AMERICA: National Catholic Weekly Review
Following President John F. Kennedyís Berlin crisis speech on July 25, 1961 that featured prominent and alarming references to nuclear war and civil defense, the topic of shelter morality entered the national discussion. Indeed, Time magazine published a remarkable article entitled "Gun Thy Neighbor" in its August 18, 1961 edition that reflected hard-line attitudes on shelter defense. One quote in the story came from an unnamed Chicago suburbanite:
"When I get my shelter finished, Iím going to mount a machine gun at the hatch to keep neighbors out if the bomb falls. Iím deadly serious about this. If the stupid American public will not do what they have to to save themselves, Iím not going to run the risk of not being able to use the shelter Iíve taken the trouble to provide to save my own family."
The Time article concludes with quotes from a gaggle of religious representatives (two Lutherans, an Episcopalian, a Methodist, a Catholic and a Baptist) opining on the morality of shelter defense. With one exception, pacifism was the standard line coming from these holy men.
However, a few weeks later, another holy man weighed in with an opposing viewpoint on the pages of the Jesuit magazine, America (National Catholic Weekly Review). In fact, Father L.C. McHugh's opinion piece ("Ethics at the Shelter Doorway," America, September 30, 1961) cites the Time article as his impetus for writing. Father McHugh took particular exception to the following quote in the Time story from the Reverend Hugh Saussy of the Holy Innocents Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Georgia: "If someone wanted to use the shelter, then you yourself should get out and let him use it. Thatís not what would happen, but thatís the strict Christian application."
Father McHugh belittles the moralist argument against defending oneís shelter in his piece and asserts that "unjust aggressors" should be "repelled by whatever means will effectively deter their assault." Ironically, the editors of the magazine sought to soften the priest's uncompromising position on shelter defense by offering this ridiculous and baseless line in the accompanying writer's biography: "Our guess is that Fr. McHugh would be the first to step aside from his own shelter door, yielding space to his neighbor."
Coincidentally, the night before the publication date of Father McHugh's controversial article, the CBS television network broadcast the famous episode of The Twilight Zone written by Rod Serling entitled "The Shelter." This harrowing story about a homeowner locking his frenzied neighbors out of his shelter after an announced UFO sighting crystallized the shelter debate better than a thousand dueling op-ed pieces. And, in true Serling fashion, it is the behavior of the whole human race, not just the shelter owner and his neighbors, that wind up looking bad.
Father McHugh's article spurred the shelter debate further and various newspaper articles commented on his unlikely position. In a September 27, 1961 New York Times piece by John Wicklein the paper called upon Rabbi Herbert Brichto, a professor of the Bible at the Hebrew Union Collegeís Jewish Institute of Religion for an opinion the America magazine article. Rabbi Brichto responded that "...preparation for an atomic war, such as building fall-out shelters, is immoral. The moral thing is not to prepare for survival of a fraction of the human race, but to put all our efforts into avoiding such a catastrophe."
And Time magazine re-entered the fray in their October 20, 1961 issue by quoting a rebuttal to McHugh's position from Washington, D.C.-based Episcopal Bishop Angus Dun: "I do not see how any Christian conscience can condone a policy which puts a supreme emphasis on saving your own skin without regard to the plight of your neighbor. Justice, mercy and brotherly love do not cease to operate, even in the final apocalypse."
So well publicized was Father McHugh's article that even Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy referenced the priest in an internal White House policy discussion on the issue of private versus public shelters. In Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s JFK administration memoir, A Thousand Days (Houghton Mifflin, 1965, page 749), RFK is quoted as saying in a forlorn voice, "Thereís no problem here Ė we can just station Father McHugh with a machine gun at every shelter." According to Schlesinger and other sources, it was during the McHugh-inflamed controversy that President Kennedy opted for shifting the administrationís support toward public shelters. Private shelters were never outright discouraged, but it was in late 1961 that the first iconic yellow and black National Fallout Shelter Signs started appearing on public buildings. The debate was effectively over.
McHugh weathered the controversy over his article, but by 1962 he no longer held his post as an associate editor of America magazine, a position he had served in since 1958.
Father Laurence C. McHugh died on May 23, 1979 at the age of 69 of cancer in Washington, D.C. where he had grown up (he was born in Worchester, Massachusetts) and where he served on the Georgetown University Faculty beginning in 1942. McHugh taught physics and then philosophy and finally theology at Georgetown before his retirement in 1974.
Father McHugh's Washington Post obituary (May 25, 1979) makes no mention of his unique place in Cold War history.
Decades after the great shelter debate of 1961, there was a parody of shelter morality in a 1995 episode of The Simpsons ("Bart's Comet," February 5, 1995). In the story, the entire population of Springfield winds up in Christian character Ned Flanders' bomb shelter as a comet hurtles towards the town. When the shelter becomes too full, Ned Flanders is kicked out. But the consciences of the townspeople prevail and they too exit the shelter only to see the comet destroyed in the nick of time by Springfield's polluted clouds.
AMERICA: National Catholic Weekly Review
By L.C. McHugh, S.J.
"Ethics at the Shelter Doorway"
September 30, 1961
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