A dominant narrative is a story that takes on a life of it’s own: it becomes the accepted norm. Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, all across the United States, tens of thousands of nuclear fallout shelters were built, nearly twenty thousand in New York City alone: these were rooms with no windows, either basements, purpose built, and stocked with government supplies of high energy biscuits, water barrels (which could helpfully double as toilets when empty [!]), and emergency drugs. The narrative was clear: nuclear war could break out at any time, and the route to survival was ‘duck and cover’, make your way to the shelter fast, and prepare to receive instructions.
It was, of course, a hopeless narrative: the chances of surviving a nuclear war were unlikely to be much improved by sheltering in the laundry room, but the narrative was not really one about survival. It was one about national identity, about conformity, and difference. This was more a story about hope, than about improving your odds, and more a story of patriotic opposition, and the unity that that engenders.
In the 60’s a succession of businessmen tried to market ‘luxury’ bunkers, and government communications were more likely to show a gingham tablecloth, and happy family, than they were to show crowds of radiation poisoned citizens sitting on their water barrels.
Today, most of the shelters are empty: in the seventies, the government even had to resort to paying contractors to go in and recover the drugs from them, following a wave of break ins and incidents with people stealing them. It turns out that a nuclear shelter provides greater utility when repurposed as somewhere to store your bike, or do the laundry. Unless, that is, you believe the tales of ‘rats the size of dogs’ overwhelming many of the shelters, attracted, no doubt, by the ‘high energy biscuits’.
The dominant narrative of nuclear war led to a convenient narrative of communism, and, directly, to the purges of liberal creatives. Stories carry power, and often inherent violence, within themselves.
In time the narrative of nuclear war, and especially the notion that you could ride it out alongside the rats, became so threadbare, that it crumbled. And as the story failed, so too did the shelters.
Today, walk around New York, and you can still find the rusted yellow and black signs, screwed to a wall, high up, indicating where to run to in times of war. Although even these signs are starting to fail: since 2017, FEMA has been quietly removing the signs from schools, and other public buildings, concerned that, in the event of war, people would deem the bunkers still functional.
Ironically, nobody seems clear who even owns the signs, so those on private property remain untouched, lest someone fall foul of a federal rule about damage to war property no doubt.
Today, in the event of nuclear war, you are more likely to receive a government text message, which i am sure will be a deep comfort.
The Fallout signs are a reminder, a shadow, of a dominant narrative that simply stretched too thin, and ultimately, was revealed as folly. But the signs remain, to this day. Shadows of the thing.