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Letter to Val Peterson, Administrator of Civil Defense, on the Occasion of Operation Alert 1956.

July 17, 1956

Dear Governor Peterson:

On July 20 many thousands of our citizens will take part in the fourth nationwide exercise to improve our ability to survive enemy attack. I have often heard you speak in enthusiastic terms of the men and women directly concerned with these undertakings, and I have personally felt their dedication to their tasks. I hope you will convey to all civil defense workers my personal appreciation of their efforts to strengthen our country's security.

Our unchanging national goal is a peaceful world community in which the vast human and material resources now being invested in offensive and defensive preparations can be turned to the good of mankind. But the lessons so harshly learned during the past few decades make it clear that, until a stable peace prevails in the world, we must stay strong and vigilant. Thus peace and preparedness are joined. Our civil defense program and its activities such as Operation Alert 1956 are essential to both. An effective civil defense is an important deterrent against attack on our country and thus helps preserve peace. In the event of an attack upon us, civil defense at once becomes one of our immediate reactions imperatively required for our nation's survival.

The advances made in your three years as Federal Civil Defense Administrator delineate some of the major routes we have been following in civil defense. Planning for urban evacuation is in progress. The growing stockpile of medical supplies is being relocated as required by new weapons. Survival studies of specific target areas will provide an accurate measure of the advance warning time required in each area to permit the saving of lives by evacuation. Systematized attack warning channels and procedures are better adjusting the civilian response to military alert warnings. Continental defense is being daily strengthened as the Distant Early Warning System comes rapidly into operation.

This progress is encouraging. But as we look back upon the rapid advance in aircraft and in nuclear weapons and forward to missiles capable of being catapulted thousands of miles, it is clear that the destructive capabilities of potential enemies have been outpacing our non-military defensive measures since the Federal Civil Defense Act was passed six years ago. It is equally clear that no matter how crushing a blow we can strike in retaliation for an attack upon us, to permit our great centers of population and industry to lay exposed to the weapons of modern war is to invite both an attack and national catastrophe.

Therefore, our whole civil defense effort needs both strengthening and modernizing. This need arises not from any increase in international tensions but, rather, from the recent spectacular developments in weapons and methods of delivery.

The threat we face affords us only three basic alternatives. One extreme would be to hold our people subject to a rigid discipline, on the premise that a regimented citizenry would be better able to survive a nuclear attack. But this approach, continued, would destroy the America we are determined to preserve. The opposite extreme would be to accept the ultimate annihilation of all persons in urban target areas as unavoidable or too costly to prevent, and by this unwarranted decision remove the burdens and cares of a peacetime civil defense program. Of course, we reject both extremes. There is another way we must follow.

We must continue to avoid Federal preemption of all civil defense programs which are so dependent upon widespread citizen participation. But it is now evident that the exigencies of the present threat require vesting in the Federal Government a larger responsibility in our national plan of civil defense.

Instructions already given you to prepare plans for a nationwide monitoring and predicting system for radioactive fall-out are in keeping with this conviction. You also have my request to give all possible priority to the many survival planning projects now under way, and as the results of these projects accumulate, I shall look to you for realistic recommendations regarding relocation, evacuation and shelter protection programs.

In the same vein, the heads of the various Federal departments and agencies were long ago instructed to give maximum support to the civil defense effort. Among the results of that directive is the incorporation by the Secretary of Defense of civil defense considerations in National Guard and other military reserve instruction. He has also ordered disaster plans to be formulated in direct concert with State and local officials, as well as the Federal Civil Defense Administration. I shall expect periodic reports from you on the progress of such Federal agency support, with such recommendations as you may deem essential to its success.

But these efforts will still not meet our needs. The Federal civil defense law was written before the advent of the hydrogen bomb and the recent striking advances in methods of delivering modern weapons. This law must be realistically revised. Plans to meet post-attack situations are, of course, essential, but the Federal Civil Defense Administration needs authority to carry out necessary preattack preparations as well. It must be enabled to assure adequate participation in the civil defense program. It must be empowered to work out logical plans for possible target areas which overlap state and municipal boundaries. It must have an organization capable of discharging these increased responsibilities.

Moreover, the prestige and effectiveness of the Federal Civil Defense Administration must be equal to the heavy responsibility it holds. As a step in this direction, I have, for planning purposes, charged your organization, the Department of Defense and the Office of Defense Mobilization with various basic functions which it is imperative be maintained in the event of attack.

Already you have been invited to attend and participate fully in those National Security Council meetings in which matters relevant to civil defense are discussed.

From now on I request that you also participate in Cabinet meetings to help ensure that the civil defense program is fully integrated into our national planning.

In addition, for some time the President's Advisory Committee on Government Organization has been making a careful analysis of the proper future place of the Federal Civil Defense Administration within the Executive Branch. A subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Operations also has been thoroughly studying this and other civil defense problems. I will earnestly consider the findings of these Committees and suggest appropriate legislation in my annual message to the Congress next January.

At that time I will also urge amendments to remedy the shortcomings in the existing civil defense statute.

I will appreciate having your recommendations and those of the Civil Defense Coordinating Board in respect to both of these problems as soon as the results of Operation Alert 1956 can be evaluated.

As you know, I shall participate in Operation Alert 1956 with my staff, although I shall have to leave shortly after it begins in order to visit Panama. I expect to return on the morning of July 24 and will participate in the exercise until it ends. I know the whole program will benefit from the experience gained in this exercise by ranking government officials.

One final thought I would like to express. Should an emergency occur, our nation's survival may be dependent upon the way each of us responds to his duty. In an area attacked, survival will initially rest mainly with the individual and the community. Therefore, to ensure civil defense readiness, the Federal Government, despite its increased civil defense role, must remain in partnership with States, cities and towns. Only in this way can we obtain more citizen participation, more vigorous efforts by States, local governments and metropolitan areas, and more readiness by the Congress to support necessary civil defense measures. Civil defense can never become an effective instrument for human survival if it becomes entirely dependent upon Federal action.

I am deeply appreciative of your vigorous attempts to advance this program which has become one of the key elements in our efforts to prevent the outbreak of war. I trust that the additional powers and responsibilities outlined above will enable you to enlarge the important contribution of your organization to the safety of our country.



Dwight D. Eisenhower, Letter to Val Peterson, Administrator of Civil Defense, on the Occasion of Operation Alert 1956. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/232955

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