How a Hipster City Planned to Survive Nuclear Armageddon
Cold War Portland had a scheme to save 100,000 people -- and it worked
Think of the city of Portland, Ore., today and it’s easy to conjure images of hipsters living the earth-friendly and artsy Pacific Northwest lifestyle — a laid-back place where a vegan donut is the most popular pastry and according to a character from the T.V. show Portlandia, you can put a bird on anything and call it art.
But once upon a time during the Cold War, it was a city that was as serious as a heart attack about surviving nuclear Armageddon.
Portland had a plan to evacuate the city if Soviet bombers were on their way to nuke the metropolis. What’s more, Portland officials even proved that their plan might work.
It was called Operation Greenlight. On Sept. 27, 1955 at 3:05 in the afternoon, air raid sirens wailed in downtown Portland, signaling the beginning of a drill.
By 3:59, 29,423 vehicles and 101,074 people in the urban core were … gone. The majority of the people and cars in downtown Portland cleared out — and civil defense officials across the nation hailed Operation Greenlight as proof that similar programs could save lives during a nuclear war.
But by 1963, Portland changed its tune. The city was the first in the United States to reject the national civil defense program, and the city shut down its civil defense program. Both a majority of voters and key city lawmakers refused to support continued funding of the program.
What happened was the result of Cold War politics, the arms race, bureaucratic foul-ups during an actual city emergency and the growing belief that no one could survive a nuclear war. And Portland forgot its one-time embrace of Cold War survival skills.
“I seldom hear anyone speak of it,” Brian Johnson, a coordinator for the City of Portland Archives & Records Center, told War Is Boring. “This is one of the Portland stories I know that I cannot remember any older people speaking of participating in.”
To many people right after World War II, the idea of a national civil defense program was ludicrous. The United States emerged from the war as a global superpower, possessing political influence and military might second to none because of the nation’s monopoly on nuclear weapons.
Many saw the post-war Soviet Union as a threat — the once wartime ally in the fight against the Axis quickly occupied countries that only shortly before had been under Nazi control, violated provisions of the Yalta Accords and installed communist governments throughout central and eastern Europe. The USSR’s troops far outnumbered the armies of Western Europe.
But the Soviets didn’t have atomic weapons — at first. That all changed in 1949, when Russian scientists led by nuclear physics genius Igor Kurchatov detonated a 22-kiloton atomic bomb code-named First Lightning at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan.
In the West, intelligence analysts dubbed the bomb Joe-1. At first, Pres. Harry Truman was reluctant to accept the news. Like many in the U.S. government, he found it hard to believe that the Soviets could develop a nuclear weapon so quickly.
But once news of a Soviet test was confirmed and released to the public, it stunned and terrified Americans ranging from ordinary citizens to members of Congress — and they wanted action fast.
Congress passed the Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950, which Truman signed without hesitation. The act placed most of the civil defense burden on the individual states and created the Federal Civil Defense Administration so the federal government could guide each state’s individual efforts and provide matching funds.
“Much has been done, but much remains to be done,” Truman said after signing the bill into law on Jan. 21, 1951. “It will require the best efforts of all of us to get ready, and to stay ready, to defend our homes. No true American would want to give less than his best to that cause, and no one who knows the American people could ask for more.”
Today, Cold War civil defense efforts during the 1950s might seem quaint. “Duck and cover” drills and the adventures of Bert the Turtle, an animated cartoon who taught school children how to take cover in case of nuclear attack, appear surreal or naïve.
However, the rationale behind civil defense strategies, such evacuating urban populations, makes some sense when you consider the strategic realities of the time.
First of all, the nuclear threat to the United States from 1951 to 1957 was from Soviet bombers. The USSR did not develop the R-7 Semyorka — the first world’s intercontinental ballistic missile — until 1957.
An ICBM’s flight time from most Soviet launch points to targets in the contiguous United States would be about 30 minutes. The flight time of bombers could be measured in hours, and the U.S. military at least hoped it would detect incoming aircraft flying over the Arctic quickly enough to give civil defense officials some kind of warning.
In addition, civil defense officials never intended on trying to save all Americans during a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Despite stereotypes to the contrary, the program made it crystal clear that goal was to save as many lives as possible in the case of a nuclear attack.
“Millions of Americans would die, and there is no point in looking away from this harsh reality nuclear war,” a training manual published by the Department of Defense and the Office of Civil Defense stated. “But with proper preparations, which are well within the bounds of technical and economic feasibility, millions of other Americans would live to sustain the life of the nation.”
Finally, although the public fear then was that the Soviet Union might be able to churn out nuclear weapons by the thousands, the U.S. government believed Russia’s nuclear capabilities were dangerous but limited compared to the numbers of nuclear weapons in the American arsenal.
In NSC 68, a lengthy top-secret report produced in 1950 that is arguably the most famous national security document of the nuclear age, intelligence analysts estimated by the mid-decade the Soviets would possess an arsenal of around 200 nuclear bombs. That was a number that could “seriously damage this country” by “delivering devastating attacks on certain vital centers” of the nation, the report concluded.
But they would not be enough to destroy the nation.
Portland was one of the first cities in the United States to answer Truman’s call for a stalwart civil defense program. In 1950, Mayor Dorothy McCullough Lee appointed Charles Pray as the city’s first director of civil defense. It was the beginning of what many in state and federal government would consider a model program for the rest of the nation.
The city quickly embraced civil defense with its pocketbook. In 1952, Portland voters passed a $600,000 special levy “for the purpose of obtaining emergency supplies, equipment and facilities” — a considerable sum by the standards of municipal government back then. However, city officials knew that they could receive federal matching funds for many local civil defense projects.
During the 1950s, Portland developed a thorough-going civil defense program with definite Cold War aims. The city made plans that would coordinate public safety and public works services in the event of a nuclear attack, offered first aid and nuclear-war survival skills classes to the public, distributed thousands of brochures filled with information on how to stockpile supplies and build fallout shelters and even had booths at home and garden shows to convince the public to prepare for a nuclear attack.
Portland also had a continuation of government plan that would be activated if three or more city council members were killed or incapacitated during an attack. Furthermore, Portland in 1956 built, at a cost of more $670,000, a command post beneath Kelly Butte, a gigantic plug of ancient lava in an extinct volcanic field. It was the first completely underground self-sustaining civil defense emergency operations center in the United States and could house up to 250 city officials and government workers for up to two weeks after a nuclear attack.
Why was Portland worried about nuclear attack? The Soviets didn’t share the contents of their target list, but it made sense for officials in city and Oregon government to be concerned.
Even today, Portland is more than Oregon’s major population center. Then and now, the city is essential to the state’s economy. Because of its location on the Columbia River, it is a major port city with millions of tons of cargo flowing in and out. It’s also a significant banking and commercial center on the West Coast — as it was in the 1950s.
In short, it was a good guess that Soviet planners in the early ‘50s considered Portland one of the few strategic targets in Oregon worth nuking.
As the decade progressed, Portland’s civil defense officials wanted to prove that some kind evacuation plan could save lives that would otherwise be vaporized by a Soviet nuke. By 1955, they developed the idea for Operation Greenlight.
Not only would the drill provide practice on how to evacuate a major urban center, it might also convince the federal government to help fund construction of the new civil defense emergency operations center under Kelly Butte.
“The city used Greenlight as a demonstration of their organization and abilities to show the federal government that our plan was sound and effective,” Johnson said. “Our construction of the Kelly Butte Civil Defense building was reliant upon the feds buying into and supporting our plan and continuing to fund it. Greenlight was a massive success and the feds used us as a model to emulate.”
If an actual wartime evacuation did take place, it would be massive. Civil defense planners estimated that there would be as many as 600,000 evacuees that would need to escape a danger zone radiating 20 miles from ground zero.
So, the evacuation plan included setting up Red Cross kitchens to feed the refugees, strategically dispersing medical personnel to field hospitals to treat injuries and establishing 12 “reception areas” in towns outside of Portland to host people. There would even be “radiological monitoring areas” — essentially places where workers with Geiger counters would monitor whether evacuees were contaminated by radioactive materials such as fallout.
Today, it might sound improbable that so many people would be willing to walk lockstep to organize a massive drill aimed at surviving a nuclear war and then willingly participate in the exercise. Yet, they did.
“As for the citizens, I can only imagine that the Cold War propaganda was effective and that they viewed the Soviet threat as real,” Johnson said. “Also, our city council and Portland businesses were more of one mind in those days. So, all the council would have to do is convince businesses downtown to cooperate and that would ensure a huge number of people would evacuate.”
To make the plan work, city officials would have to set up traffic patterns that would allow people to leave downtown in a safe and orderly way. No one really knows who developed the plan, but Johnson says he has an idea.
“The director of civil defense at that time was Jack Lowe, who had been in the Army in Europe and had studied the effects of bombing on metropolitan areas,” he said. “Our traffic engineer at the time was Fred Fowler. If I had to make an educated guess as to who came up with the plan it would be one of them or the two together.”
On the day of the drill, green lights on main exit routes and red lights at intersections prevented cars from crossing the exit routes. Any cars approaching a red light were only allowed to proceed with the traffic, and amber lights flashed in all four directions as an additional warning along with the sirens.
It worked. The traffic pattern, publicity before the exercise and coordination efforts between civil defense and city agencies resulted in more than 100,000 people and their vehicles leaving downtown Portland without incident.
In fact, the drill was so successful that a year later CBS News filmed a documentary entitled A Day Called X that portrayed Portland’s civil defense program. Narrated by Glen Ford, it starred the mayor, actual city and civil defense officials and real Portland citizens as they went through the paces of emergency management during a simulated nuclear attack.
The interior of the Kelly Butte emergency operations center, the first underground refuge in the United States dedicated to civil defense command and control. Photo via Wikipedia
But 1957 was also the year the Soviets launched Sputnik using a space launch vehicle that was the R-7 ICBM. Two years earlier, the USSR detonated its first thermonuclear device.
From then on, Soviet weapons would have much larger yields and they could be more quickly delivered to their targets. Some city officials began to wonder out loud whether there would be enough time to evacuate the city — or if the effort was even worth it in the face of nuclear weapons thousands of times more powerful than the atomic bombs of the early ‘50s.
By 1963, Portland voters decided the time had come to stop funding the city’s civil defense program. Severe weather — not a nuclear war — played a role in the public’s disenchantment with Portland’s emergency management capability.
The city’s infamous Columbus Day Storm of 1962 was the perfect opportunity for the civil defense program to prove its mettle during an actual emergency. Also known as the Big Blow, the storm hit most of the Pacific Northwest with the force of a hurricane, causing record rainfall and winds of up to 130 miles per hour in some places. Forty-six people died in mudslides and floods.
“The mayor was out of town when the storm hit and one of the commissioners was acting mayor,” Johnson explained. “As it was set up, only the mayor or acting mayor could activate the C.D. office and the acting mayor chose not to. There were many years of planning and practicing for disasters and when one hit, the C.D. office was not utilized. It would have been a perfect time to show what they could do and it was missed.”
In addition, Portland Commissioner Stanley Earl began to argue publicly that in an age of megaton weapons and ICBM flight-times the city’s evacuation program — in fact, the entire civil defense program — made no sense.
The following year, a ballot measure to continue civil defense funding went to the voters. It failed. By then, the city council had also voted to end Portland’s participation in the national civil defense program.
The vote was also the death knell for the Kelly Butte command center. Although it was used as an emergency communications post by the city, its days as a bunker for city government to ride out a nuclear war were finished.
The city of Portland abandoned the Kelly Butte site in 1994 and permanently sealed off the bunker in 2006. Today, the surrounding area is a nature reserve.