Saving The Elephant

Saving The Elephant

TUESDAY, May 3rd, was one of those lovely Spring days in New York: the Yanks were playing Detroit and the trees in City Hall Park were putting out new leaves. Yet before the day was over, Civil Defense officials were to open a sealed envelope revealing that three nuclear bombs had fallen upon New York. Fortunately, the catastrophe was anticipated, and the would-be disaster turned into a triumph for petty officialdom. Major Robert E. Condon, director of the New York office of Civil Defense, was able to mobilize his battalion of 265,000 city employees and volunteers so efficiently that Times Square was cleared of people in one minute and forty-six seconds, breaking the former record by seventeen seconds. Exhilarated by this achievement, the New York Times announced that “8,000,000 in City Go to Shelters.” Both the Times and the Herald-Tribune featured front-page photos of an elephant being taken indoors at the Bronx Zoo.

These were just the local manifestations of a new game that swept the country that Tuesday. The game was called “Operation Alert,” and featured the dropping of several hundred Hydrogen Bombs from coast to coast. To coordinate the game, the Civil Defense people commandeered the nation’s airwaves; from two to two-thirty p.m. neither radio nor TV was available to entertain the American public. To fill this cultural gap, Civil Defense provided what is known as the Conelrad emergency broadcast. The American people were assured by Conelrad that their civil defense headquarters was operating in an impregnable underground location, where the latest casualty reports were instantly collected via special relay network and sorted into categories by electronic computer. The highlight of the Conelrad broadcast was a canned message from the President of the United States, who announced that “survival cannot be guaranteed merely with a capacity for reprisal.” “If,” he continued, “despite our efforts toward keeping peace, we should be faced with nuclear attack, a strong Civil Defense, supported by all Americans, offers the best program for the saving of lives.”

On the Lower East Side, however, the triangular grassy expanse of City Hall Park was jammed full of people who apparently disagreed with President Eisenhower. Although the Times reported that there were only 150 people, there were really well over a thousand people in the park, all of them agreed that “taking shelter” was a meaningless gesture in the face of atomic annihilation. The ralliers had been summoned to the park by an impromptu organization called the Civil Defense Protest Committee, assembled by various pacifist and civic leaders.

As I wandered about the park, I was struck by the fact that this was not a carefully-organized political pressure group, but rather a collection of people who had come as individuals, each seeking to express the dictates of his conscience. I had expecte...

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