110. Editorial Note

On December 3, 1981, President Ronald Reagan chaired a meeting of the National Security Council in the Cabinet Room of the White House from 2:42 to 3:26 p.m to discuss Monitoring Overseas Direct Employment (MODE) and Civil Defense. (Reagan Library, President’s Daily Diary) The principals considered civil defense in the context of the strategic modernization project that Reagan outlined on October 2 in the East Room of the White House. (Public Papers: Reagan , 1981, pages 878–880) The conversation centered on three proposed options: (1) “Augment the present program ($130M per year) with two years’ research planning and development in blast shelter construction, placement and distribution”; (2) “Enhance population protection capability by 1987 and make a decision on industrial protection by 1984”; (3) “Enhanced protection of population and essential industry by 1987.” (Paper prepared in the National Security Council, undated; Reagan Library, Executive Secretariat, NSC: NSC Meeting File: Records, 1981–88, NSC 00027)

Midway through the meeting, President Reagan “pointed out that both Options 2 and 3 require investment of some $237 million FY 83. He added that there was no question in his mind that the Soviet Union has a tremendous advantage in civil defense just as it has an advantage in weapons.” Deputy Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci responded “that the Soviet Union is already at Option 3.” The President went on to say that “it was obvious that no one wanted Option 1,” that “Option 2 does not yet commit us to the most expensive program,” and that “it was a shame we did not have extensive caves near our population centers.” The President also “pointed out that the Soviets already have underground factories.” (Ibid.)

In response to Counselor to the President Edwin Meese’s suggestion of a Presidential decision, President Reagan “said he would like to [Page 374] stew about the issue. He then asked if evacuation of cities is practical.” Deputy National Security Advisor James Nance “responded by saying that JCS estimates that if the Soviets evacuate their cities prior to a nuclear attack, their losses would be 15 million, a number less than they lost in the Second World War or in the purges. The U.S., on the other hand, would lose some 150 million people. An effective civil defense program can cut that down to less than 40 million.” President Reagan “asked how we could care for all the evacuees that leave high-risk areas.” Meese “said that it would be just like a weekend in New York State.” Major General Bennett Lewis of the Federal Emergency Management Administration “said that it can be done,” and went on to relate “the explanations given to him by Dr. Edward Teller and outlined some systems that could be put in place early to help with the evacuation itself and to beef-up the host areas,” as well as to say “that the evacuees would not have to stay in host areas very long; nature would take care of most of the radiation and decontamination operations would also be conducted.” (Ibid.)

Meese “then said that the most important element in the program now is the psychological advantage it would offer.” President Reagan stated his approval for Option 2, after which Vice President George Bush “related a story about Soviet Ambassador [Yakov] Malik who was in Japan in the Hiroshima bombings.” President Reagan “responded with a joke about the country boy who wanted to be far enough away from a nuclear blast that he could say, ‛What was that?’” At that point the meeting adjourned. (Ibid.) That evening, Reagan wrote in his diary: “N.S.C meeting—I approved starting a Civil Defense buildup. Right now in a nuclear war we’d lose 150 mil. people. The Soviets could hold their loss down to less than were killed in W.W. II.” (Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries, Volume I, page 89)