History 1302
Selection from Robert Scheer, With Enough Shovels:  Reagan, Bush and Nuclear War (New York: Vintage Books, 1983),
pp. 18-26.


Its the Dirt That Does It

    VERY late one autumn night in 1981, Thomas K. Jones, the man Ronald Reagan had appointed Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, Strategic and Theater Nuclear Forces, told me that the United States could fully recover from an all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union in just two to four years. T.K., as he prefers to be known, added that nuclear war was not nearly as devastating as we had been led to believe. He said, "If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody's going to make it."  The shovels were for digging holes in the ground, which would be covered somehow or other with a couple of doors and with three feet of dirt thrown on top, thereby providing adequate fallout shelters for the millions who had been evacuated from America's cities to the countryside. "It's the dirt that does it," he said.

        What is truly astounding about my conversation with T.K. is not simply that one highly placed official in the Reagan Administration is so horribly innocent of the effects of nuclear war. More frightening is that T. K. Jones's views are all too typical of the thinking of those at the core of the Reagan Administration, as I have discovered through hundreds of hours of interviews with the men who are now running our government. The only difference is that T.K. was more outspoken than the others.

        After parts of my interview with T. K. Jones ran in the Los Angeles Times, a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee demanded that Jones present himself to defend the views that Senator Alan Cranston said went "far beyond the bounds of reasonable, rational, responsible thinking;"  Meanwhile Senator Charles Percy, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, had confronted Jones at a town meeting in the senator's home state of Illinois and was sufficiently troubled by the Deputy Under Secretary's relatively complacent views of nuclear war to pressure the Pentagon for an accounting.

        But by now the Administration had muzzled Jones, and he missed his first three scheduled appearances before the Senate subcommittee. It was at this point that a New York Times editorial asked: "Who is the Thomas K. Jones who is saying those funny things about civil defense?" Elsewhere Jones's espousal of primitive fallout shelters was dismissed easily and properly by editorial writers and cartoonists as a preposterous response to what nuclear war was all about. However, what these dismissals ignored was that Jones's notions of civil defense, odd as they may have seemed, are crucial to the entire Reagan strategic policy.

        Reagan's nuclear arms buildup follows from the idea that the United States is vulnerable to Soviet nuclear weapons, an idea that rests in part on calculations made by this same T. K. Jones before he joined the government, when he worked for the Boeing Company. It was Jones's estimates of the efficacy of Soviet civil defense that provided much of the statistical justification for the view that the Soviets could reasonably expect to survive and win a nuclear war while we ourselves, without a comparable civil defense program, would necessarily lose.

        And it was Jones's celebration of the shovel and primitive shelters as the means to nuclear salvation, once it was exposed to public debate, that helped to call into question the Reagan Administration's claim of American vulnerability. Jones had become fascinated with digging holes and with the powerful defensive possibilities of dirt only after he had read Soviet civil defense manuals that advocated similar procedures. In fact, it was from the Russians that he borrowed the idea of digging holes.If Jones's evacuation and sheltering plans were absurd on the face of it for the United States, how then could any observer take the Soviet civil defense program seriously? And if the Soviets are not capable of protecting their society and recovering from a nuclear war, how can anyone genuinely believe that they are planning to fight and win such a war?

        Jones has been obsessed with the Russian threat ever since he served as a consultant for Nixon's SALT I negotiating team. An illustration of this obsession was offered by Roger Molander, a former staff member of the National Security Council under three Presidents. Molander, who left the government after the Carter Administration to found Ground Zero, the nuclear war education project, recalled that in 1973, he and Jones decided to accept an invitation to leave the SALT I talks in Geneva and visit the Paris Air Show, an elaborate event at which military contractors show their wares. As luck would have it, they ended up at a party sponsored by a U.S. defense contractor at a restaurant on the Eiffel Tower and met what Molander described as "an attractive American brunette and a beautiful Norwegian blonde." "It's a June night in Paris," Molander told me, free champagne, hors d'oeuvres, the lights of Paris—not bad, right? I'm a very aggressive bachelor at the time,      T.K. is too, and we meet a couple of young women. At eleven o'clock we all go out to dinner, T.K. and I and these two girls. We find a beautiful little bistro, I remember running up the steps of Montmartre, feeling the effects  of the champagne and a June night in Paris. An hour into dinner I am deep in conversation with one of the girl about who knows and who cares? It is Saturday night in Paris, I'm sitting at Montmartre, I'm eating canard a l'orange, and the last thing I'm thinking about is nuclear war.

             Wafting across the table comes [the voice of] T. K. Jones, seriously talking to this Norwegian girl who is nodding, but who knows what is going through her mind? T. K. Jones is saying to her, "...and because the Soviet Union is threatening our ICBM force, we have to have mobile ICBM systems that would move around—" I'm thinking, "What? I've got an appointment back on planet Earth. Is this a human being? Does he understand why life is worth living?" We are in Paris on a Saturday night in Montmartre, off the Eiffel Tower with a couple of delightful young women. It is midnight, we don't have to be home until who knows what, and he is talking about mobile ICBM systems. I could not believe it! T.K. was still doing it when the evening ended.

        T.K. is nothing if not consistent. Since his days as manager of program and product evaluation at Boeing, after he returned from the SALT I talks in 1974, he has been a major proponent of the view that we are vulnerable to a Soviet first strike unless we emulate the Soviet civil defense program. At Boeing, Jones had led a team that conducted tests attempting to  simulate the effects of a nuclear blast on persons huddling in civil defense shelters and on machinery buried in the ground. On the basis of those tests, he argued later, both persons and machinery would have emerged barely scratched, even if the explosive had been nuclear rather than TNT. His colleagues from the Boeing project have recently been awarded contracts by the Reagan Administration to determine how to fight and survive a protracted nuclear war. In his new job at the Pentagon, Jones himself is one of the key officials in charge of coordinating the planning and acquisition of equipment for such a protracted nuclear war.

        I had first interviewed T.K. for about an hour one morning in the fall of 1981 at his Pentagon office. I was interested in his views because of his extensive past testimony before congressional committees and because of articles he had written on the need for civil defense and the possibilities for surviving nuclear war. The Reagan Administration's appointment of T. K. Jones to a high Pentagon post despite his extreme views, which were well known in defense circles at the time, was one of many clues that alerted me to the possibility that this Administration holds a fundamentally different view of nuclear war from that of its Democratic and Republican predecessors.

        The interview in his Pentagon office had centered around pictures of the atomic devastation of Japan. Jones, as in his barely reported congressional testimony five years earlier, was reassured by the familiar scenes of destruction and pointed to the few surviving structures in an otherwise barren wasteland of nibble to support his analysis that, indeed, there are defenses against nuclear war. He praised the resilience of the Japanese, noting, ". . . in about thirty days after the blast, there were people in there, salvaging the rubble, rebuilding their houses." Jones acknowledged during our morning interview that modem nuclear strategic weapons are hundreds of times more powerful than the devices exploded in Japan, and that a large U.S. city would receive not one but perhaps more than a dozen incoming warheads. Yet he insisted that the survival of more than 90 percent of our people was possible.

        I cannot easily explain Jones's interest in prolonging our interview after the morning session. Perhaps he invited me home for the evening because he recognized that I was genuinely perplexed by his claim, made as we stood in the anteroom of his office, that nuclear war is survivable. He told me it was a matter of building primitive shelters: "Dig a hole, cover it with a couple of doors and then throw three feet of dirt on top." My questions must have suggested to him that I needed something more than the short course he had already given me that morning on nuclear survival. The long course at his home that evening was an effort to explain just how we could survive the carnage.

        I listened with utter incredulity to Jones's monologue during our interview that night, beginning when he, his woman friend and I sat down to dinner at eight—the woman nodding her approval at what seemed to me Jones's terrifying inanities—and ending at four in the morning when I had run out of tape and Jones's friend was asleep on the couch.

        The evening began with one glass of white wine each with our sauteed shrimp and onions and ended with an after-dinner drink that my host concocted according to a treasured Seattle recipe, as he said he does once each evening, of brandy, Kahiua and whipped cream, served with cookies. Throughout the evening, Jones was scrupulously, indeed tediously, reasonable as he built his case that nuclear war was something far less terrible than I had been led to believe: that it was survivable, and not just by lonely bands of savages roaming a devastated landscape. What Jones foresaw was the preservation and quick reassembly of our advanced institutions, modes of production and normal ways of life.

        Do not misunderstand. There was nothing deranged or hysterical about Jones's performance that night, nothing even intemperate. Jones's manner is circumspect. His house reflects a Spartan personal lifestyle—sparsely furnished, with just enough chairs for a few people, despite his woodworking shop in the basement. His looks are clean-cut, if plain, and he's trim for his forty-nine years. He seldom raises his voice and tends to speak in a drone, sometimes inaudibly. This studied, matter-of-fact style persisted even when he discussed the deaths of hundreds of millions of people, as if he were attempting by the measured tone of his voice to deny the ultimate horror of it all. I have listened many times to the tapes of this interview, and what startles me most is how easily Jones seemed to make the subject of mass death almost boring.

        That evening Jones showed me pictures from Soviet civil defense manuals of designs for primitive shelters that were little more than holes in the ground covered with some thatching.

        "This little primitive-looking thing in this picture is a Soviet-designed shelter," he said. "In essence you dig a hole, take lumber, small saplings or something like that, and build this thing and cover it with dirt . . . that cuts the lethal area of that megaton weapon down to about two square miles . . . [The] Russians have twenty to thirty designs. The idea is you pick a design to match the material you have on hand."

        Then he acknowledged a major obstacle to such a plan where the United States was concerned: "The problem is we've conditioned our people to believe that once the first nuclear bomb goes off, everybody's going to die. It's hard to get people to do anything if that's the conditioning they've been through." evertheless, Jones described what is required for survival: "Things you need [in the shelter], . . . first you need air, then water, then food, in that order . . . You have to take your food with you, a little bit of water ... wait until there's no radiation . . . [you] can tell by the dust that comes down. If there's no dust, there's no radiation . . ."

        He explained how to build a shelter with simple household materials: "You can make very good sheltering by taking the doors off your house, digging a trench, stacking the doors about two deep over that, covering it with plastic so that rain water or something doesn't screw up the glue in the door, then pile dirt over it. If your house is built on a slab, one very good blast and radiation protection is to dig a tunnel underneath the slab . . . Learn how to make a ventilation pump . . . how to deal with sanitation, supplies, this kind of thing. In the business of nuclear war, what you don't know can kill you . . ."

        I asked Jones about the Administration's vision for civil defense for Los Angeles in the eighties. His answer and a portion of the interview follow:

        JONES: Vision of that would be, in essence, learning what we can learn from the Russians . . . In Los Angeles the vision of the fifties was to put a shelter in your basement or something like that. Turns out these other shelters, which you dig in ten hours, give you better protection. For apartment dwellers, you'll want to move these people a little ways out, move them over the first ridge, get them into the San Bernardino-Riverside area, someplace like that, dig them in there. The second problem of the fifties was we fell into that argument of: If you've got a shelter and your neighbor's got a gun, how's this going to be handled? Turns out with the Russian approach, if there are enough shovels to go around, everybody's going to make it . . .

        SCHEER: To dramatize it for the reader, the bomb has dropped [in Los Angeles]. Now, if he's within that two-mile area, he's finished, right? If he's not in the two-mile area, what has happened?

        JONES: His house is gone, he's there, wherever he dug that hole .  . . You've got to be in a hole . . . The dirt really is the thing that protects you from the blast as well as the radiation, if there's radiation. It protects you from the heat. You know, dirt is just great stuff . . .

        Stabbing at his living-room carpet with an imaginary spade, he showed me how to dig a hole in even the hardest Siberian tundra so that a man could crawl into it and protect himself from radiation by placing doors over the hole and three feet of dirt on top of the doors. Jones told me that he had been deeply impressed with what he claimed was the Soviet plan to evacuate the cities and protect the urban population in hastily constructed shelters in the countryside. He also referred to his studies at Boeing to show that the Soviet method of piling dirt around factory machines would permit their survival even if nuclear bombs fell close by.

        These studies, he explained, were not universally admired. Some critics, for example, did not share his enthusiasm for the Soviet civil defense program and scoffed at the prospect of millions of Soviet citizens digging holes during the freezing winter in order to cover themselves and their machinery. To these objections, he replied that it is easier to dig up frozen dirt than warm, muddy dirt. Because I had no direct experience one way or the other, I could hardly join Jones's woman friend, who sat withus at the dinner table, in nodding agreement.

        I asked him: If the Russians are really angry, they've wiped out our civilization, we're wiping out theirs, they do ground blasts. How long does radiation last?

        JONES: For a high-density area like Los Angeles, shelter stay time should be about a week. But then it's going to require some radiation survey teams to mark out the least contaminated areas. You'll find in an area like that you'll have some hot spots and not-so-hot spots and once again, it's knowledge of what to do that's useful. Let's talk about what you do. One is if you're lucky enough to have a rainstorm you'll find a lot of radiation gets leached into the ground, which in essence shields you, or you'll find that those river runoff basins get awfully hot, that stuff is going to collect there.

        Stay out of that area . . . go into another area where it's not so hot, clean off the topsoil, scrape away the radioactive particles from the top of the dirt, go into an area where there's some surviving housing or something like that . . . Radioactive particles can attach to dust which sits there on top of the ground. If you go in with a power shovel or hand shovel and clean off the top inch of dirt, mound it off somewhere out of the way, you've gotten rid of the radiation in that area . . .         After about the first day [in the shelter], you probably can go outside for sanitation reasons and get more water. If you have six to eight people in the shelter, take turns going out . . . you can afford a couple of hundred rads without getting sick . . . For trips out of shelter, you don't want to get more than twenty or thirty; keep your trips short....

        SCHEER: Aren't there long-term effects?

        JONES: Yup.

        SCHEER: What do you mean?

        JONES: Let's put it this way. People in Nagasaki and Hiroshima had a higher incidence of leukemia than the Japanese population in general. On the other hand, their longevity has proven to be greater than the Japanese population in general, probably because of the increased standard of medical care they've received since then.

        SCHEER: . . . How long would it take to get Los Angeles back to where it was?

        JONES: Let me give you a more general answer: If we don't protect our society, we've not been able to calculate recovery time because we've lost so many people it's beyond calculation. It would take a couple of generations, probably more. You'd lose half the people in the country. With protection of people only, your recovery time to prewar GNP levels would probably be six or eight years. If we used the Russian methods for protecting both the people and the industrial means of production, recovery times could be two to four years

        I know that I was sober that evening because as I waited with my right-turn blinker on for a seemingly endless red light to change, a Virginia state trooper in the car behind me got tired of waiting and put me through my paces before telling me it was okay to turn right on a red light in Virginia.

        The next morning, after breakfast at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington, D.C., I noticed that Attorney General William French Smith, who had taken up residence there, was already stirring with his entourage. It was a reassuring sight—Smith and his colleagues all looked so solidly adult, sober, respectable. Surely this prosperous Attorney General, reeking of dignity and confidence, former personal attorney to Reagan, a major investor in land and, it was later revealed, controversial tax shelters, had too much going for him to accept complacently the prospect of giving it all up for a hole in the ground or even for one of the fancy but ultimately no more useful blast shelters that would be made available to him as a high official were he still in office when the bombs fell. And just as surely, Ronald Reagan and George Bush were themselves equally solid and responsible. Or were they? How much, I wondered, did the views of men like Jones really reflect the thinking of our new heads of state? Had they all gone mad in their obsessive fear of the Russians? Or was T. K. Jones an aberration, a solitary eccentric who had somehow found his way into the Pentagon?