Thursday, January 22, 2015

Civil Defense and Civil Disobedience: Operation Alert in Schenectady in 1960

Protesters assembled in Veterans Park (then Crescent Park) at 1:45 p.m. on May 3, 1960, and remained holdings signs through the take-cover drill, which was in effect all over Schenectady from 2:15-2:30 p.m. The protesters carried leaflets criticizing civil defense efforts and urged efforts toward peace and an end to the nuclear arms race. Image from Larry Hart Collection.

At 2:15 p.m. on May 3, 1960, in response to an alarm that rang all over the city, Schenectadians rushed to cover to protect themselves from a nuclear attack. In downtown Schenectady, cars vacated the streets and pedestrians moved indoors. In minutes, Schenectady's downtown transformed from bustling to ghostly still. Although the response was rapid, the threat was not real. This was a drill as part of the city's efforts for Operation Alert, a nationwide civil defense exercise.

Operation Alert originated in 1954, under the auspices of the United States Federal Civil Defense Agency. Operation Alert took place in over 100 cities across America. Citizens in the "target" areas were required to take cover for 15 minutes. The drills also provided an opportunity for civil defense officials, hospitals, schools, and police departments to test their response times, communication systems, and overall readiness to respond to an attack. The day following a drill, newspapers in "target" areas would often publish articles reporting on the fictitious attacks, including the numbers of bombs dropped, cities and towns hit, and casualties.

Congested traffic and scores of pedestrians throng State Street on the afternoon of May 3, 1960, moments before a take-cover drill was held. Image from Larry Hart Collection.

Schenectady Police Department patrolman Harold McConvery stands at the nearly deserted intersection of State Street and Lafayette Street on May 3, 1960, overseeing the take-cover drill as part of Operation Alert. Image from Larry Hart Collection.

Schenectady participated in several Operation Alerts, from the first exercise in 1954 until the last in 1961. However, the Operation Alert held in 1960 was significant in that appears to be the only year that a public demonstration was staged in the city to protest the civil defense exercise. Civil defense efforts in New York State were taken very seriously. Beginning in 1955, failure to take cover during an Operation Alert drill was punishable with a fine of up to $500 and a year in jail under New York State law.

The public was informed of the timing of the take cover drill -- the only portion of Operation Alert activity that demanded the cooperation of the entire public -- in the days before the exercises began. A notice in the Schenectady Gazette read, "public participation is mandatory, under federal orders." The take-cover signal, described as "giving a fluctuating or warbling tone," was to commence at 2:15 p.m. At that time, all vehicular traffic would be stopped and pedestrians were to take cover in the doorways of stores, offices, and public buildings. 150 street intersections were manned by police to enforce the take-cover drill. William Dunn, Schenectady postmaster and the county's acting civil defense director, coordinated the exercises.

Protesters are ordered to disperse and take cover by an unidentified Schenectady police officer. The demonstrators could have been fined and/or jailed for failure to take cover during a civil defense drill under New York State law. Local police chose not to arrest the protesters. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

During the take-cover drill, approximately 25 people, 20 of whom were Union College students, stood in Veterans Park at the intersection of State Street and Lafayette Street. Some carried signs that read "Civil Defense is Futile" and "Remember There Will Be No Survivors." They protesters carried leaflets that criticized the futility of civil defense measures, citing the ability of one medium-sized hydrogen bomb blast in the area to decimate the entire Capital Region. "The air raid drill creates a psychological expectation for atomic war, " the leaflet read, "and by preparing for war it destroys the movement for peace."

Front cover of a Schenectady County civil defense brochure. The brochure focused on evacuation in case of a nuclear attack. Image from the Grems-Doolittle Library Documents Collection.

In an article written after 1960's Operation Alert was over, drill coordinator William Dunn was quoted as saying "I recognize and sympathize with the right of any United States citizen to hold an opinion and express that opinion. I was encouraged, however, to note the size of the demonstration." "We tolerated the demonstration," Police Captain Frank Barrett was quoted as saying in the Schenectady Gazette. Barrett explained that the decision was made not to arrest the protesters as doing so would "build up the protest and make 'martyrs' of the demonstrators."

On May 6, an editorial appeared in the Schenectady Gazette criticizing the Union College students who had participated in the protest. "We wonder if [the students] would be happy to see everyone else use the same tactic to register disagreement with other things the government is doing or not doing," the editorial read. "Isn't it obvious that the result would be chaos and anarchy?" The writer closed the editorial by saying, "numerous Americans are dissatisfied or in doubt about the wisdom of the government's nuclear or civil defense policies, but most of them refrain from taking the unnecessary path of defiance to express themselves."

The intersection of Erie Boulevard and State Street, usually busy in the afternoon, is nearly empty after the take-cover alarm was sounded at 2:15 p.m. Note the pedestrians taking cover in the doorways of local businesses, as if shielding themselves from a brief rain shower. Image from Larry Hart Collection.

A letter to the editor was soon published in response. The writer, identified only as F.G.L. of Scotia, responded to the editorial's argument that a handful of local college students were the only local people opposed to Operation Alert. "Several mothers of children in grade school were concerned about their children being frightened by being herded into hallways and told to cover their eyes," F.G.L. wrote. "I think it is unscrupulous and immoral to involve little children in power politics. I would expect this to happen in Russia or China, but it doesn't have to happen here. How can we act morally superior unless we are?"

Local high school students also had the opportunity to weigh in on Operation Alert in 1960. A guest article in the Schenectady Gazette by Niskayuna High School student Vickie Mindel asked if the protesters were representative of the majority of young people in the area. Taking on a survey of local high school students, Mindel noted that "the majority of young people questioned felt that in case of attack everyone in this area would be killed. They expressed the futility of standing before lockers or sitting at desks." A junior at Linton High School said of Operation Alert, "It's a bunch of nonsense, because we would die anyway. Sitting at desks won't help."

The same day as the small protest in Schenectady, a number of other protests were held in cities and on college campuses around the country. In New York City, a protest in City Hall Park drew hundreds of people, including celebrities such as Norman Mailer. The following year, as Operation Alert was held again in the spring of 1961, protests proliferated in cities, towns, and college campuses nationwide (seemingly not in Schenectady, however, where newspapers did not report protest of any kind). The New York City protest grew to over 2,000 people. 1961 turned out to be the last year for Operation Alert. In 1962, it was permanently canceled.

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