History 1950s

On December 1, 1950, President Harry Truman created the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) [EO 10186] within what was called the Office of Emergency Management (OEM), attached to the Executive Office of the President. OEM's purpose up to that point had been largely to provide the President with a mechanism to monitor emergencies and disasters that affected the United States, and offered no direct assistance to state or local governments. Congress quickly picked up on this, and passed the Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950 [64 Stat. 1245]. On January 12, 1951, the FCDA was made an independent agency of the federal government, and absorbed the functions of what had been called the National Security Resources Board (NSRB). The NSRB had been created by the National Security Act of 1947, and was created to "advise the president on mobilization coordination of the United States" during times of war, specifically the buildup of industrial capabilities and the stockpiling of "critical" national security materiel. NSRB also laid the groundwork for the development of CONELRAD, the emergency warning system predecessor to the Emergency Broadcast System (and today, the Emergency Alert System).

On September 30, 1950, Congress passed the Federal Disaster Relief Act, which was designed primarily to allow the federal government to provide some limited assistance to the states during times of disaster. This function was assigned to the Executive Office of the President (EOP), where it remained (in various incarnations) until 1973. The federal Office of Defense Mobilization (ODM) was created by EO 10193, on December 16, 1950, to coordinate federal mobilization activities (initially for wartime activities), and ODM inherited the disaster relief coordination responsibilities in another EO [10427], dated January 6, 1953. Another agency, the Defense Production Administration (DPA) was created by EO 10200, January 3, 1950, to exercise general control of the defense production program.

Confused? No doubt. So was just about everyone else at all levels of government during this period. The distinction between wartime-type civil defense activities and natural disaster relief activities and their attendant philosophies would serve to create friction in many different ways even through the 1980s. Civil defense workers were concerned with the protection of the civilian population from the effects of a hostile attack against the country, had "national security" status, and dealt with critical production issues, etc. Disaster relief was seen by CD workers as an unrelated, benign task best left to others.

In their original incarnation, Civil Defense programs sought to develop sheltering capabilities to house people in attacked cities. Civil defense planners, however, were also developing mass evacuation plans for supposed targets of the USSR. Planners naturally assumed that major cities, defense production facilities, major power plants, etc., would be targeted by the Russians in their attempt to take over the continental U. S., and sought to develop elaborate plans for the evacuations of populations from these areas. Detailed population and traffic routing studies were undertaken at all levels, including here in Tennessee, in an effort to determine how long it would take to evacuate a city such as Memphis for example. The entire population of the city of Memphis was to be relocated among some 30 counties in western Tennessee, eastern Arkansas, southeastern Missouri, and northern Mississippi. There were three main considerations that led planners to believe this would have been a viable option at the time:

  1. The massive development and suburbanization of the country's cities had yet to begin in earnest, so there were few massive neighborhoods or population points in any given area outside the main body of the main city,
  2. It was generally assumed that there would be a "buildup" of tensions between the United States and Russia (or any other country that might wish to launch an attack). Planners frequently spoke of this buildup in terms of weeks or several days.
  3. In a worst-case scenario (i.e., no-notice attack), it would take at least 6 hours for a Russian bomber to reach the radars established by the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) along the northern portion of the country. There were no missiles with the capability of reaching the U. S at this time.

All of these combined to suggest to evacuation planners that mass evacuations of large cities could be undertaken successfully in the event of a war with Russia. A great many people at all levels of government believed that such evacuations were not possible, and Congress refused to provide any substantial funding for any civil defense program, let alone funds needed for major relocation studies. A good deal of the funding went toward the development of sheltering programs, including the study of existing buildings for use as shelters, and the development of concepts and guidance for the building of underground shelters at individual homes.

In 1953, under Reorganization Plan # 3 (June 12), functions of the former NSRB were removed from FCDA, and along with programs of the existing ODM, FPA, and other disaster and emergency relief responsibilities of the EOP, were consolidated into a new Office of Defense Mobilization, housed within the Executive Office of the President. The FCDA would concentrate solely on preparing the civilian population for a nuclear attack, while the new ODM would assume all responsibilities related to domestic emergency preparedness and development of the nation's civilian capability to ramp up and go to war. The CONELRAD program was transferred to a newly created office called the Assistant Director of Telecommunications, who was to be a part of the new ODM.

During the 1953-1958 time period, there continued to be arguments over whether evacuation or sheltering was to be the nation's policy regarding response to a nuclear attack. There was vigorous debate in Congress, in the Executive Branch, and even among individuals charged with the responsibility of managing the civil defense and ODM programs. The general public had largely grown tired of civil defense anyway, however, due to the political face put on by the Eisenhower Administration about maintaining a peaceful coexistence with the Russians. That would soon change, however. The development of intercontinental ballistic missile capability and the subsequent launch of the Sputnik satellite, along with the Soviet Union's explosion of a hydrogen bomb once again fueled fears of the potential for a Russian attack on the United States. This time, however, the evacuation planners had to confront the fact that a Soviet missile could reach the U. S. in a few minutes, and that we may not have "several hours" to carry out an evacuation.

In 1958, the major civil defense and emergency preparedness programs at the federal level were reorganized. Under Reorganization Plan # 1 [July 1, 1958], the FCDA and the ODM were consolidated into a single agency, the Office of Defense and Civilian Mobilization (ODCM), which was to be housed in the Executive Office of the President. It was during this period that the Federal Civil Defense Act was amended to allow the federal government to provide funding for civil emergency preparedness. The federal government would provide 50/50 matching funds to personnel and administration costs for agencies engaged in civil defense preparedness. The concept of a joint federal-state-local responsibility for civil defense and attack preparedness was also articulated in guidance distributed by the new ODCM.

Within Tennessee, the newly created Civil Defense Agency was hard at work in its headquarters office, located in Room 315 of the Cordell Hull Building. Based on direction and guidance from the FCDA, TCDA set out to develop massive evacuation plans for the major population centers in the state, Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, Tri-Cities, and Alkor (Knoxville-Alcoa). The Governor adopted the policy that TCDA should be the central coordination point for all civil defense actions following an attack, and gave TCDA the authority to coordinate all the other state agencies' activities during such periods.

The culmination of this effort led to the publishing in 1958 of the state's first major planning document related to civil defense. Called the Tennessee Operational Survivability Plan, the 10-volume document laid out how the state would respond to a nuclear attack in excruciating detail. The plan called for each of the population centers to be designated a Civil Defense Operational Area (CDOA), each with its own command structure. The Governor and the Civil Defense staff were to be relocated to a facility outside of Tullahoma, Tennessee, and an alternate state Capitol was to be established at the old Ovoca Children's School in the same general area. The plan describes vehicle loads for anticipated evacuation routes, contains letters of coordination for the use of counties in adjoining states, and even details specific guidance on how resources were to be allocated to individual counties through the CDOA organizational structure.