A Hot Reception for the Cold War: Civil Defense in Pennsylvania

This post is based on an article that was previously published in Pennsylvania Heritage, Summer 2018.

Pennsylvania was hundreds of miles from the battlefields of the Cold War, but the state was prepared to be on the front line of war at a moment’s notice. With the ever-present threat of nuclear  warfare hovering over the state, officials worked tirelessly to protect the Commonwealth. Beginning in the early 1950s federal, state, and local government created a civil-defense system for Pennsylvania that would prepare citizens for an inevitable nuclear attack.

Following World War II, American relations with the Soviet Union swiftly broke down and seemed to be on the brink of war. At the same time, American and Soviet forces were working the develop new powerful nuclear weapons that would likely target cities and other civilian areas. Once the Soviets successfully tested their own nuclear bomb in 1949, the American home-front became much more vulnerable to attack. Many Americans feared attacks like the ones that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki only a few years earlier. The United States began to train and prepare citizens for civil-defense: to protect themselves and their property in the event of a nuclear attack. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania developed a sophisticated civil-defense system within the state. “There’s still a big difference between taking a punch you’re prepared for,” Commonwealth officials reasoned, “and getting knocked out in the first round because you didn’t see it coming.”

“By every possible criterion, Pennsylvania will be a No. 1 target so long as men possess weapons,” one civil-defense pamphlet read. Civil-defense officials feared that the concentration of resources, vital industry, and transportation systems would make the Commonwealth a likely target for Soviet bombers. If Pennsylvania’s resources and industries were bombed and destroyed, they reasoned, “there would be little point in any farther resistance on the battlefields. The war would be over and the country in the hands of a foreign overlord.”

In 1951, Governor John S. Fine created the State Council of Civil Defense (SCCD), an organization dedicated to protecting Pennsylvania from attack and preparing for disaster response and recovery. Much of the SCCD’s time was spent planning emergency shelter and evacuation strategies.

Gov Fine with CD Truck
Governor Fine inspecting a Civil Defense truck, circa 1951. PA State Archives RG 31.6.

Over the next twenty-five years, the SCCD developed thousands of fallout shelters throughout the state, enough to protect over ten-million Pennsylvanians from attack. Government office buildings, prisons, private businesses, school dormitories, and even mines and limestone caves were marked and stocked with supplies. Federal policy required that surviving American families should be prepared to feed and protect themselves without help for two weeks after any nuclear attack. Typical shelters included everything from food and beds to medical supplies and sedative drugs intended to calm panic-stricken residents after the bombs fell.

Fallout shelters were located all across Pennsylvania. Officials believed that Philadelphia and Pittsburgh would be the “prime points for all-out assault,” but were also prepared for attacks on other targets such as agricultural regions, industrial towns, and transportation routes. Even areas like Northern and Central Pennsylvania that lacked strategic targets were still at risk for “lost, or crippled, bombers [that] might hit with nuclear weapons ‘originally labeled’ for other places.”

The SCCD’s civil-defense headquarters was located for many years in the State Capitol building in Harrisburg. According to the SCCD’s director of civil-defense, the Capitol’s thick stone walls would fully protect anyone inside from bomb blasts and deadly radioactivity. “Barring a direct hit,” he reported shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, “fallout radiation intensities within the Headquarters would be reduced to one two-thousandth or less of possible intensities outside the building.”(Minutes of the SCCD, November 8 1962) Regional headquarters were also organized in Carbon, Snyder, and Butler counties to direct local civil-defense activities after an attack.

In the 1950s, the SCCD purchased a “Bell and Lights Instantaneous Attack Warning System” and installed it in the Capitol. As soon as enemy planes or missiles were detected heading towards Pennsylvania, the system would raise the alarm in a matter of seconds. Civil-defense officials were trained to rapidly lock the Capitol down and brace for enemy attack (see top photos). From the safety of the Capitol, the SCCD was ready to respond to attacks anywhere in the Commonwealth and prepare for whatever was next.

Over the years, the SCCD’s civil-defense plans underwent many changes due to world events and advances in technology. The escalating arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union resulted the construction of more shelters for Pennsylvanians living outside of blast area targets like Philadelphia. During emergency SCCD meetings after the Cuban Missile Crisis, officials were suddenly confronted with a nuclear threat that was much closer to home. Developments in missile technology also reduced the predicted warning time before attacks from hours to mere minutes.

The SCCD also had to manage stockpiles of perishable supplies that sat unused in fallout shelters. Huge quantities of food, blood, and medicine had to be replaced every few years to ensure that shelters could support hundreds, or sometimes thousands, of occupants safely. Valuable medical supplies were also at risk for theft. Many shelter inventories from around the state reported stocks of missing drugs and other items; others were removed by officials worried about future break-ins.

Civil Defense Supplies
Civil Defense display at Fort Indiantown Gap, circa 1951. PA State Archives RG 31.6.

The SCCD spent much of its time preparing for an attack that never came. However, its planning was not entirely in vain. The SCCD regularly assisted local authorities affected by natural disasters, particularly floods that threatened the homes and lives of thousands of Pennsylvanians. Fallout shelter supplies were used to help victims of Hurricane Agnes in 1972. As the threat of nuclear war faded, the SCCD was eventually replaced with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency in 1978, which continues to serve the Commonwealth to this day.

Today, the most visible mark of Pennsylvania’s civil-defense history are the yellow and black fallout shelter signs that still dot the basements and stairwells of many government and private buildings. Though the shelters are long-gone, they can still remind us of the impact that the Cold War and civil-defense planning had on the lives of millions of Pennsylvanians.

All the images used in this post were taken from the Pennsylvania State Archives Record Group 31.6: Department of Commerce, Bureau of Vacation and Travel Development, Photograph File of Mounted Prints and Negatives. For a complete listing of photographs in this collection, click here. For more information on Pennsylvania’s Civil Defense plans, these are some great sources:

Plan for Emergency Housing and Mass Feeding for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 1951

Keystone Defender bulletins, circa 1956

The Women’s Bulletin (SCCD publication), circa 1951

Civil Defense for Schools, 1952

The Use of Automobiles for Shelters, 1952

Statewide Civil Defense Test, 1955



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