The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library website explains that FDR, the 32nd President of the United States, “believed that the best way to comfort and inform the public about his administration and policies was to address them on the radio.” The website explains further that the President “considered it most effective to talk to people as if he had joined them in their living rooms or kitchens for a relaxed, informal conversation about one or two specific topics.” According to the website, it was a newspaper reporter who coined the term “Fireside Chat” after Roosevelt’s May 7, 1933 “Outlining the New Deal” radio speech. The FDR Library identifies thirty speeches that qualify as Fireside Chats.
Presidents since Roosevelt have used the format of the “fireside chat,” including, perhaps most notably and literally, Jimmy Carter. On February 2, 1977 President Carter, in a cardigan sweater, gave a televised talk on energy from a chair in front of a real fire place.
When the subjects of civil defense and “shelter morality” were very much in the public spotlight during the summer and fall of 1961, President John F. Kennedy was scheduled to discuss his administration’s policy on “survival” in a broadcast “fireside chat.” The President had made a pledge during his July 25, 1961 speech on the crisis in Berlin that he would “let every citizen know what steps he can take without delay to protect his family in case of attack.”
Kennedy’s Defense Department also wanted him to give such a speech in order to lend more weight to a civil defense booklet that was about to be released. The booklet, titled “Fallout Protection: What to Know and Do About Nuclear Attack,” was intended to make good on the President’s earlier “let every citizen know” promise made during the Berlin crisis speech. It was to be published shortly after the fireside chat.
Because the booklet was delayed and because the tensions of the Berlin crisis had receded by December of 1961, the Kennedy administration made the political decision not to stoke the civil defense debate further with a televised speech on the subject. It is interesting to note that when the booklet finally did get published on December 30, 1961, the New York Times included a reference to the speech in a January 2, 1962 article by Peter Braestrup: “It was understood that tentative plans for a televised ‘fireside chat’ by President Kennedy have been put off.”
However, the plans for the speech had advanced to a point where Special Counsel / Adviser / speechwriter Theodore Sorensen had written a nine page draft for the President. CONELRAD obtained a copy of the draft from the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. When reading the text of the speech that never was, it is fascinating to see how Kennedy tried to dial down the survival hysteria he himself had helped create on July 25, 1961. He even addresses the “gun thy neighbor” debate made infamous by Father L.C. McHugh in an essay for the Jesuit magazine America.
I want to talk to you tonight on a question which I know has been of great concern to many of you in recent weeks. The question is civil defense – the protection of the American people against attack in the event of nuclear war.
As I discuss this question, I want to make one thing very clear from the start. This government does not expect nuclear war. It does not believe that the world has so lost its reason as to believe there are problems which nuclear war can solve. The whole purpose of our policy is to prevent nuclear war. We are hopeful that this policy will succeed.
Let me say a word about the things we are doing to guard this nation and the world against nuclear war.
First, we are doing everything we can to build the strength and the unity of the free peoples of the world. The enduring answer to Communism lies in an alliance of nations secure in their own independence and dedicated to the liberty and welfare of their peoples.
Second, we have in our own military establishment the strongest deterrent force in the world. We have an invulnerable strength in missiles and bombs – a strength which can survive any conceivable attack and retain the capacity to obliterate any nation irresponsible enough to launch such an attack. We shall take every necessary step to maintain the overwhelming power of our deterrent.
Third, we shall continue to strive for a system of general and complete disarmament. We have laid a comprehensive disarmament plan before the United Nations. This plan sets forth a realistic scheme for progressive disarmament, with appropriate inspection and control at every stage. We shall work for this plan day and night until we can persuade the nations of the world to join with us in building world machinery to keep a permanent peace.
Until we achieve a reliable system of general and complete disarmament, however, we must live in a dark, uncertain and perilous world.
This is not the world we choose – but it is the world we have.
I believe that the risk even of this world exploding in nuclear war is very small – yet that risk remains.
As long as that risk remains, if there are things we can do now which would save the lives of millions of our fellow countrymen in case of war, then surely we must do those things.
That is why I have been studying the difficult and intricate problems involved in the question of civil defense.
These problems are difficult and intricate because no one can possible predict – on the unlikely chance that our country might suffer a nuclear attack – what kind of attack it might be, what sort of weapons would be used, or on what kind of targets they might fall. Yet the answer to these questions is essential for precise planning.
It is possible, however, to reach certain broad conclusions.
One conclusion is that any major nuclear attack on this country would kill tens of millions of people. There is no practicable program which would avert incredible destruction, slaughter, horror and chaos. The only way by which we could protect ourselves from the direct of blast, heat and firestorm is by burying our cities deep underground. We could carry out such a program only to the exclusion of nearly everything else in our national life – a course of action which makes no sense to me.
The other conclusion is that we can protect ourselves to some degree from the indirect effects of nuclear attack – in particular, from radioactive fallout. Such protection would save the lives of millions who could not otherwise survive.
Let me make this point absolutely clear. Nuclear war would be the greatest holocaust and tragedy the world has ever seen. But a sensible system of civil defense could save many of us from radioactive fallout.
This means that our civil defense program must concentrate on building fallout shelters and on creating the organization to make them useful.
I have very clear views about the nature of a fallout shelter program.
First, we are going to have a program which, as far as possible, will help everybody equally. This will be a democratic shelter program. There can be no discrimination in civil defense between rich and poor, between home owner and apartment dwellers, between people of different religions or different ethnic backgrounds.
Second, we are going to build this program, not on a crash or panic basis, but as a system designed for the years ahead. We must plan not for the next few weeks, but very likely for the rest of our lives – at least, until we achieve a world system of total disarmament. This is a long-range program, and we mean to go about it in an orderly long-range way.
Third, we are not going to let the shelter program divert our energies and our resources from the affirmative goals of our policy. Civil defense is but one part of our program. To pursue this part at the expense of our military deterrent, of our international relationships, of the positive aims of our policy would be to resign from responsibility, condemn our nation to a defensive position before the world, and relinquish all hope of strong leadership for safety and peace.
Fourth, we are not going to let the shelter program generate emotions of fear and hysteria. We are not going to enter a time of divisive and degrading argument about a shelter owner’s right to kill his neighbors. We are not going to permit unscrupulous men to racketeer on people’s anxieties over nuclear war. We are not going to let civil defense become a means of assault on freedoms of speech and dissent. We have full confidence in the restraint and good sense of our people.
Fifth, I regard it as the responsibility of the Federal Government to provide leadership and technical guidance in the civil defense program as well as to carry part of the financial load. I regard it as the responsibility of states and communities to take an important share in the operation of the program, since a concern which reaches into every corner of the nation cannot and should not be managed solely from Washington.
A program along these lines is, in my judgment, fair, rational and consistent with the values of our people and the objectives of our nation.
We have already taken important steps toward the creation of such a program. We have set up a new and vigorous organization to supervise the civil defense program. The last session of Congress, on my recommendation, passed a law authorizing the government to mark, stock and equip existing group shelter space and to identify further space which might be converted into new group shelters. The National Shelter Survey is under way. When it is completed, we will have about 50 million shelter spaces ready in existing buildings, tunnels, subways and other structures. We will also know how much potential shelter space exists and where it is.
At the same time, we have been moving ahead with the exploration of the NEAR warning system so as to provide as much alert as possible in case of attack. And by next spring there will be approximately 80,000 radiological monitoring stations with radiation detection equipment and trained operators. The Federal Government is also ready to provide technical assistance to states and communities on a great variety of problems connected with civil defense. By the end of month, a pamphlet on defense against nuclear attack will be available in your post offices and local civil defense headquarters.
These are some of the steps we have taken already. I now propose to request from Congress next January authority and money for federal participation in a program for creating community fallout shelters. I look to the establishment of a Federal Shelter Incentive Program by which the Federal Government will cover a substantial part of the cost of providing fallout shelters in schools, hospitals and other public welfare institutions. At the same time, I expect that state and local government will follow the example of the federal government in regard to state and municipal buildings. I hope too that new private building – factories, offices, apartment houses, churches, municipal buildings, banks, warehouses – will follow the public example and include provision for shelter space. We plan to provide technical assistance to make this possible.
The heart of our shelter program must be, in my judgment, community shelters. Only a community shelter program can be truly democratic. Moreover, if an attack should not take place, group shelters can serve other community purposes. And, should an attack come, a community group will be far better prepared to cope with the terrible problems of survival than would a single family.
Families with basements or backyards may prefer to build their own shelters. Such home shelters will be a valuable supplement to the community shelter program. The Federal Government has prepared plans for low-cost family shelters, and these will soon be available through state and local civil defense organizations. At the same time, the Federal Trade Commission is taking steps to stop fraud, deception and abuse in the commercial shelter business.
I have said that this will be a long-term program. Its success rests just as much on the cooperation of the individual citizen and community as it does on the leadership of the Federal Government. I hope that as many citizens as possible will join local civil defense activities. But I call on everyone to remember that civil defense is a voluntary effort. It is a program to bring people together, not to set them against each other. It is an instrumentality for cooperation, not for coercion. It is not a means by which those whom President Eisenhower called the “superpatriots” can seek to tyrannize their fellow citizens. It is a method by which respectable Americans can work together to advance the safety of their community and their nation.
We have a big job to do in civil defense. But it is not the only job we have to do as a nation, and it must be held in proportion to the other responsibilities of government. I know that we as a people can do it without risking the national frenzy which might persuade our friends that we regard war as inevitable and our enemies that we are engaged in a panic retreat from world responsibility. I know that we can do this job calmly, responsibly and honorably.
And, as we do it, I know that we will press forward in support of the positive programs of our government – the programs which will lead toward the enlargement of progress and opportunity at home and toward the achievement of peace and justice in the world; the programs which truly express the nobility of our traditions and the splendor of our ideals.
Civil Defense Fireside Chat - Draft (1961)
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum:
Theodore Sorensen Papers, Box 30, Civil Defense