350,000 Old Crackers Evoke New York City's Era of H-Bomb Fears
The discovery of a cache of cold war supplies inside the foundations of the Brooklyn Bridge has prompted an outpouring of interest from some historians and curators, but city officials are still at loss to explain how the supplies got there and for whom they were intended.
Workers found the stockpile of water drums, medical supplies, gauze bandages and bitter-tasting ration crackers in a cavernous masonry room under the bridge's main entrance ramp in Lower Manhattan, while performing a regular structural inspection on March 15.
Since news of the find became public last week, several city officials have contacted the city's Department of Transportation, which maintains the bridge.
Archivists from the Department of Records and Information Services want to catalogue the supplies and move some of them into proper storage.
The Office of Emergency Management, the successor to the civil defense agencies that coordinated fallout shelters and air raid sirens, wants to display the findings in its headquarters under construction in Downtown Brooklyn.
The Museum of the City of New York is interested in adding some of the supplies to its collection of ephemera.
''There's something so gripping about the time-capsule nature of this,'' said Sarah M. Henry, the museum's deputy director and chief curator. ''People are curious and intrigued. That makes for a great teachable moment.''
The precise origins of the supplies remain a mystery, though many items carry labels from the federal civil defense unit at the Pentagon. Several of the cardboard boxes are stamped with the dates 1957 and 1962.
On Friday, two employees of the Transportation Department, with a reporter, searched through 11 boxes of records from the city's Office of Civil Defense to find references to the Brooklyn Bridge stockpile.
The search proved fruitless, but it did cast light on the anxious era when officials hoped to shelter their populations to weather the apocalyptic effects of an atomic or hydrogen bomb.
Amid fears of Axis sabotage, the city's Office of Civilian Defense was created in 1941 under Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia. By the 1950's, magazines were trying to predict what would happen if, say, a 20-megaton bomb were dropped on Manhattan.
''The descriptions of the impact of nuclear war were almost pornographic in their lurid details,'' said Kenneth D. Rose, a historian at California State University at Chico. ''There was a fascination with the apocalyptic.''
The city archives demonstrate that anxieties ratcheted upward between the late 50's and the early 60's.
Among the residents recruited to help with drills and preparations was a young lawyer, Robert M. Morgenthau, who became deputy coordinator of civil defense for the Bronx in 1954, according to a newsletter in the files. (Mr. Morgenthau, 86, has been the Manhattan district attorney since 1975.)
In 1956, city officials proposed digging up flower beds in the plaza in front of the New York Public Library to build a ''hydrogen age'' bomb shelter for up to 30 people. ''I disagree emphatically with your suggestion,'' Robert Moses, the parks commissioner, wrote to Robert E. Condon, the director of civil defense. ''In fact I will not agree to the construction of such a shelter in any park area in New York City.''
The era also marked the beginnings of a peace movement that would gain force during the Vietnam War.
''All civil defense can do is to frighten children and fool the public into thinking there is protection against an H-Bomb,'' declared a flier calling for a Civil Defense Protest Day on May 3, 1960, in City Hall Park. ''The time has come not for civil defense drills but for unceasing demands for world-wide disarmament.''
After the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, city preparations for nuclear war intensified, bolstered by federal money.
The Waldorf-Astoria became the first hotel in the city to be stockpiled with fallout-shelter supplies, according to a 1963 city press release. An Emergency Mass Feeding Manual from 1964 mentioned the city's recommendation that survivors of a possible attack supplement ''specially prepared wheat biscuits'' with citrus juices, peanut butter and jelly.
''This is absurd, and people finally realized that it was,'' said Allan M. Winkler, a historian at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who has written extensively on cold war anxieties. ''Maybe the crackers would be good, maybe not. If a bomb went off, all hell was going to break loose and those kinds of palliative efforts weren't going to make much of a difference.''
Paul S. Boyer, a historian at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said the Brooklyn Bridge hoard should not be interpreted only as a sign of naivete. ''Throughout this period, there was an enormous level of skepticism about this civil defense strategy of fallout shelters and stockpiling,'' he said.
The cold war fears were overtaken in the late 60's and early 70's by Vietnam, Watergate and the oil crisis, while relations between the United States and the Soviet Union stabilized.
By then, 230,000 buildings had been designated as fallout shelters in the metropolitan area, according to news reports. In 1979, the city, after unsuccessful efforts to give away the stale foodstuffs, was paying contractors $38 a ton to cart away fallout supplies from some of the 10,800 buildings across the city where they still lay.
An estimated 350,000 of those crackers, in shiny, watertight canisters, escaped destruction. They are still inside the Brooklyn Bridge, waiting for officials to decide their fate.
Iris Weinshall, the transportation commissioner, took some of the crackers found in the bridge to City Hall and presented them to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
''I asked her whether she wanted me to eat one. She said no, she had acted as the guinea pig and had been willing to sacrifice her palate for the city,'' he said. ''One mouthful and she spit it out, was my understanding.''
Ms. Weinshall, in an interview, politely corrected the mayor. She took two bites and ingested the first, but ''could not fathom swallowing'' the second.
''It tasted like cardboard, but with a nasty backbite that stayed in your mouth for hours,'' she said. ''I cannot think of eating a saltine now without that taste coming up.''
comments powered by Disqus