A number of things ran through my head during the seemingly endless 38 minutes last Saturday when our shared sense of normalcy was shattered by the warning of an impending nuclear attack on our small island state.

When my phone screeched and I turned it over to read the alert, it triggered a sense of unreality. It felt like we were in a movie where a nuclear war breaks out. It can’t be real. This must be a mistake, an unfunny joke, some bit of fake news making the rounds of social media.

Then I was hit by a deep sense of my own mortality. What if it really isn’t a drill? I remember looking out a window into our back yard. It was a bright, sunny morning. The colors of the tropical plants seemed brighter than normal. Will this beautiful day end soon in a flash of blinding light, a terrible blast, and then who knows what? As one of those baby boomers who grew up in the shadow of the nuclear arms race and the Cold War, this moment tapped into an all too familiar sense of dread.

The Bikini Atoll nuclear test, Castle Bravo, is the subject of this iconic doomsday photo.

Wikimedia Commons

Shaking off the sense of disbelief, my wife and I decided it would be prudent to move to a corner of the house with the fewest windows and hunker down. As we did, I gave in to a journalistic instinct and picked up several of my cameras, grabbed extra batteries, and carried them with me. We tried to corral our three cats, ending up only two-thirds successful.

I worried about whether we had enough cat food, and then wondered how long our stocks of food and water would last. I wondered how much time had already passed. My watch indicated that if this warning was real, only a few minutes remained.

And then, while the cats cried and fussed about being held against their will behind a closed door, we embraced, held hands and waited. It was about all we could do.

If the missile was indeed nearing its target, there was nothing we could do about it. We were, in that moment, prisoners of a war none of us wants and would have given anything to prevent.

As we passed the 15-minute mark and the world as we know it was still intact, with nothing to confirm the original warning — no sirens and no rebroadcast of the alert — we began to relax. And, not long afterwards, we received the notice that it had all been a false alarm.

Now, of course, we’re all trying to understand and interpret those frightening minutes. What can we usefully take away from the experience?

The Morning After

The harshest public response so far has been aimed at the person who triggered the false alarm, and the agencies that delayed a correction for those endless 38 minutes.

Why anger about the error instead of relief that it was indeed an error? I think it’s because the false alarm exposed and made us confront the threat of nuclear war personally and directly.

The threat has been there, but normally we have no reason to pay attention. On Saturday, we were forced to confront, face-to-face, the reality of what could happen should a nuclear war be triggered, intentionally or otherwise. That was, and continues to be, a frightening experience.

Some suggest that the false alarm shows we need a new and improved civil defense warning system with updated software that avoids errors and reaches more people, coupled with more aggressive preparations of public and private shelters, home survival kits, and more thorough education on how to react in the event we are faced with the real thing. This while the Trump administration is advocating significant increases in our nuclear arsenals, along with changes in military strategy that could make the use of nuclear weapons more likely in future combat.

Much the same arguments drove the United State to institute a nationwide civil defense program in the 1950s that emphasized public and private bomb shelters, stockpiling of emergency supplies and annual nationwide civil defense drills. The civil defense program expanded against the backdrop of a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union that led to spiraling numbers of ever-more lethal weapons.

But these large scale civil defense preparations required significant public buy-in, and that’s where a major contradiction of civil defense became apparent.

To get the public to accept and participate actively in civil defense preparations requires that enough public information about nuclear weapons and their effects be available to justify the expense of such programs and promote the required public participation. But the more the public learns about nuclear weapons and nuclear war, the more likely public opinion will oppose them.

History is instructive here. Let’s see how the civil defense push in the 1950s turned out.

The State of New York passed a law making it a criminal misdemeanor for anyone to fail to take shelter during the major annual nationwide civil defense drill known as “Operation Alert.” This forced New York residents to confront the reality of nuclear war planning and preparation, just as Hawaii residents did Saturday. Back in the 1950s, that in turn triggered pushback.

During Operation Alert in June 1955, a small group of 28 religious pacifists refused to cooperate and instead gathered in New York’s City Hall Park, where they were arrested for failing to take cover during the drill. They pleaded guilty to the charges, and that first year their sentences were suspended.

In a statement issued at the time, the protesters argued that “civil defense” is a misnomer, because civil defense drills are “essentially a part of war preparation.” 

Some suggest that the false alarm shows we need a new and improved civil defense warning system.

“They accustom people to the idea of war, to acceptance of war as probably inevitable and as somehow right if waged in ‘defense’ and ‘retaliation,’” their statement read. “They create the illusion that the nation can devote its major resources to preparation for nuclear war and at the same time shield people from catastrophic effects. Whatever anyone’s intentions may be, this is perpetrating deceit.”

They argued that public resources, whether financial, spiritual or intellectual, should instead be invested in removing the causes of war, including poverty and inequality.

The protests in New York grew every year as the public wearied of the threat of nuclear war, and every year more people were arrested for failing to take cover, many spending time in jail as a result. By 1961, more than 2,000 people joined the protest in New York, and the protests were spreading to other cities as well.

In the face of growing protests, the federal government finally abandoned its Operation Alert nationwide civil defense drills in 1962.

These arguments against relying on civil defense are as relevant today as they were in the 1950s and ’60s. Peace is really the only realistic shelter from the threat of nuclear war.

It’s time to create new ways we can contribute to the lessening of tensions with North Korea and invest in removing the causes of war. After Saturday’s rude awakening, are we up to that challenge?

About the Author