suits.
“It’s not something that’s been high on the list,” he said.
Lachance said fallout shelters are gone as well as siren warning systems. Emergency warnings are now transmitted by cellphone.
Chief Christopher Coleman in North Attleboro echoed Lachance.
“Obviously we’re prepared for emergencies, but when it comes to that (a nuclear strike), that’s a whole different ball game,” he said. “When you talk about missiles I don’t know if you’ll be prepared. It’s difficult to comment on.”
And in Foxboro, Chief Michael Kelleher said there’s a plan to deal with consequences of a strike, but it exists at the federal level.
He said his department has had decontamination drills, but a massive event like a nuclear strike would initiate a major response from the federal government to restore power, clean water and shelter — which, it would seem to be a near impossible task.
After issuing a number of requests to various U.S. military contacts, The Sun Chronicle was finally directed to 17-page document that outlines how the federal government would respond to a nuclear “incident.”
The document seemed to focus mainly on an accident happening on U.S. or foreign soil and it listed the responsibilities of everyone from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on down.
The most relevant section was near the beginning of the document and it said the following:
“The DoD would … support responders by evaluating the risks of entering potentially hazardous areas and applying appropriate protective action recommendations and operational exposure limits to maximize the preservation of life, mitigate suffering, protect critical infrastructure, and secure classified materials while ensuring non-responder exposures are minimized.”
The Sun Chronicle reached out to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, but did not get a response.
And when The Sun Chronicle contacted the Cape Cod Air Force Station, 6th Space Warning Squadron, and asked what defenses were in place the paper was again referred to other military contacts which did not respond.
But its website said in part the following.
“Cape Cod Air Force Station is the only land-based radar site providing missile warning for the eastern coast of the United States and southern Canada against intercontinental and sea-launched ballistic missiles.”
Another contact referred the paper to daily briefings at the Department of Defense in which the matter has been discussed.
The list included an article by David Vergun who interviewed Robert Soofer, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy.
Soofer said deterrence is critical.
“The first school of thought is known as simple nuclear deterrence, sometimes referred to as minimum deterrence.
The thought is that deterrence is best achieved with a limited number of nuclear weapons that, for example, could destroy a certain number of an adversary’s cities.
The viability of the deterrence is created by an adversary’s fear of uncontrolled nuclear escalation …
The second school of thought is known as complex nuclear deterrence.
This recognizes that nuclear deterrence can be more complicated, requiring an understanding of the adversary and various scenarios that could play out.
This strategy also pays close attention to the nuclear balance and places a premium on ensuring the survivability of nuclear forces that can threaten the adversary …
Having a range of nuclear weapons capabilities not only deters nuclear attacks, but it also deters large-scale conventional and biological and chemical attacks and reassures allies and partners.”