Steuart Pittman, chief of President John F. Kennedy’s civil defense program who marshaled a national effort at the height of the Cold War to organize the massive — and now largely forgotten — system of nuclear fallout shelters across the country, died Sunday at his farm in Davidsonville, Md. He was 93.
He had a stroke, said his daughter, Romey Pittman.
Pittman spent nearly his entire career as a lawyer with the Washington firm of Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge. A veteran of government commissions, he rose to national attention in 1961 when Kennedy named him assistant secretary of defense in charge of civil defense.
Civil defense essentially encompassed all nonmilitary measures to protect the nation in the event of disaster. It had long been regarded, at best, as second fiddle to the military. Pittman became the first official to operate the program from the Defense Department.
Shortly before Pittman took office, a Cold War showdown in Berlin intensified, and the Soviets began to erect the wall that would divide the city for decades. In response, Congress approved more than $200 million in supplementary civil defense funds. Most of the money was intended for the survey of nuclear shelter space in factories, offices, churches and other locations across the United States, ordered by Kennedy.
At the peak of U.S. preparedness, Pittman said, national and local governments were ready to offer shelter to two-thirds of the U.S. population in case of nuclear attack. Shelters were marked with what became iconic yellow and black signs.
Pittman found that public interest in civil defense in general and the shelter program in particular came and went with emergencies such as the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
The program had begun to attract criticism from members of Congress and local government officials who argued that the shelter system was too expensive, that it gave a false sense of security and perhaps fueled an immoral “every man for himself" approach to emergency preparedness.
Pittman countered that the stakes of nuclear war were “too high to ignore any practical measures" that could save lives. He added that the country could not afford a defeatist attitude.
“If it is appropriate to use moral epithets, such as cowardly and selfish," he told a congressional committee in 1963, “I personally believe they are more aptly applied to those who loudly proclaim their willingness to lie down and die while our country is under attack."