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From Harry Truman to Donald Trump, the presidents of the United States have had safe places to take shelter in the event of a nuclear war.
In the case of Trump, faced with a nuclear threat, the commander in chief would be immediately transferred to one of the many bunkers he has at his disposal.
One of them is under the White House and is a fortified area built in the 1950s. Another is hidden in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.
He also has an anti-bomb shelter at his Mar-a-Lago residence and another at his West Palm Beach golf and resort club, both located in Florida.
But these two have nothing to do with the fact that Trump is, just over a year ago, the US president.
The history of Trump’s shelters reflects how Americans have tried to deal with the prospect of a nuclear war in recent decades.
For some, the mere idea is unimaginable. On the other hand, others make elaborate and surprising preparations for the devastating consequences of a nuclear war.
However, no bunker, no matter how technological, would survive a direct attack .
“No there is defend one against the tremendous explosion and heat” of a nuclear bomb , says Kenneth Rose, author of “An underground nation nuclear shelter in the American culture.”
However, if the president manages to survive the initial attack, then the bunker would be useful. Although the rest of the world was on fire, the “leader of the free world” would need a safe place from which to lead the nation.
But the president would not be there alone, but would be accompanied by a group of people from the “top of the food chain , “ says Robert Darling, a marine who spent part of September 11, 2001 in the White House bunker .
According to Darling, only a few are admitted to the presidential bunker, making the social hierarchy a matter of life and death.
“You have to maintain a chain of command,” says Randy Sowell, archivist at the President Truman Library in Missouri, “or it would generate complete chaos.”
The construction of shelters and bunkers, whether for presidents or just citizens, has another goal: to get Americans to talk about atomic or nuclear warheads and make the unthinkable (global nuclear war) thinkable.
In the 1950s, for example, the Truman administration ‘s message was that “nuclear war does not necessarily was an apocalypse for all” , explains Christian Appy, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts.
For that, a civil defense agency was created, which helped to develop the idea of “nuclear citizenship,” says Appy.
The US government, he adds, wanted civilians to adjust to a new reality and get their ” consent in the nuclear arms race . “
A study on strategic US bombings he discovered that about 30% of those who died immediately in the atomic attack on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 would have been saved thanks to nuclear shelters, Sowell says in explaining Truman’s civil defense program.
The agency tried to establish a bunker system at the national level .
Some shelters were built for government employees and members of the public. In the 1960s, for example, they created one of the largest facilities in Los Altos, California.
However, in most cases it was the private individuals who built their own bunkers .
And they were created by the thousands, says Laura McEnaney, professor of history and author of the book “Nuclear War.” It became, he says, a “responsibility of nuclear families.”
Such was the case of an heiress named Marjorie Merriweather Post, who built her own bunkers under her ownership: the Mar-a-Lago residence.
The bunker of Mar-a-Lago
In the early 1950s, Post was concerned about the Korean War and its potential escalation, so it built underground shelters.
They were dug under the main building of Mar-a-Lago, according to a survey by the United States Department of the Interior on historic buildings.
Trump bought the property along with the bunker in 1985. Later, the real estate entrepreneur would describe these underground facilities as solid, “anchored in the coral reef with steel and concrete . “
The architect Wes Blackman says that the first time he visited the shelter of West Palm Beach with Trump both had to duck.
“It was as if we were on an archaeological exploration , ” says Blackman, who is almost 2 meters tall.
The place, he adds, was damp, moldy and dark, had collapsible beds attached to the walls and there was a toilet in the middle of the room.
The Truman bunker
While Post was building his bunker in Mar-a-Lago, US officials were developing contingency plans for Truman in the White House.
His goal was to build “a complete government complex ” in a secret location , Sowell says. The chosen place was 30 kilometers from Washington DC.
Mount Weather, a 534-meter-high peak near Bluemont, Virginia, became a giant bunker for the president, his advisors, and other high-level government officials to take refuge in the event of a nuclear attack.
Members of Congress, on the other hand, would be taken to a bunker in the Greenbrier complex, near White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia.
The facility had the code name “Greek Island Project” and worked for decades, until its existence was revealed in the media in 1992, when the bunker was “deactivated”.
Nowadays it works as a tourist attraction.
The Emergency Operations Center of Mount Weather, meanwhile, is currently managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and was “activated” after the attacks of September 11 , as witnessed by a director of the institution before Congress in October 2001.
It has room for the president, his assistants and another hundred people, including journalists (he has a press room).
In the fall of 1961, the US government began the construction of another presidential bunker , this time for President John F. Kennedy .
The nuclear shelter was built by the US Navy. on Peanut Island, Florida, coincidentally near Mar-a-Lago. Kennedy also had a Palm Beach house where he used to stay.
The bunker was known as Hotel Destacamento and its construction cost US $ 97,000, according to a 1973 report to Congress.
Kennedy went to the site a couple of times as part of the attack trials, says Anthony Miller, who until recently ran a museum located on the island.
The shelter is ” p lmost a hole in the ground , “ says Miller. This place, whose front door today is rusted and full of dirt, is “where the leader of the free world would have ruled the country,” he says.
The presidential bunkers, whether in Mount Weather, Peanut Island or Mar-a-Lago, were built during the Cold War.
It was a period in history when children learned how to cover themselves to avoid being hurt by radioactive fallout.
Blackman says he did not see the need to fortify the Bunker in Mar-a-Lago for Trump. “If Armageddon breaks out, ” he says , ” No and no place to hide” . The bunker, then, was used to store tables, chairs and patio moldings.
But the architect recognizes that he understands the need: “Maybe we all build bunkers in our own way”.