JF Ptak Science Books LLC Post 1221
This is one of those ideas that just went viciously bad on contact, turning into an enabler of the very thing that it was supposed to help prevent: turning the Easter Bunny into Dr. Strangelove. In the History of Bad Ideas, this one is top-tier.
LIFE magazine published “How U.S. Cities Can Prepare of Atomic War: How M.I.T. Professors Suggest a Bold Plan to Prevent Panic and Limit Destruction” in their 18 December 1950 weekly issue, just in time for Christmas. The plan was a partial response to the dire situation faced by the U.S. in Korea and the growing threat of China and of course the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal. The government recognized that there was little planning in place to deal with the outcome of possible nuclear attack, and established the Federal Civil Defense Administration to help deal with the “problem”. The problem was how to make U.S. cities somewhat prepared to deal with being bombed with nuclear weapons—given that cities had a hard enough time dealing with 5:30 pm commuter gridlock, throwing a hundred megatons of explosive power into the equation made things more difficult.
One reaction was to construct concentric outer highways around metropolitan areas, “life belts around cities (which) would provide a place for bombed-out refugees to go”. In the birds eye view provided here, we see the plan in action, the main parts of which are an 8-lane “express” highway belt 10 miles away “from the built up edges of the city” , and a 6-track railway belt five miles further out, these accompanied by various feeder arms stretching straight-away from downtown. In between the two outer rings would be land that would be kept free of development, so that farms and tent cities could be constructed after the attack. There would also be major collections of hospital and fuel depots in the greenbelt area. Infrastructure would already be in place (gas and electricity, supplied with power from who-knows-where). Shopping centers and a giant “motor pool:” would also already be in place, waiting for the Doomsday clock to strike midnight.
One of the overwhelming presumptions here is that the interspersed green life living within the concentric rings of escape and transport routes would survive the attack. As would the highways. Why on earth wouldn’t that infrastructure be attacked as well? Given the proliferation of weapons, it would seem highly unlikely that The Aggressor would target just downtown areas of major cities—they would of course have to include the safespots as well. Not that there would be that much of a change in targeting parameters: exploding a series of 1 or 5 or 10 megaton warheads over a city like the one pictured here would pretty much decimate anything within the 15-mile life zone set out for survival. With weapons in this megatonnage range, we’re talking about an explosive force that would be inconceivable, even using the Hiroshima explosion as a currency. It is hard to imagine what happens when you deliver 3 or 4 5-megaton weapons to a city like this; when each of them would have the explosive force of 5,000 or so Hiroshimas, it is pretty clear that nothing will be left.
This planning gap reminds me of the question dealing with UFO running/landing lights: why are they there? Even assuming a modest strike in the kiloton range (which simply would not be the case) why would these defensive structures not be a target, particularly, oh dear sweet creator, since they would actually be forming an enormous target, and one that even a half-blind flying pig could find from altitude? Ultimately, it wasn’t a good question to ask because the answer would reveal the helpless, soulless situation for what it was. It was precisely an adult version of the ‘duck-and-cover” cartoons that showed the good students who got under their (wooden) desks being shielded from the atomic nastiness that just knocked down their school. And of course these concentric evacuation and mobilization rings, even if they had miraculously survived a purposely modest attack, and even if they actually worked to handle the flow of millions of people in their eight lanes, and even if all of those millions driving these highways didn’t have any accidents that would choke the flow of traffic (and on and on), we still haven’t approached the radiation question. For it was in the greenspace between the two concentric rings in which tent cities for the evacuees and homeless would come to life, some ten miles from ground zero (if, again, they weren’t themselves directly bombed with weapons in the megaton range).
So, in short, the way that these efforts would work is if (a) there was a lot of lead time to the attack, (b) everyone left the city in an orderly fashion, (c) nobody had any traffic choking accidents, (d) there was no radiation, and (e) one and only one “antique” nuclear weapons was used in the attack. Given these parameters, the plan just might work.
One of the authors of this not-particularly well-thought or original idea was in fact a great and original thinker; this enormous and costly and not effective plan was certainly not one of his best moments. Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), one of the co-conspirators of this idea, was a boy genius who grew into an adult genius, and that growing part didn’t take long at all. He graduated with a Harvard Ph.D. in 1912 at age 18 and went on to a distinguished early career as a logician, studying under Russell and Hardy and Landau and Hilbert. He left that part of his life mostly behind by the end of WWI, dedicating himself to mathematics. One of Wiener’s great accomplishments was (during the early stages of WWII) designing the capacity for anti-aircraft guns to be self-aiming, improving their accuracy (and effect) immensely. This was the foundation of his communication theory which became the basis for his creation of cybernetics, a superior creation with vast applications over many fields.
By the beginning of the Cold War, Wiener became a pacifist, leading him down a dark and murky road to this “life belt” idea. Perhaps this approach had precisely the wrong effect: by lending the idea of sustainable and orderly survivability to nuclear war might have led people top believe that nuclear was survivable; and if there is a game played in which its two players are not necessarily both losers, then the specter of “winning” a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union becomes a possibility, making the whole idea of fighting with nuclear weapons feasible.
I’ve not a clue as to what the great Norbert Wiener was thinking when he worked this out; even as a (and perhaps “the”) math guy, the numbers just don’t add up.
When I put on my Jorge Borges x-ray specs the plan looks prettier, and of course involves libraries. The outer concentric circles are still there, as are the green spaces, and the express/democratic ways of getting there; but what you would find there, on the highway ring, would be a series of libraries and dataports, and endless stream of books, and words, and numbers.
One of among many things that I didn't discuss above was the placement of such a greenbelt/lifebelt system for cities like New York, or San Francisco, or Los Angeles. As we can see in the depiction of a nuclear attack on NYC from Collier's Magazine (1948) there's sorry little area for that highway ten miles out from 42nd Street...