Nuclear Testing and Civil Defense
In November 1961, it became clear that the Soviets had no intention of discontinuing nuclear testing. Their detonation of a fifty-megaton bomb and the performance of atmospheric tests were unmistakable evidence of their stance on a test ban treaty. Nevertheless, Kennedy was hesitant to resume testing, but the pressure to do so was mounting. Gallup polls showed that Americans overwhelmingly supported it. In addition, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Congress, and the Atomic Energy Commission all wanted the United States to resume testing.
Promoting Civil Defense
With the possibility of nuclear war, Kennedy believed that it was important for the nation to become prepared. He enthusiastically supported a civil defense and fallout shelter program. In a September letter published in Life magazine, Kennedy advised readers on survival tips. The article entitled “You Could Be Among the 97% to Survive If You Follow Advice in These Pages” was an unrealistic assessment of the likelihood of survival. Kennedy's science advisers informed him that his analysis would provide false hope, but Kennedy insisted that as long as some were saved, it was worth it.
Despite the unlikely success of the program, Kennedy urged governors to take civil defense seriously and instructed the Pentagon to create a pamphlet discussing the steps to take for survival. In its draft form, its suggestions — just like Kennedy's article — were unrealistic. Even more troubling, only the affluent were able to build fallout shelters, and newspapers reported on the buildup of weapons among New Jersey and California suburbanites who were preparing to fend off nearby city dwellers from using their shelters.
“Today, every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be inhabitable. Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.”
Finally, Kennedy heeded his advisors' cautionary words. After he met with nuclear scientist Edward Teller, he was at last convinced that his program was doing more harm than good. According to Teller, planning for a nuclear war was much more complicated. He advised Kennedy that a viable program required digging deeper shelters to accommodate the bigger Soviet bombs. With that, Kennedy quietly left the civil defense program alone. The Pentagon brochure was revised to provide a more realistic outlook of surviving a nuclear bomb and its distribution was less significant than had been planned.
Deciding to Resume Testing
Kennedy preferred the continued halt, but he could not bear the thought of standing still while the Soviets moved forward in nuclear weapons technology. He hoped to gain British prime minister Harold Macmillan's support when the two leaders met in Bermuda in December 1961, but Macmillan was also reluctant to resume nuclear testing. The Kennedy administration continued to push Macmillan, and in March Kennedy made a televised announcement that U.S. nuclear testing would resume on Christmas Island instead of Nevada unless the Soviets agreed to a nuclear test ban treaty. The Soviets immediately rejected the proposal, labeling it “completely unacceptable.” Kennedy hoped the testing would demonstrate to the Soviet Union the superiority of American nuclear power and increase the pressure to negotiate a test ban treaty.